Lessons in Writing and Journalism

Important Take-Aways from Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour Hersh

Meghan Hollis
Jun 7 · 8 min read
Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

My career has been all about the importance of telling important and unwanted truths and making America a more knowledgeable place.

— Seymour Hersh

Recently, I read Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour Hersh (reviewed here). This work follows his years as a reporter and shares stories of success, failure, and lessons learned. As I read, I started jotting down lessons that I was taking away from what he was writing. I found ten lessons in the process:

Lesson 1: Check it out.

Lesson 2: Don’t rush; find the truth.

Lesson 3: Allow the story and characters to shine through.

Lesson 4: Protect your sources.

Lesson 5: Find sources with integrity who are loyal to the truth.

Lesson 6: Read before you write.

Lesson 7: Find inside sources.

Lesson 8: The truth is not always pleasant or wanted.

Lesson 9: The best way to tell a story is to get out of the way.

Lesson 10: Let the facts tell the story.

Although the book is oriented toward the journalistic enterprise, I think these are lessons that any writer could use. Additionally, these lessons provide excellent criteria for evaluating the journalism we read and watch on a daily basis.

Lesson 1: Check It Out

The first rule of journalism and of writing is to check it out. Check out the facts, go observe the world around you, but check things out before you start writing.

The life-and-death rule was check it out before calling it in.

— Seymour Hersh

This lesson can take on different forms for different types of writers. For journalists, you should be checking your sources, finding sources, and finding other mechanisms to verify the facts. For nonfiction writers, the advice is the same. It amounts to do your research. The same is true for fiction writers. In addition to doing your research to make sure that elements in your story are plausible, you also need to check out what you have written for inconsistencies. The key to good fiction is to make the reader believe what you are saying is truth. You cannot do that if there are inconsistencies in your writing or if the basis for your setting, time period, or characters is faulty.

Lesson 2: Don’t Rush and Find the Truth

This lesson is all about slowing down a bit. Be careful, take your time, and don’t make mistakes. The key is to seek out and write work that is based on truths.

Being first is not nearly as important as being right, and being careful, even if it did not matter in the case at hand.

— Seymour Hersh

This lesson applies equally to journalistic, nonfiction, and fiction writing. Too often, we are in a rush to publish, a rush to submit, or a rush to finish our word count for the day. This advice reminds us to take our time, check our facts, and make sure that there is a fundamental truth (or more than one) behind what we are writing. Don’t be afraid of “getting scooped” or that your work will never get published. Take your time and do it the right way. It will be better for you and for your readers.

Lesson 3: Allow the Story and Characters to Shine Through

The story and the characters are important elements in any writing. Fiction, nonfiction, and journalism are all about the stories that are being shared. It is important to let the story and the characters drive the writing.

I wrote a long feature story for the AP about her recovery, and her music, and put to use one of the lessons I was learning: My story was much more readable because I let her good humor, humanity, and humility come through.

— Seymour Hersh

If we lose the humanity of the characters we are writing about, we lose the quality of our writing. If we lose the story in the details, the reader will be bored or will quit reading. It is important to let the story and characters be the stars of the work. Letting them shine through will hook the reader and keep them reading.

Lesson 4: Protect Your Sources

It is essential to protect your sources. In the research world, this comes in the form of anonymity or confidentiality guarantees. You have to protect your sources.

In order to protect the general, or Mark Hill, if he would have authorized me to use the information he had, I would have had to spend days visiting generals and admirals for spurious reasons in an effort to mask the source.

— Seymour Hersh

Protecting sources is essential to the integrity of a writer. Again, this applies to all kinds of writers. Fiction writers may be basing their characters on someone from real life. They might let real life experiences feed the storylines and characters. When this is the case, the writer has a responsibility to mask that connection as much as they can. The same follows for journalistic or other nonfiction writing. Failure to protect sources can lead to distrust and make the search for the truth more difficult. Protecting sources makes them more willing to come forward and share their truths.

Lesson 5: Find Sources with Integrity Who Are Loyal to the Truth

There are different types of sources. You can see this by watching an hour of cable news coverage. Different sources provide different levels of information, and not all of the sources are loyal to the truth.

I learned a lesson as a Pentagon correspondent that would stick with me during my career: There are many officers, including generals and admirals, who understood that the oath of office they took was a commitment to uphold and defend the Constitution and not the President, or an immediate supervisor. They deserved my respect and got it. Want to be a good military reporter? Find those officers.

— Seymour Hersh

It is important to find those sources who have integrity and who are loyal to the truth. Other sources are self-interested or are loyal to those above them. These are not reliable sources and will taint the story you are trying to tell. Try to learn more about your sources. Learn about their loyalties. Seek out those sources with integrity. Seek out the truth-stewards.

Lesson 6: Read Before You Write

One of the most common pieces advice that all readers are given is to read a lot. Read, read, read, and only after you have read a bit more, write. Reading is an essential basis for writing.

I had already figured out the core lesson of being a journalist — read before you write — and was a follower of the reporting being done in the news section of Sciencemagazine, a weekly publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

— Seymour Hersh

Is it enough to just read in a genre related to what you are researching or what you are writing? NO! Read in a variety of fields. Read things that you have never read before or that you would not normally read. Just READ! This is one of the best ways to improve your skills as a writer.

Lesson 7: Find Inside Sources

We have discussed finding sources, and finding sources with integrity, but we need to also address finding inside sources.

The combination of my book, the New York Times Magazinearticle, and my continued speaking about CBW at colleges and universities generated what every reporter needs — inside sources.

— Seymour Hersh

Not all sources are created equal. We discussed this as it relates to the level of truth in what the source reveals and their level of integrity. Sources also differ based on their distance from the basis for the story. It is important to find inside sources with direct information and experience with the topic that you are researching and writing about.

Lesson 8: The Truth is Not Always Pleasant or Wanted

One of the harder lessons revealed in Hersh’s book is that the truth is not always pleasant or wanted. Sometimes we have to face hard truths. Sometimes we don’t really want to hear the truth. Even when that is the case, a writer’s responsibility is to seek out the truth.

I had learned that some of my colleagues in the mainstream journalism world were equally adept in looking the other way, if need be, rather than writing about an unpleasant and unwanted truth.

— Seymour Hersh

Virginia Woolf discusses truth as the foundation for good writing (see my review of her book, A Room of One’s Own, here). This is true no matter what type of writer you are. Writers are the preservers of a generation’s truth. Failure to seek out and write based in truth can destroy the quality of your writing and cause readers to stop reading.

Lesson 9: The Best Way to Tell A Story is to Get Out of the Way

Sometimes we need to just get out of the way and let the story do its job. This is often seen as the “pantser” approach. If we overthink the story or try to make it too complicated or convoluted, the reader is never going to follow along.

I’d been a reporter for a decade by the fall of 1969 and somehow had figured out that the best way to tell a story, no matter how significant or complicated, was to get the hell out of the way and just tell it.

— Seymour Hersh

The best approach — no matter how complex a story is — is to just get out of the way and tell the story. Let the story drive your writing. Stop thinking and just write. You can clean it up later. Adding too much extra “stuff” will render your story unreadable, keep it simple and let the story drive the writing.

Lesson 10: Let Facts Tell the Story

The final lesson that Hersh shares with us (there may be more, but I focused on these ten) was to let the facts tell the story. In this instance, Hersh is translating what he learned as a journalist to writing nonfiction books. He actually brings together three lessons in this moment:

Writing a nonfiction book involves the same principles I sought to use in my daily journalism: Read before you write, find people who know the truth, and let the facts tell the story.

— Seymour Hersh

Hersh is instructing us to blend reading and researching before we write, finding the truth-tellers, and letting the facts drive the story. We have already covered reading before we right and seeking out those who know the truth, but we have not addressed letting the facts tell the story. One of the biggest challenges that people face in writing is trying to add too much of themselves to the story. This leads the story to become convoluted and difficult to follow. Just stick to the facts.

Hersh provides many excellent lessons on journalism and nonfiction writing. There are also many lessons that apply to writing fiction as well. He ends on a positive and optimistic note talking about the rewards of his writing career:

It’s a wonderful business, this profession of mine. I’ve spent most of my career writing stories that challenge the official narrative, and have been rewarded mightily and suffered only slightly for it.

— Seymour Hersh

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Meghan Hollis

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Meghan is a recovering academic and unemployed writer trying to make it without a “real job” (as her parents call it). She loves to travel and write about it.

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