For writers, it's just a matter of time

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Jun 27, 2008 em Journalism Basics

Writing coach Jim Stasiowski led the reporters in API's first Writers' Boot Camp through the mantra on the first day of the seminar: "I never have enough time," they chanted three times in unison.

"There," Stasiowski said, "now we can get that out of our systems."

Reporters never will have enough time to work on all the story ideas or turn in absolutely perfectly polished prose on deadline. They might as well acknowledge that fact and pay more attention to the other factors in their work they can control.

Later in the week, when we asked these reporters to tell us what prevented them from doing their best work every day, lack of time was not an available answer. Yet the issue of time kept showing up in their responses, although it might not have been stated specifically.

Procrastination, feeling shortchanged when it comes to planning and organization, lack of focus - these are some of the common problems the reporters shared. And they are all symptoms of poor time management.

Daily deadlines are a good cure for procrastination; they can energize reporters in the short term to get the job done. But they can also train reporters to settle for less, get the paper out, and create longer-lasting frustration that can sap energy overall and cause reporters to rethink their career choice. They never get to the life-changing stories that attracted them to journalism in the first place. Why is this happening?

Reporters need to better manage the limited time they have - and they must rely on editors for guidance. A large part of an editor's job is to help reporters focus on what's important. Of course, that means editors must manage their time, too.

Here's a partial list of what editors and reporters can do to make the most of the time they have.

Assigning Editors:

1. Be clear yourself on the goals for your section. What do you want to accomplish? Saying no to things your paper has always done can free you to concentrate on the steps you'll need to take to accomplish your goals.

2. Clearly communicate your vision and help your staff set priorities. If you say you want more enterprise work in the paper, you have to make it possible for reporters to pursue their own ideas. Rearrange their schedules; reshuffle their assignments; eliminate the activities that don't support your goals. Find a way that they can pursue the stories that inspire and motivate them, and they'll have more energy for the job in general.

3. Re-evaluate the workload. Several reporters in our survey mentioned being spread too thin or caught up in routine duties that aren't meaningful to them. Are these tasks crucial for your readers? Then find a way to get the work done without overburdening your creative staff. If they serve no useful purpose, eliminate - or at least, minimize - them.

4. Rethink those management cliches imbedded in your brain. Tough times might make the tough get going - but for how long? The philosophy of doing more with less has a way of raising blood pressure and lowering morale throughout the newsroom. Instead, find ways to work smarter, not harder. There's a clichй that most reporters can take to heart.

5. Give direction early on, and you will save your reporters time in the long run. Help them generate story ideas, then help them focus their ideas so they're not wasting time trying to cover a topic that's too broad. Give short bits of feedback early and often along the way. Give reporters more guidance in their daily routines, but resist the urge to micro manage. What does your staff want from you? Access, direction, feedback, coaching. Give them what they want, then stand back and let them do their work.

6. Take the time to help your reporters set personal career goals - then create a system for achieving them. In addition to helping them focus and be more productive, you'll inspire greater loyalty.

Reporters:

1. Get a planner - and use it. Get one you like, so that the time you spend with it is pleasurable. If you enjoy tech gadgets, splurge on the electronic palm device you've been lusting after. You'll like keeping track of events and plans with it.

2. Be goal oriented. If you don't have a goal, here's one from Walt Harrington, a frequent API discussion leader: to publish one year from today an imaginary book, "The Best Stories of (your name here)." What are the stories you want to see in that book? Will it include the stories that are really important to you? How many years are you willing to wait until it does?

3. Use the planner to schedule the tasks that will get you to your goal. Don't simply make it a To Do List. Break down your goal into small steps and write the steps in your planner. What will you do today to get one step closer to producing the story you're passionate about? Who will you talk to? What information will you gather? Check off each task when it's completed and celebrate these accomplishments.

4. Plan to take at least one step a day to get you closer to your goal, and do it early in the day so the thought of it will not sap the energy you need to keep up with the taxing assignments. Making headway on your goal can also give you a psychological boost to tackle other tasks with more enthusiasm.

5. Surround yourself with personal inspiration. Some people keep photos on their desks or funny keepsakes stuck to their computers. Keep some upbeat audio tapes in the car. When you're stuck in traffic, you can listen to something motivating while you wait. Audio books are another great escape, and they can also inspire great writing. The rhythm and detail of great literature can permeate your unconscious and help you craft better stories.

6. Identify your creative triggers and arrange your workday around them. Carl Sessions Stepp, another of the discussion leaders for Writers' Boot Camp, has found that certain routines and rituals people go through can awaken their creative muse. What are yours? As much as possible, manipulate your environment to include the creativity boosts you need to get the work done. To prime the pump, Sessions Stepp recommends that reporters stage creative moments: Think of the last time you were inspired - in the shower, in the car on the way to work, on your morning walk -- and go back there. Keep paper and pen handy to jot down ideas.

7. Set aside five minutes at every step along the way in the writing process - generating the story idea, reporting, organizing, warming up, writing, revising, and editing -- to get organized. Collect your thoughts in the car before you rush into the newsroom din every morning. Find a place at work away from your desk where you can shut the world out. If it's helpful, team up with another reporter who can be your sounding board when you need to talk through your ideas.

Mary Glick is an associate director at the American Press Institute.