Monday, February 13, 2012

J-school: Your writing style

How do you write? Do you have to write the lead first? Do you start in the middle?

My wife, a career copy editor, had to cover events early in her career, and she had to find that elusive lead before she could proceed. Sometimes she'd find her lead while driving back to the newspaper; other times, she'd sit and stare at the computer screen, looking for Divine intervention. She's joked that it might take 45 minutes of staring at the screen to get started; I hope she was kidding.

Many years ago, I worked with a guy who had a system I'd never seen. He'd type in information in separate paragraphs. He'd put a quote here, a fact there. He'd basically dump his notes into the system in a scattershot manner, then try to make sense of them. Strangely, I recently found another colleague doing the same thing. It seemed odd to me, but it apparently worked for them.

Me? I work somewhere in the middle. I'm a fairly slow writer normally, and I like to give myself time for editing; so I need ways to speed up and make deadline.

If that lead hits me early, I write it and go on from there. Most times, though, I just start writing with no regard to lead. I might put an Associated Press lead — Joe Schmoe scored 24 points last night as Harvard beat ... — to get me started. At times, I've "found" my lead in the fifth, 15th or 19th paragraph. Other times, I'll be writing, and that lead will come to me. I'll go to the top, write in the lead, then go back and finish the story.

For a newspaper article, I might have a goal of 500 words. I'll write 600 words, then go back and pare it down to 490. Then I'll add 50 or 60 words of good information and then trim that near my 500-word goal.

A few years ago, I was covering a high-school football playoff game in the boondocks, and my deadline of 11:15 p.m. worried me. As I often do, I sat writing the game as it happened. I'd type in touchdown drives and big plays and turning points.

After the game ended, I did my interviews and was placed in the assistant principal's office. I inserted the quotes, added a little color and did my edits. I sent the story, and the assistant sports editor (now the sports editor) was stunned when I called at 10:30, 45 minutes ahead of deadline. Speed had nothing to do with it; it was all preparation.

I've worked with guys who were slower than Christmas, including one who is a great writer and a terrific self-editor. I've worked with others who are just slow. And still others are good writers with great speed. I know a former Associated Press writer who can write copy as fast as most people can copy a story that was already finished.

Advice: Don't worry about writing. Use your own writing style. Get your facts straight and be on time. Read your story a time or two to catch typos and factual errors, then let it rip. Your editor will be pleased.

Contact: I can be reached at or Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

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