Like many writers, my first professional gig with words came at a newspaper and I still do work as a freelance journalist. Although the articles I’ve written encompass a wide variety of subjects, there are a number of fundamentals no matter the beat. When I got serious about finishing my first book, I found myself falling back to these same writing productivity tactics to help me push through. Many authors have similar backgrounds as journalists or copywriters and will already be familiar with the tips I’m going to talk about. Even so, it’s always good to brush up (it helped me just by writing this) on these habits. If you don’t have a background in another form of writing, hopefully you’ll find a tactic or two that will improve your writing productivity. With that being said here are five ways to write like a journalist:
Give yourself firm, challenging deadlines
Writing on a deadline is the MOST important lesson I learned as a journalist. Nothing gets you past writer’s block like a firm, inescapable deadline that won’t budge. There were many times when I would return from a press conference and have an hour to hand in a polished, 750 word story. As a sport reporter, I needed to have a rough draft done before the game was over. Between transcribing quotes and checking facts, I never had the luxury of spending fifteen minutes getting that one paragraph just right.
Authors, especially ones just starting out, often avoid deadlines. They don’t set firm word counts per day/week and they don’t give themselves can’t-miss publication dates. This is a bad habit to develop. Give yourself a hard deadline that’s practical but still a challenge — a little stress, a little fire under your seat is a good thing. For starters, this can be something that requires you to write, revise and edit just a little faster than you’re comfortable with. Add some accountability by telling your friends, family, readers and editors what your deadline is too. And above all else, don’t let yourself off the hook for any reason.
Don’t edit while you write
This is a habit I’m guilty of even though I know how much it bogs me down. If you’re trying to hit a faster word count goal, going back and editing while writing will derail you. Onward and upward. A rolling stone gathers no moss. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, journalists don’t have the luxury of pondering over a single paragraph for fifteen minutes, let alone hours or days. Get over yourself and just write. If you’re worried about all of those typos and sentence fragments that keep popping up, remember this: the faster you write, the more time you have to go back and edit after you’ve got a first draft. On top of that, the faster your fingers move, the less time your brain will have to second guess itself. You’ll be surprised at the quality you can produce at high speeds. If you don’t believe me, read this piece by Steven Pressfield’s editor.
Keep it concise
The beautiful thing about print newspapers is that they only have a limited amount of space in them. In our new world of digital publishing, this isn’t the case anymore, but our attention span as a human race has diminished in direct correlation as well. I’m not going to pick a side on writing short stories and novellas instead of the next Great American Novel, but I am a believer in keeping whatever your write to the point. Long, flowery, descriptive language is a beautiful thing in creative writing class, but the hard truth is that it turns off a large number of readers who aren’t literary snobs. You can still write beautiful, elegant sentences, just don’t let them morph into beautiful, elegant pages. Write for clarity, not to show off your expansive grasp of language.
Collect story ideas
No matter if you write fiction or non-fiction, I highly recommend keeping some sort of physical notebook/notepad on your phone/Google Doc/Evernote file to keep track of any random ideas that come into your head. A good journalist has story ideas planned out weeks and months ahead of time (hint: this is how you write phenomenal articles on a deadline, you plan ahead). Keep track of any ideas you have and refer back to this document often. You’ll be surprised what your mind comes up with that you’d have forgotten if you didn’t record it somewhere. If you believe in writer’s block, story ideas are a great way to get the wind in your sails again when you stall.
Use an editor
There isn’t a journalist out there worth his/her salt who doesn’t use an editor. When you’re writing on deadline, you’re going to make mistakes, even if you have time to do a self-edit before publishing. The same is true for writing a book. You’re going to make mistakes. You need an editor. Not only do quality editors make your finished product shine, they also help you improve your craft. All of us have some type of writing quirk (in my case, several) that we struggle with. An editor can point out flaws in your writing you might be blind to and help you turn them into a strengths.