Mary Ann Hogan
Chips Quinn Writing Coach
How do you learn to write faster? I am doing a story for tomorrow’s paper, and the event ends at 7 p.m. — my normal deadline. If I have an hour to write the story, I’ll be lucky. Help! — Sign me, Not Quite Speedy
Dear Not Quite,
There’s a reason English poet Matthew Arnold said that journalism was “literature in a hurry.” We’re in the business of deadlines.
But there are things you can do to help yourself. First, learn how to write faster by doing more stories like the one you described. Over time (no, not overnight), you will develop a second-nature screening mechanism. Try to train yourself, a little more with each story, to organize your material and your story in your head, to filter as you go. Consider: What goes at the top of the story? What’s really interesting? What is crucial? Which details (names, addresses, titles, long-winded explanations, etc.) can go down farther or be left out without jeopardizing the integrity of the story? Which quote will you use near the beginning of the story?
Also, think about whether there is background reporting — a key interview, for example – or writing that can be done beforehand. You often can write the shell of a story from background and fill in an appropriate lead, quotes and details later — as you go, if you’re using a laptop on the scene, when you call in or when get back to the office from the event.
Finally, successful “fast writing” cannot be done without clear thinking. Sometimes, the best five minutes you can spend on a tight-deadline story are minutes that you’re not writing at all. Instead, the best use of five minutes might be in clearing your head, thinking about what you’re going to write and jotting down an outline. Try it.