Journalists who cover breaking news write fast out of necessity. In the old days, it was because the presses rolled at certain times of day and wouldn’t stop just because you couldn’t think of a lead in time to make your 4:30 deadline.
Hitting deadlines has gotten even more important in the age of 24/7 news cycles.
Unless you’re writing for news publications, most freelancers aren’t under that kind of daily pressure. But we do have deadlines, so we have to figure out ways for being as efficient as possible because the more work we do, the more we get paid.
Besides, writing fast is a good discipline to cultivate: sticking to deadlines is one of the best ways to ingratiate yourself to editors you want to write for on a regular basis – because if you’re an editor, who do you want to work with, the writer who always make deadline or the one who always makes excuses why they can’t?
Here are a couple tips for writing fast:
- Forget taping notes and then transcribing them. Learn shorthand and write directly from your notes. Or learn to type fast enough to take notes while you do phone or in-person interviews.
- Don’t print out notes from phone interviews. Use Windows’ split screen feature so have a notes file and a story file open at the same time – or spring for a second monitor. If it helps, go through your notes and highlight important data and quotes first so they’re easier to find.
- Learn how to outline stories in your head instead of taking extra time to plot things out on paper. For me, this works well for stories of up to 2,000 or 2,500 words. Anything longer and I will do an outline.
- Write through the entire story from start to finish in one fell swoop. Let momentum carry you from start to finish. In this initial draft, forget plugging in details. Instead use placeholders such as “XXX,” “CITY,” or “ATTRIBUTION.” Then go back and fill them in during a second pass through the piece. The key is to get the essence of the story down while it’s fresh in your head.
Back in the 1950s when pulp writers got 1, 2 or 3 cents a word for stories, writer (and future Scientology founder) L. Ron Hubbard had a unique way of writing fast. To find out what it was, listen to this audio clip of an interview Robin Williams did with author Harlan Ellison, who was a contemporary of Hubbard’s. I haven’t seen it, but according to the Amazon description, I’m pretty sure the interview is from Dreams with Sharp Teeth, a 2008 documentary on Ellison, which now that I’ve found it is definitely going on my Netflix list.
You can also read more of suggestions for writing fast in from this earlier post, which continues to be one of the most popular I’ve ever done.
When you’re on deadline, what are your favorite tricks for writing fast?