Part 2: My Tabloid Adventures
“Kate! GET IN HERE NOW!”
I was in big trouble. The editor-in-chief was bellowing at me from his office. I must have messed up big-time.
I had indeed. “I never thought I’d see the day,” he growled, “when a Weekly World News writer didn’t know the difference between reincarnation and transmogrification.”
I had written a story about someone transformed into another living body, which is transmogrification. But I had called it reincarnation, which is the soul’s rebirth as another being after death. Big difference. This inaccuracy in a goof story was being treated every bit as seriously as a misreported election result or weather report in a mainstream newspaper.
The irony! That anyone at The Weekly World News – renowned source of fiction masquerading as news, from Bigfoot’s love child to Bat Boy to the World’s Fattest Cat – should be such a stickler for accuracy in its fake news.
But that was what we specialized in at Weekly World News, where I had a brief but enthusiastic tenure (2002-2004). It’s where I learned some of the most lasting writing lessons of my career.
3 Writing Lessons from The Weekly World News
Lesson 1: Tell the Truth
Now that’s some cognitive dissonance right there. Tell the truth? The Weekly World News? Come on.
It’s true we wrote fake news. The more preposterous, the better. Did you know a space alien endorsed Bill Clinton for president in 1992? That Elvis is alive and well? Did you hear about the magic car wash that turns filthy clunkers into sleek and shiny sports cars?
But as often explained by Dick Kulpa, the editor-in-chief who nailed my ignorance about bodily transformation, we didn’t just make up fake news. We made fake news come true.
Like the magic car wash. Written just before my time there, it constructed a fake story so convincingly that I actually found myself thinking, hmm, maybe . . . Why not?
Every story we did contained at least a grain of truth. Maybe I made up the couples who said the secret to their happy marriage was living apart, but their advice was dead-on true. Maybe there really wasn’t a study in Sweden that said, “Working with Idiots Can Kill You,” but that didn’t make the premise of my story any less true.
Write the truth, however you see it.
Lesson 2: Stop Boring Everyone
These days we talk about “engaging the reader,” which is really kind of boring when you think about it. The point is, stop boring everyone. Stop talking about yourself unless you’re sure your story will mean something to the reader or has a direct bearing on your message.
Write short. Write snappy. Say it straight out. “Those dopes can kill you!” I wrote in my “Working with Idiots” feature (which I’m proud to say Snopes actually felt the need to debunk.)
Write with energy. Have fun. I had some with the Easter Bunny: “A hare-brained mother has announced plans to sue the City of New York for $1 million — charging that her 6-year-old daughter was attacked by the Easter Bunny while romping in Central Park!”
Use your imagination and liven up tired old topics. Does the world need any more dating advice, or job-interview tips? No. How about both at the same time? I had a blast writing “Treat Your First Date Like a Job Interview.” It might have been even better to tell readers to “Treat Your Job Interview Like a First Date.”
Lesson 3: Start with a Bang
Nothing starts things off like a great headline, like these actual cover lines from WWN:
- “Aliens abduct cheerleaders”
- “Surgeons cut off my head – and sewed it back on!”
- “I died and spent 20 minutes in hell!”
- “World’s smartest ape goes to college”
- “A space alien made me pregnant”
- “Amazing man has lived 16 times”
You can’t NOT read what comes next after these headlines.
You’re not likely to be writing about your own reincarnation (yes, I got it right this time), but the point remains:
Grab the reader at the start. And don’t let go.
Bonus Lesson: Close on an Upbeat Note
Kulpa probably never knew he sent me home in tears with his angry chewing out about the reincarnation goof (which he luckily had caught in editing). I cried my eyes out on the drive home, and the next morning I got up with clear eyes and got to work.
A few months later, in a staff meeting, he said to everyone, “I just want to say I think Kate has really grown into a damn good tabloid writer.” (That’s the thing about Kulpa. He’d yell at you in private and praise you in public.)
I felt like I’d just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.