Writing on deadline

Too much advice about writing seems to assume you have an infinite amount of time to get everything done. In real life we usually have to keep an eye the clock, or at least on the calendar.

Working on newspapers and magazines, I quickly learned that deadlines are not mere suggestions. The story goes out the door in whatever shape it’s in when the deadline arrives. Or worse, it doesn’t go out the door at all. People who want to keep their jobs learn how to whip things into decent shape on time. Not perfect shape, but decent.

How? Fortunately, lots of experts have been willing to pass along good advice. One such expert is Steve Buttry, currently director of student media at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. He started writing for newspapers in the late 1960s while he was still in high school. So he knows a thing or two about how to do it successfully.

A long time ago I picked up some of Buttry’s advice. Here’s my version of it:

Identify your minimum: Figure out what you absolutely have to cover, the most basic who-what-when-where-why stuff.

Identify your maximum: Create a wish list of what you’d like to include. What would make the final product really stand out?

Secure the minimum, pursue the maximum: First get what you need, then try to get what you want. (Cue the Rolling Stones.) Even if you don’t get everything you want, you’ll still be on solid ground.

Reassess frequently: Take stock of how fast you’re reaching your minimum. Concentrate on the sources that are most likely to have what you are missing. As you acquire more information, reassess whether that changes your minimum and maximum.

Avoid redundant sources: Some of the information you need might be available in more than one place, or from more than one person. Don’t use up valuable time getting a slight nuance on something you already have. At least wait until you’ve nailed down your minimum.

Work ahead: Some information might not be available right away, such as end-of-month totals when the end of the month is still a day or two away. See how much work you can do in advance, leaving spaces where you can plug in the numbers as soon as they become available.

Write, don’t ponder: Get the information down on paper or on the screen. You can neaten it up later if there’s time. Just as the scope of your project has a minimum and a maximum, so does the quality of your writing. Make it good, then come back later if there’s time to make it better.

Write as you report: You don’t have to wait until you get all your information before you start writing. Even if you don’t know the whole story yet, you can start shaping the elements that you do know about.

Some of this advice can be tough to swallow, especially if you’re a perfectionist. Who wants to put out something that’s merely good enough? Shouldn’t we always do our best? Sure, we should do our best within the constraints of the deadline. That’s the key.



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