January 6, 2003

Elsewhere in this webspace, Dr. Ink has sparked a flurry of debate on the topic of deadline. It was prompted by a lively discussion among newscoaches. There’s little disagreement that a field called “history in a hurry” demands timely production. But achieving that goal is incredibly difficult. Writers and editors coping with the demands of the ticking clock need a new way of looking at the deadline–the writer’s greatest nemesis and ally.

The problem lies in the part of speech–singular noun. As anyone who has ever written a story knows, the process is not a mad unbroken sprint to a finish line. Meeting the demands of journalism–from the exigencies of production to the need for stories that are accurate, fair and compelling–means jumping a series of hurdles, each of which presents its own challenges and time demands.

My suggestion: Simply add an s to the word. In another of those delicious paradoxes that make writing such a continually challenging and rewarding activity, we see the writing task not as one of making a deadline but rather a series of deadlines that every piece of writing requires.

Rethinking the Deadline

Instead of one deadline, imagine a cascade of them that occur during every step of the process of reporting and writing a story. Beside each one estimate the time you will–or can–take to complete each one. Some obviously take more time, but there isn’t an assignment that won’t involve these actions whether you have 90 minutes or two months to complete.

1. Discuss story idea
2. Write a budget line–3-4 sentences that sum up the best possible outcome. (Remember this is a draft, written in sand not concrete.)

3. List sources–people, records
4. Prepare and conduct interviews
5. Locate records, other documentation

6. Discuss story with your visual journalism colleagues. (Photojournalist, graphic artist, designer)

7. Focus the story
8. Answer focusing questions that will help you answer the essential questions that an effective story addresses
9. Draft a nut graf

10. Devise an order for your story
11. List elements in five boxes

12. Write a discovery draft, written without notes
13. Read and respond to that draft
14. Make the changes in that draft
15. Deliver a draft to your editor
16. Listen to your editor’s response

17. Read story aloud, noting good, bad, ugly: bumps, errors, strong points, mispellings, etc.
18. Make changes
19. Fact-check
20. Spell-check
21. Deliver story

For many writers, the problem isn’t making the deadline as much as it is being blind to the reality that a story involves multiple deadlines within the process of reporting and writing. Whether you’re a reporter trying to beat a deadline or an editor grappling with late copy, the simplest solution may be one that seems the toughest. But that’s the life we’ve chosen.

So line up the hurdles that stand between you and the finish line.

On Your Mark.
Get Set.

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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