I didn’t necessarily set out to be an author. From the youngest age, flicking through the local free community newspaper, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I loved writing in short form, the way an article contains just the facts and quotes, and largely has a rigid structure. So, the fact that I am now a published author — and a fiction writer at that — is quite the turn of events.  

Tufayel Ahmed, This Way Out

Tufayel Ahmed, This Way Out

News publishing and book publishing are vastly different. When friends used to ask, “Do you see yourself writing a book one day?” the answer was no. I was daunted by the prospect of writing an upward of 100,000 words, even if words are my livelihood. There was something “easy” about writing, say, 800 words on a subject and then being done with it and moving on to the next thing. But over the years, as both a reporter and an editor, working in news has equipped me in a multitude of ways to write a book, and it wasn’t until I sat down in the summer of 2020 to finally write my debut novel This Way Out that I realised just how much. 

When you work with words all day, sitting down to write something — be it an article or a novel — loses some of its romanticism. This was a point made by one of my favourite authors, Hanya Yanagihara (A Little Life, To Paradise), during a talk at the Southbank Centre earlier this year. As Yanagihara, who is also the editor of The New York Times’ style magazine, T, explained her calculated approach to novel-writing, I couldn’t help but nod along enthusiastically in my seat. Because it’s exactly the same for me. 

We have the image of an author taking long strolls and writing reams of pages by hand when struck by inspiration. The romantic version of what it means to be an author. But, in actuality, just like journalism, there are deadlines and turnarounds, and most of us don’t have the luxury of laboring over our Great Work of Literature™ for infinite time — particularly when you are juggling novel-writing with a full-time day job. 

Like Yanagihara, I apply my journalistic abilities to my novel-writing: I set myself mini-deadlines each day — a certain word count I need to hit, for example, or a chapter I must finish; I plot and break down my novel chapter-by-chapter, just like I would paragraphs in a feature article, so I know exactly what is going to happen where; and I rarely deviate from the outline I set for myself at the beginning of the process. And to get around that daunting, lofty word count that makes up a book, I treat each chapter like its own article with its own word count, and take it a chapter at a time. By the end, I have a book of, say, 75,000 words — a complete work. But I don’t allow myself to concentrate on that bigger number while I’m writing, or I’d feel like I was climbing Everest without oxygen — riddled with anxiety and hopelessly unprepared. This may not sound romantic, it may even seem sacrilegious to some authors, but for me, it works. And, hey, Hanya Yanagihara got nominated for a Booker Prize. 

Journalism also teaches you not to be too precious with your words. I’ve been a reporter and a newsroom editor, so I’ve been on both sides of this: Often young journalists will think a line or paragraph they’ve written is the smartest, most incisive bit of writing, or something so unabashedly whimsical that no doubt everyone will love it as much as they do. And then an editor will come along and cut it, because it doesn’t serve the piece. What they thought was so intuitive, they find out, is actually not. It’s not being written with the audience in mind, but for their own ego. Kill your darlings, as they say. 

A good editor is your ally. I am so thankful for the passionate and careful — and sometimes even ruthless — edits I’ve had over the years in journalism, because those edits have enhanced my work, not diminished it. And similarly, I love editing reporters’ work, too, because you can often see the potential in a piece that the writer may not see themselves because they are too close to it. 

My advice to both journalists and authors: Lose the ego and learn to love being edited. Because of my day job, by the time it came to being edited on my book, I was open to all feedback and I was not precious about receiving critique or negative feedback from my two editors. I get it — if you’re not used to being edited, it can be a shock to see lots of red lines and track changes scrawled all over your work, and it may seem harsh, but it’s not personal. Trust your editor and trust the process. Looking at my first draft now versus my finished product, I couldn’t be more pleased with my editors’ input. 

This Way Out by Tufayel Ahmed is published by Lake Union (1st July 2022, £8.99)