Avoid deadline by starting early

Better Writing with Bart Pfankuch


Deadline? What deadline? My story is already filed!

Doesn’t every journalist want to wrap up the workday and be home with their kids or their dog or their houseplants (or like this writer, be at the golf course or the tavern or out on a hike) by 5:30 p.m. like most normal office jockeys?

And yet, whether it’s a daily grind story or a weekender that needs finishing, many newsies find themselves sweating it out on deadline as an anxious editor nips at their heels.

Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch

As an editor, I would grow impatient immediately upon wrapping the afternoon news meeting to get the stories edited and filed to the copy desk. To motivate the laggards, I had this technique of standing directly behind them while holding my arm pointed to the ceiling and moving it back and forth like a metronome while making an audible “tick-tock” sound. I found it hilarious and effective, and I always assumed that the writers did, too (OK, in reality I know they hated it, but the discomfort was a crucial element of the technique!)

So, from here on out, in all cases except bona fide breaking news scenarios, let’s all get out of the office earlier. Here are some tips gained from years of seeing a life beyond work.

Talk to your editor more. Have a quick pre-reporting chat, then a midday update and finally a pre-writing confab to make sure you’re on the same page and both know what to expect. These chats can be one minute or less.

Write throughout the day. Ever notice how fast and easy it is to write an adder for another reporter? You quickly pick your best stuff, grind it out and shoot it over. So, why not do this with your own material? Write as you report. Keep your notes in story form as much as possible to really speed things along. Write in chunks and link them with transitions later.

Think lead and form all day long. Great leads, transitions, nut graphs and kickers take time, so it helps save time if you think about how a story will come together before, during and after the reporting. If a good idea comes to you, scribble it down immediately.

Write a nut graph first. If you know the nut graph going in, writing the rest comes easy. And don’t forget: your nut graph can always become a hard-news lead if you can’t craft a meaningful narrative or anecdote.

Report to write. While reporting, always think about what the story needs and how it might take shape. If you’re always on the hunt for a lead, a nut, details, anecdotes, examples, data and an ending, those elements will be present in your head when you sit down to write.

Work quickly, but don’t rush. Make a reporting plan and source list at the start. Discuss angles with your editor or colleagues. Get going on art or graphics right away. Then, when you do interviews (the most important part of reporting), you’ll have banked more time to go deeper.

Take what you need and leave the rest. Survey reporting, or talking to many people with nearly the same viewpoint or background, can be critical to project reporting but is rarely necessary in daily reporting. Seek out the best possible sources and be patient with them.

Send a lead and nut note to your editor. To avoid uncomfortable disputes, which the editor will invariably win, send an instant message with, “Here’s what I’m thinking on this story, what do you think?” and attach the top and nut. This prevents wasted time and heartaches.

Draft an outline. This technique sounds quaint, but creating a written plan for your story can dramatically speed up the writing process and also ensure you don’t leave anything important out.

Work harder, faster and smarter. Watch to see who leaves work on time and who ends up staying late, then emulate those who get to it and get out. Arrive early, be on task and hustle.

Keep the gabbing to a minimum. Stay clear of newsroom gossips, gabbers or gripers. A quick chat or joke is fine, but the time you waste talking to a gabber, or worse yet listening to them, will only lengthen your day and reduce your productivity. Whether you realize it or not, those people will bring you down.

Avoid perfectionism. Don’t struggle over a single word, sentence or paragraph. Let the copy flow, get it all down, and then go back and revise. Also, don’t get too married to a lead or story format; you can always try a new technique tomorrow.

Bart Pfankuch is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch; he can be reached at bart.pfankuch@sdnewswatch.org.