How to write fast — or at least faster
Not long ago, I received a memo from a college journalism professor asking how to help his students become faster writers. I believe that the best public writers are the versatile ones, the scribes who can write fast when they need to and slow when they have a chance to. I have not included much about fast writing in my books on the craft. But I found some advice I once offered to Poynter readers. Here it is, with a few updates.
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 and all public writing, the goal should be fast writing — or at least faster writing.
I’m a pretty fast writer, but not the fastest. I would give that title 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 Blundell 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 Holliman 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 News 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, the late 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. The little time you take to do this will save you valuable minutes in the end. Denote 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
- 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 and 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 topic (such as a baseball game), you can conceive a story (“The Yankees will win”) and then be willing to reconceive it (“The Rays are staging a comeback”) as circumstances change. In essence, you are writing the story before you know the completed arc.
- Get on a wavelength with your editor through short debriefing 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 prefabricated 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.
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