Is it true that Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, and other famous novelists were all reporters before they became famous as novelists?
Yes. Many people who aspire to be novelists began their writing careers as journalists. The thirteen-year-old Anne Frank had exactly this in mind for herself, and it is hard to believe that someone so full of life and so gifted at writing as a child would not have accomplished what she set out to do had the Nazis not murdered her. She wrote in her diary about "the big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?"
There are many others, too—Martha Gellhorn, Jack London, Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind), Tom Wolfe—who wrote for newspapers or magazines before turning to fiction. John Steinbeck, already a published novelist, wrote a series of pieces on the Okie migrant camps of California for the San Francisco News before writing his most celebrated book, also about the migrants, The Grapes of Wrath. Across the Atlantic, George Orwell worked as a journalist, as had Charles Dickens a century earlier, and Daniel Defoe, a century before Dickens.
Journalism offers an aspiring writer much more than a paycheck (not that pay is a small matter). It is common advice to young writers to "write what you know." But how do you acquire firsthand knowledge, not textbook knowledge, of real life? The distinctive feature of the novel, as novelist and critic Mary McCarthy observed, is "its concern with the actual world, the world of fact, of the verifiable, of figures, even, and statistics." What unites writers as different as Austen and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Proust, Dickens and Joyce is "a deep
love of fact, of the empiric element in experience____The stable
ingredient present in all novels in various mixtures and proportions but always in fairly heavy dosage is fact."
How do you learn the world—and at close hand, close enough to absorb the language, the color, the fabric of somebody else's experience? Journalism is one very good way. It has its own limits. Those limits may have grown in the past several decades as reporters do more of their work from their desks and computers, less from going out into the world. What journalists have proudly called "shoe leather reporting" is not as clearly the heart of the job of reporting as it once was. But it has not gone away. And as news reporting has come to cover a wider range of human experiences, moving away from a primary or nearly exclusive emphasis on politics and government, there have been more and more opportunities for reporters to learn the world, and to do so on topics that could lend themselves to successful fiction.