Whether working on a deadline or managing simultaneous beats, journalists need to be able to write quickly. But maintaining quality can be a challenge when you’re racing against the clock.
In a recent Poynter chat, writing expert and strategist Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, says all writers can increase their turnaround time. He shared his own tips as well as those of some of America’s fastest writers.
1. Organize Research and Interview Material
The better organized your reporting, the easier it will be to sit down and make sense of it all. At the end of each reporting day, Clark recommends reporters debrief their notebooks. For instance, mark up the notes, expand on them from memory and put stars next to the best material. Then, write yourself a memo about what you learned and what information is still missing. As you transcribe, begin to select your best quotes, and think about how and where you would use them (at the beginning, middle or end).
For a big project, Clark recommends a larger organization system, such as large file folders. “I need index cards that correspond to those files,” he says. “Then I often post those cards over my desk, creating a kind of locator map for my material. Without those things, I get lost, discouraged, and my work slows down.”
If you write about various topics, you must learn to wear different hats. For instance, put four boxes near your desk — one for each of your beats. As you go through the day writing down tips or bits of reporting, dump them into the appropriate boxes.
2. Find the Focus
The focus is the heart of the story — the one thing you want readers to remember. The key to fast writing is finding that focus as early as you can. You can always change your mind, but if you find the focus at the early stages of reporting, you can report in support of it.
To hone in on the focus, sift through your material to find what Clark calls the “gold nuggets.” Mark them. Those nuggets can be placed strategically throughout the story.
3. Just Write
You don’t need to wait until the research is done to begin writing. At the very beginning of the writing process, the general strategy is to get started, build up momentum, and create enough time for revision. If your critical voice starts to beg for more details and revisions early on, “tell that voice to shut up,” Clark says. You can drag it back during revision.
To write with urgency before a deadline, set a self-imposed artificial deadline and try to meet it. Then you may have time to let your piece sit for a day or two, which means you can come back to it later with a fresh eye. “You will notice things you didn’t see while drafting,” Clark says, “and bring new knowledge to the task.”
4. Practice, Practice, Practice
You may not realize it, but we practice writing fast all the time: We text, tweet and chat with friends. In a way, this helps turn writing into a physical skill, like typing. Tweeting breaking news stories is another good way to practice writing fast, short and well.