Ask TON: How do you juggle assignments?

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. (Click here to see previous installments.)

Today’s question: How many stories are you working on at one time, and how do you manage your assignments so that you’re not over- or underworked?

Kat McGowan, journalist and editor:

In the last six weeks, I’ve been working on eight projects for seven editors at four publications, which is about the limits of what I can keep track of. Trafficking multiple assignments simultaneously is an invisible time suck, and the time that is consumed by task-switching rises exponentially with more stories or projects to track, especially if they are short. The best way to avoid this is to try to get predictable recurrent projects (column, editing gig) that serve as the anchor points of your schedule, and build everything else around that. Another tactic that helps is taking fewer longer assignments, or bundling together short ones with the same editor and publication).

Beyond that, I’ve got no secrets. I am always either underworked or overworked. I’ve been freelancing on and off for more than 15 years, and I’ve given up trying to control the flow. It’s more being able to turn on your afterburners when you need to, and know that sometimes, you’ll have to work some extremely long days and/or work very quickly.  Just accept that it’s going to be patchy — try not to lose composure when everything happens simultaneously, and get everything else in life done when there is downtime, in preparation for the next wave of assignments and edits. Embrace the uncertainty! It keeps life interesting.

That said, full and early communication with editors helps avoid or mitigate some crises. I have also been an editor for long stretches of my career, which has made me very familiar with the doom and panic that consumes editorial offices when deadlines approach. If I know I’m going to be swamped or unavailable, I try to anticipate the problem and let the editor know as early as possible (i.e., before they’ve asked for a quick turnaround on an edit).

Rebecca Boyle, independent journalist:

Well, I was hoping to write this response before I left for Chile, but I ran out of time…which I guess is the beginning of my answer to this question. I am usually working on way too many things at once, and I am not great at managing assignments so I’m not overworked. I (almost always) make my deadlines, and I am getting better at turning down work if I know I don’t have time for it, but I think I do take on too many things at once. I’ve never had a problem with deadlines until probably the last six months, when the amount of work on my plate has reached its apex.

When I do extend a deadline, it’s almost always for a feature story that I am putting off to fulfill my blogging responsibilities (with the same editors), and my editors know I will get it done later. So far, I haven’t had to stop working on an assignment mid-stream or anything like that. What’s more, in the past few months I have had a nasty case of writers’ block for the first time in my career, so things are taking a bit longer than normal.

At any given time on a given day, I am usually working on at least a couple features in various stages of reporting/writing, and at least two to four blog posts. Today, for example, I just got back from a trip to the Atacama Desert for the new ALMA radio telescope inauguration — so I’m working on at least four separate short stories and features related to that. Then here is the rest of my list:

  • 3 features for PopSci.com
  • Other magazine piece
  • Piece for a children’s magazine
  • Researching blog piece for another magazine
  • Fact-checking in progress for a European magazine
  • Rewrites of technical info for a corporate client
  • Plus 3x/week blogging duty for PopSci.com
  • Plus, theoretically, writing pitches for new publications

This stuff is all on my list for the next week. So I think I clearly take on too much, which is a function of having been the sole breadwinner in my household for the past three years. Turning down work is literally turning down money, and for a long time I just didn’t feel like I could do that, especially after the scary experience of being laid off from a newsroom job. But now that I am a little more established as a freelancer, I feel more empowered to say no to assignments that either don’t pay well enough, or that I’m just not interested in doing. Still, if any TON readers have some advice about how to manage workflow better, I’m all ears!

Melinda Wenner Moyer, freelance science and health journalist:

I wish I could share the Moyer Formula for Managing a Perfect Workflow, but…there isn’t one. I just use my intuition and experience. At any given moment I might be working on between three and 10 stories (it dropped to zero once last year and I almost had a heart attack!), and the number changes based on the types of assignments I have and when they are due. So let’s say an editor emails me asking if I’ll take on a story. First I evaluate the story. Is it a 200-word news piece or a 2,000-word feature? If it’s a feature, is it a bullet-point service feature or a narrative feature (more work and might involve travel)? Is it a topic I know well, or something about which I know nothing? And of course, last but certainly not least, does the assignment interest me, and does it pay enough or provide enough exposure to be worthwhile?

Once I’ve figured all that out in my head (and assuming I have answered “yes” to the last question), I think about what else is on my schedule and how the reporting for this new piece might fit in. I’ll say, OK, I’ve got that 1,200-word story due next Monday, but I’ve pretty much finished reporting it; but I do have a ton of interviews and reading left to do for that feature due in mid-March. And then there’s the other piece I might need to travel for next week, which will eat up a whole three days. And there’s that feature edit that’s probably going to come back to me next week, which I might have to re-work quickly. Does that leave enough time for me to report and write this new piece in time? I basically try to envision my work days if I accept the assignment versus if I don’t. As a rule, like to stay quite busy—on the edge of over-busy—but I don’t want to feel totally overwhelmed and be forced to work evenings and weekends. It’s a tough balance, and I don’t always achieve it. I have slow weeks that irk me (though these are usually when I get to pitch new story ideas, so they’re important too) and super busy weeks that really stress me out.

As for managing my assignments once I have them, again, I don’t have a formula or even a smart spreadsheet. (Regarding blogging, I don’t do much of that anymore, but I do have a bi-weekly column for Slate that is always on my mind.) But I always try to begin reporting intimidating pieces (like features) immediately, especially if they’re topics I don’t know well. I try to find the key players in the field, reach out to them to set up interviews and ask for leads, and start reading studies or reports or whatever I can find, really. I might end up taking breaks — even lengthy ones — from the reporting, a few days or weeks in to tackle other stuff, but I always do some initial reporting right away, to give me a feel for the assignment and how much work it’s going to require. Sometimes, I find, the reporting goes in directions that I never could have anticipated — I might catch wind of some crazy theory or cover-up that I need to investigate — and it’s far, far better to stumble upon these surprises two weeks before a deadline than two days before it. Also, reporting right away means that if something goes wrong or I realize I need more time, I can notify the editor well before the deadline. They usually appreciate that.

For features in particular, I also find that I need to re-group multiple times during my reporting to make sure I’m doing what I should be doing. This is especially important for me because I write for very different audiences, and I always need to remind myself what angle(s) will be most appropriate (and this is not always the angle I myself find the most interesting). Right now, for instance, I’m working on an investigative feature for Cosmopolitan (my first!), and I have thought a lot about structure and direction because I want to make sure I’m addressing the aspects of the issue (which is huge) that young women will find most compelling and important. About halfway through my reporting (about a month before my deadline), I sat down and thought about possible structures so that I could identify holes in my reporting; sure enough, I realized that there was a section I wanted to include that I had barely reported. Again, I don’t do this methodically; a lot of the re-grouping and structuring happens in my head when I’m taking my dog for a walk or taking a shower, but the important thing is that it happens.

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