How writing about “fluff” can help you develop essential, creative writing skills.
I write about food, luxury houses and hotels, fashion, beauty products, shopping mall Christmas decor, and cushion covers made out of 100 percent eco-friendly linen. When I left my full-time job editing two magazines, the building blocks of my freelance career were 400-word articles about 17th century headboards, how to read biorhythms, or bass fishing in Minnesota that brought in as little as $15 a pop. Thankfully, I have since moved on to better paying gigs.
I am what the industry calls a “lifestyle journalist” – a term that applies to writers who produce “lighter” stories rather than hard or industry-specific news. Those who report on current affairs, financial journalists, political columnists, and even fresh out of school journo grads secretly scoff at lifestyle journalists, but I know something they don’t – writing about seemingly superficial things is one of the best ways to improve your skills as a writer.
A fellow freelance writer friend once said to me, “An editor has asked me for a story about top ten beach bars in Asia. I do corporate and technical writing, not that fluffy stuff. Do you want the assignment?”
I had a chat with a young, aspiring journalist whose attitude echoed my friend’s. He hadn’t even begun to build his portfolio, and had just started a job as a city-guide reporter, cranking out stories about dessert cafes and pet stores in the neighbourhood. “You know, I’m not at all interested in writing about such things, but I have to start somewhere I guess,” he said, scrunching up his nose as if dessert cafes were places that sold poop. “I can’t wait for this to be over. What I really want to do is investigative journalism or human interest features, the serious stories,” he told me.
Serious Versus “Fluff”
I graduated with an honours degree in journalism, and have been writing professionally for more than twenty years. I’ve also written two books, and have had my short fiction published in a number of anthologies. Having worked on the “serious stories” – nuclear leaks, youth gangs, toxic food scares in China, big data, mutual funds, the India tech boom etc. – as well as corporate copy, what I’ve discovered is that the “fluffy stuff” is actually much more difficult to produce than the “serious” stuff.
Here’s what I mean:
“A 42-old-man was killed at a gas station in Lowell by four teenagers.”
How many ways can you convey this fact?
Perhaps “Four teenagers in Lowell killed a 42-year-old man at a gas station in Lowell”. To write: “At a gas station in Lowell, a 42-year-old man was killed by four teenagers”, or “At a gas station in Lowell, four teenagers killed a 42-year-old man” would be breaking the news reporting convention of always stating the most important facts (in this case the dead 42-year-old man) first. You will not be able to substitute the word “kill” for “murder” because whether or not it was indeed murder can only be determined by a court of law. So that’s as far about as you can go with this story. Not much room for innovation or creativity is there?
Review of pasta restaurant
“The pasta at Restaurant X is delicious, and you should try it.”
How many ways can you convey this fact?
“Unlike the overcooked pasta dishes you’ll find at most other establishments in the city, the fresh, handmade linguine at Restaurant X is perfectly el dente, and absorbs the flavours of the garlic and brisket beautifully.”
“The piquant, home-made tomato sauce, and the melt-in-your mouth brisket work wonderfully with the firm and springy linguine to create a truly unforgettable dish.”
“If you’re craving pasta, Restaurant X will not disappoint.”
“Chef Y at Restaurant X pours his heart into every dish. Informed by the culinary traditions of the Apulian countryside where he was born, the pasta here is an authentic introduction to the taste of rustic, Southern Italy.”
Which of the two types of stories do you think required more work for the writer?
When it comes to the craft and techniques of writing, “reporting” on pasta, a new shade of lipstick, or the interiors of a boutique hotel is more difficult than reporting hard news because you aren’t just relaying facts. When writing lifestyle articles, you’ll need to generate your own opinion then express it in such a way that it makes an impression on someone who probably isn’t all that interested to begin with.
Why Lifestyle Journalism Requires More Brain Power
Research, interview, deep reading, and comprehension skills needed for investigative and technical writing are absolutely invaluable for any aspiring journalist, but if I zoomed in only on the actual task of putting words to page, lifestyle journalism requires an extra push.
It’s much easier to write 100-word article about a brick that was used to build a palace, or a brick that was used to kill a man, than it is to write just about just a regular ol’ brick. Writing 100-words just about the brick in a way that will grab and hold a reader’s attention is the daunting task that the lifestyle writer faces everyday.
How are you going to make readers look at this brick – an object they are already so familiar with – with renewed interest? Accomplishing this is a bigger challenge than simply hunting down and reporting on the facts.
Lifestyle journalism requires more mental effort because:
1) For the meaty news stories and corporate content, a writer is usually given a substantial amount of information from their sources to work with, but for lifestyle articles, they have to flesh out, and plump-up much of the content themselves. Pull stuff out of their heads so to speak. Because lifestyle journalists can’t rely solely on information gleaned directly from their sources, or their research, they have to work their imaginations so much harder. The lifestyle writer has to generate much of the message himself, yet still be as honest and trustworthy as possible while doing so.
2) Like news reporting, the lifestyle writer still has to do their research to make sure all the information is correct. In fact, the writer will probably have to do a lot more specialist research (for example finding out more about the cuisine of Puglia, or where wool for a carpet was harvested) for the piece.
3) While the news, crime, financial or technical writer works mainly with facts and figures, to present (if they have no hidden agendas) the unadulterated truth, the lifestyle writer works in the realms of feelings, moods, and sensations. Their job is to intensify a reader’s emotional experience of the seemingly mundane. Notice the number adjectives, and evocative words – melt-in-your-mouth, springy, craving, overcooked, absorbs, pours his heart – used in the review about the pasta restaurant, versus the number of adjectives used for the crime report – killed.
4) Often, lifestyle journalism is also about the subtle art of selling – not the big, loud “Buy me! Buy me!” of copywriting, but a gentler “look at this, why wouldn’t you want it?” – so it needs to be done as an act of service that brings positive attention to a company, a brand, a product, or a way of life. Good lifestyle journalism requires empathy, because the journalist needs to see the subject they are writing about from the eyes of the person or team who created it, or are offering it.
5) When writing about topics (like a new moisturiser or a cocktail) that quite frankly – unlike say, global warming, child prostitution, or gun control – not many people really care about, you’ll have to bring in your own personality, and your own opinions aif you want it to make an impact. Because of this, you’ll need to become a more interesting (and perhaps more dramatic) person altogether if you hope to write good lifestyle news.
So if you want to grow as a professional writer, don’t shy away from topics like beach bars or desert cafes. If you want to hone your creative skills, expand your vocabulary, and learn to always look at the world with fresh eyes, lifestyle journalism will help you improve your craft by taking you out of your comfort zones.
As a lifestyle journalist, your goals are to avoid clichés while telling people things that they’ve probably already heard a dozen times before, to tell a story and sell an idea without making your readers feel as if they’re being propositioned, and to take the unoriginal and find ways to make them news worthy. What a tall order!
But if you’re dedicated, you’ll shy away from nothing. Learning how to to write about “the fluffy stuff”, and to write about it well, is what will separate the successful writers from the dabblers.