To be a good writer, you have to learn to write slow. Some sentences or passages just take a long time. But slow writing need not be the norm. In journalism, the goal should be fast writing – or at least faster writing.
I’m a pretty fast writer, but not the fastest. That distinction might go to Bill Blundell, formerly of The Wall Street Journal and author of The Art and Craft of Feature Writing. I once attended a workshop with Bill in which the class was assigned a news feature story. We all had access to the same information. In the allotted time, I managed to squeeze out a couple of clumsy paragraphs. Blundell, who nervously chewed paper (literally), knocked off three pages in no time, good enough to be published the next morning.
Ray Holliman, a sports writer from Alabama, may have been the fastest writer in journalism history. The St. Petersburg Times used to send him to cover the late night West Coast football games, knowing that Ray could deliver on deadline. More than one sports writer told me, “Ray was always the first one out of the press box.”
When it comes to spot news, I would declare that CBS radio correspondent Peter King is Johnny-on-the spot. I’ve watched him take a fat document from NASA, digest it in no time, and turn it into a 30-second report before the competition can stir its coffee. I’ve studied writers like Blundell, Holliman, and King and have come up with a list of fast-writing strategies that may not turn you into a fast writer, but will make you faster. (Jane Caplan, wife of the great medical ethicist Arthur Caplan once told me, “When Arthur cleans the house, it is never really clean, but it is cleaner.”)
- Don’t separate the reporting and writing process. Integrate them. Begin writing it in your head from the moment you get the assignment and all during the research.
- Find your focus in the field. If you wait until you get back to your desk to realize what your story is really about, you may not be able to go back and get what you need to make it work. If you have to go back, it will take time.
- Annotate your notes while taking them: “This is lead.” “Goes up high.” “Transition.”
- Before drafting, scratch out a five-point plan on a yellow pad, denoting the big parts:
- Trump as insulter-in-chief
- History of presidential insults
- Famous insults from literature
- Insults in popular culture, from rap to pro wrestling
- Why people like insults
The little time you take to do this will save you valuable minutes in the end.
- Draft earlier than you think you can. On returning from an interview, write a “zero draft” to teach you what you know and what’s left to learn.
- Lower your standards for the first draft. Let your hands do the thinking. You can raise your standards during revision.
- If pressed for time, shoot for a draft and a half: a blast of writing followed by a quick read that corrects mistakes and cuts needless words.
- Keep it short: to borrow from Strunk & White, erect a pup tent, not a cathedral.
- Use social media early in the process to learn and announce your main points.
- On a breaking story (such as a baseball game), you can conceive a story (“The Yankees will win”) and then be willing to re-conceive it (“The Rays are staging a comeback”) as circumstances change. In essence, you are writing the story before you know its completed arc.
- Get on a wavelength with your editor by short de-briefing sessions, right before the reporting, and right after. Two minutes at the front end can save precious time near deadline.
- Have at your fingertips a number of reliable forms in which to write and deliver the news: pyramid, trapezoid, hourglass, anecdote/nut graf, five blocks. These pre-fabricated containers will streamline your process. I like the feeling of writing fast. It places me “in the moment,” giving me energy from adrenaline, focus, and momentum.
Correction: Peter King writes 30-second dispatches, not 90-second dispatches.