Ask TON: Mastering News Turnaround



Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

“I’d like to do more news writing to help fill the gaps between longer projects I’m working on, but I’m not used to such short deadlines, and I can’t imagine turning a story around quickly enough to write for most news outlets. I’d like to learn how to write faster, so I could turn a story around in just a few hours. Are there some good tricks people who write news use to get stories done on a tight timeline?”

Erika Engelhaupt, online science editor and blogger, National Geographic:

Newspapers use the beat system for the same reason factories use assembly lines: Practiced hands work faster. So the first trick for news writing is to write about what you know. You’ll spend less time searching for sources, researching background, and panicking about your lede.

Still, “filling the gaps” between longer projects with news is a challenge, because you don’t know when news will happen. But you can rest assured that it will happen at the worst possible time.

So look for a manageable niche. Start by telling an editor you’re available to cover news on the one or two science beats you know best. Be specific about the kinds of stories you can do, and what the publication wants. Will you pitch stories on the latest neuroscience studies? Or maybe you’re a geology ace who can quickly interview experts after the next earthquake, or a biology writer who can explain the science behind the latest viral video.

Agree on whether you will take assignments. Pitching gives you more control over timing, but taking assignments will get you more work.

Once you’ve got an assignment, be brutal with your time. Pick up the phone instead of emailing. Give yourself a deadline to stop reporting and start writing. And keep reminding yourself: write what you know.

David Grimm, online news editor, Science:

A typical online science news story—at least the ones I spend my days editing—requires an author to interview multiple sources, find art, and translate a very complex scientific paper into 600 words or so of compelling and readable prose. For those starting out in science writing, the process can take days, but experts can do it in a single day, sometimes even in an afternoon. How do they do it? Here are some tips:

  • Contact outside experts right away. These people are usually the hardest to get, and you’ll often get several rejections before one agrees to talk to you.
  • Don’t transcribe your interviews. Going through 30 or 60 minutes of recordings wastes a lot of time. Instead, take notes on a computer—getting the best quotes down—and only record as a backup.
  • Don’t waste time searching for art. Ask the researchers if they have anything. If they don’t, see if the outlet you’re working for has an art researcher and tell that person what you need.
  • As soon as you’ve got a good sense of your story—even if you haven’t interviewed everyone—write a draft. This will clue you in to what—if anything—you still need to get. You’ll also have a solid foundation to write (i.e., rewrite) your final article.
  • If your story is pretty much done but you’re still waiting to check a few last-minute facts, file the story with “CKs” and “TKs,” and check those out while your story is being edited.
  • Finally, don’t sit around waiting for things to happen—a source to get back to you, an editor to return your draft. You can always work on something else—fact checking, captions, etc.—in the meantime.

Robin Lloyd, news editor, Scientific American:

The main key to learning how to write faster is setting or receiving a tight deadline and forcing yourself to hit that deadline, even if it seems impossible. In other words, the ability to write a close-to-publishable story quickly comes with practice. I used to work for editors who would harangue me repeatedly from across the newsroom to file, file, file right now. Over time, I improved and found that I could turn around a breaking news story in less than an hour if necessary (two to four hours is more common and a lot easier). That might include reporting time. Over more time, I learned to file such a story fast and with clean copy (copy that doesn’t require a rewrite or a lot of editing by the line editor). Obviously, such a story typically cannot be long or profound, but it serves the reader by delivering news quickly and accurately. No words are wasted.

Specific tips:

  • Before writing, go through your reporting notes and star/circle/highlight the best material. If you have no notes and your reporting was just what you experienced/observed, write down a few phrases that capture what you saw and can guide your writing.
  • Using your notes, or just your memory, find your lede and write it. How do you find your lede? I simply ask myself, “What is the most interesting thing I learned in reporting this story?” Then I stack that at the top of the story as a draft lede, and then I write the second graf, which becomes a nut graf—an expansion of the lede. Then I usually go back to the lede sentence and rewrite/edit that for 5–10 minutes to make it more succinct and catchy. That refinement of the lede makes it easier to write the rest of the story more efficiently.
  • If you can’t find your lede and minutes are bleeding away as you stare at the blank page, just start writing grafs that you can write, that you know will serve as context lower in the story. Then see what you have and see what’s missing, and add those pieces, one by one if that’s all you can do. Then start to link the grafs together with transitions and you’ll start to see the shape of the story. The lede will emerge in that process, sometimes at the very end of your writing.
  • Write short. Start with a plan to write a story that’s, say, only 100 or 200 words long (even if the assignment is for a longer story). This approach lifts mental pressure and allows you to focus and find the main point of what you want to convey. Once those 100 or 200 words are written, I find there are another 300 or more that I want to add in and the story starts to “write itself.” Drop the idea that you have to tell the reader everything you know and instead think about what the one thing is, among all the things you have learned in reporting and thinking about this topic, that you want the reader to know.
  • Also drop the idea that you have to write beautiful, deep or literary prose. Your goal here is to write useful prose. With practice, it might become more beautiful, but that goal is not your friend if you want to write fast and hit that deadline.
  • Five to 10 minutes before your deadline, stop writing or reworking the lower parts of the story, no matter how much you loathe them. Instead, look at your lede and improve it by cutting unnecessary words and refining your word choices so they are exactly the words needed to express your point. Make sure to use action verbs. There is no more important part of a short, fast news story than the first sentence (and the first five words of that sentence).
  • Then, if you have time, read through the entire story one more time to smooth it out and then file, file, file it right now. If you don’t have time, forget it. Just file. It’s now your editor’s problem. The first few times you do this will probably yield disappointing results, but that’s what editors are for. You will improve with practice.
  • Manage stress, because writing deadline news is stressful. There are a thousand ways to manage the stress that arises from short-deadline writing (or the rest of life). At first, I learned some techniques for reducing stress that I would deploy after I was done writing: stand up, take a walk around your work area, get something to drink even if you don’t feel thirsty, exercise before or after work or on your lunch break, stretch, meditate, take frequent deep breaths, talk about anything with nice friends, read fiction. Over time, I’ve also added in stress reduction techniques to deploy while writing: eliminate visual distractions such as a messy field of view around your desk, take frequent deep breaths, repeat to yourself “you can do this” and “it’s easy,” turn off computer notifications and close all nonessential applications and toys including email, take sips of water/tea/coffee, shake out your wrists, stretch while seated (“office yoga”), sit in a way that makes your body feel more open and alert, make your work area as quiet as possible.
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