Writing Clearly on Deadline

by Steve Buttry
Jun 27, 2008 in Journalism Basics

Anticipate deadlines. The most routine deadline writing for many reporters is covering evening meetings, then returning to the newsroom for a quick turnaround for the morning paper. See how much reporting and writing you can do before the meeting. Meetings in themselves are not interesting. That's why you won't find many people at most of them. But the meetings deal with important issues. Take some time before the meeting to examine the agenda and report on issues to be covered. Let's say the meeting is about possible cutbacks in the school district's program to teach English as a second language. You talk to ESL teachers, students and parents beforehand and to advocates of mainstreaming students who don't speak English. You do most of the reporting and writing before the meeting on a story about changes in the ESL program. And your writing after the meeting is simply a few paragraphs adding the outcome of the vote and a couple quotes from the meeting.

Write, don't ponder. One of the biggest time-wasters on deadline is the lead. Don't ponder the lead while you look at a blank screen. Write a simple declarative sentence: "The school board voted Tuesday to cut funds for its program to teach English as a second language." That will get you launched. Keep writing. Maybe halfway through the story, you will think of a better lead. Then you can go back and fix the lead, and maybe that will require fixing a few other grafs. You will have more of the story written than if you had tried two or three leads and stared at the blank screen for a while. You don't have time for that on deadline. Write the story, and hopefully the writing will bring out the best lead. Even if it doesn't you probably will have a better story with a simple declarative lead followed by a full, well-written story than with a polished lead reflecting heavy labor, followed by a story that was rushed and incomplete.

Write as you report. If you're working a story by phone, you're going to have some dead time, maybe a few seconds at a time when you're on hold or waiting for someone to answer, maybe a few minutes while you're waiting for people to return calls. Start putting the information from your last interview into story form. Even if you don't know where it will go in the story yet, start writing paragraphs that will fit somewhere. Write a lead based on what you know so far. In addition to starting your writing, this helps sharpen the focus of the reporting that remains. Writing as you report allows you to continue your reporting closer to deadline. Writing in chunks, with frequent interruptions as you return to reporting, can lead to choppy writing. You need to fix this by using some of the time you save to read back through the story to polish and make it flow smoothly. If you are at the scene and need to run back to the newsroom or hotel to write, you can't physically write as you report. But start writing or outlining the story in your head or in your notebook during moments when you find yourself waiting. The story will come faster when you sit down to a keyboard.

Identify the minimum story. Decide early what your minimum story is, the story that answers the basic who, what, when, where questions. This is the story that meets basic levels of journalistic competence and allows you to keep drawing a paycheck next week. This is your first goal. You can often get the minimum story from an official source or a few official sources.

Identify the maximum story. Decide early what your maximum story might be, the story that readers will be talking about at work and in coffee shops the next day. This is the story that your editors and readers will remember, that marks you as a star performer. This story may answer difficult how, why, so-what or how-much questions or it may address the who-what-when-where questions in greater depth. The maximum story may have such enticing elements as setting, plot, characters and dialogue. You are looking for elements that might make this story especially memorable. This is your ultimate goal. Maximum stories often require unofficial sources: witnesses, victims, neighbors.

Secure the minimum, then pursue the maximum. If you're not on deadline, you might gather the information for the minimal story fairly early, then build incrementally to the maximum story. Or you might start with some of the information for the maximum story and spend a lot of time with that, knowing you'll be able to fill in the basics later. On deadline, you want to identify immediately the potential sources who could provide the information for the minimum story and get the information from them as quickly as possible. Then you zero right in on the sources who might provide the maximum story. Maybe you can't get the maximum story on deadline. It might be a second-day story or a Sunday follow-up. But go for it. If you don't land the maximum story, you're likely to gather material that will improve on the minimum story.

Reassess frequently. Before and after each interview, assess quickly what you still need to nail down the minimum or maximum story. Go quickly to those elements in your questioning. Go to the sources who will provide that sort of information. Also assess whether your new knowledge changes the maximum story you are pursuing or the minimum story you need.

Avoid redundant interviews. If you don't have time to interview all the desired sources, avoid those who will waste your time with information that is largely redundant. For instance, in a crime or disaster story, one official source may provide all the basic information for your minimal story. Once you get that information, you might want to focus your energy on unofficial sources who can give your story greater human dimension, rather than going to other official sources. If you have time, the other official sources will provide valuable detail, but the maximum story often rests with unofficial sources. If you haven't identified the unofficial sources yet, other official sources may help lead you to them.

Keep it simple. Mike Williams of Cox Newspapers advises: "Boil it down, keep it simple. Don't get lost in detail readers don't care about."

Save time online. Search quickly online for information that will help your story. You might find a report from a source you wouldn't be able to reach by telephone on deadline. You might find background. You might find contacts. You might find predictions that this would happen. Be careful of your sources and be careful of wasting time chasing dead ends. Depending on what you already know and how tight your deadline is, searching the Web can save time or waste time. It's often worth at least a brief try.

Plan for surprises I. If you're covering a vote or athletic event, be ready for the sudden reversal. David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution advises: "If necessary, have a second story going in case the anticipated outcome reverses at the last moment; make sure the running/background material will stand regardless of the outcome."

Plan for surprises II. Kathy Brister of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution advises: "Expect to be surprised. Keep a file of regularly updated quotes, research and color that can give second-day perspective to a breaking news story."

Allow time to file. If you're not in the newsroom, remember that filing time is part of your deadline work. Early in your work, find a phone line that you can use and make sure it works. And finish writing with enough time to file, and to file again if the first time doesn't take.

Resources to help with deadline writing