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In the Newsroom, Writing Fast is as Important as Writing Well

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In the Newsroom, Writing Fast is as Important as Writing Well

Student journalists at work

Photo by Tony Rogers

Beginning journalism students worry a lot about writing well, which is important. But they must also learn to write fast.

Why? Because newsrooms move fast. Deadlines are constant. And being a terrific writer won't matter much if you can't get your stories in on time.

This is more important than ever because newsrooms are moving faster than ever. Back in the day, newspaper reporters only had to worry about the deadline for the printed paper, which was often in the late afternoon or early evening. So if you covered a press conference at 10 a.m. your deadline might not have been until 6 p.m., giving you six or more hours to write the story, with time for lunch thrown in.

Those days are gone. Now newspapers have websites that have to be updated continually. So instead of having all day to write that press conference story you have to bang it out ASAP for the website. Deadlines that once stretched on for hours are now measured in minutes.

So yes, focus on writing well. But also learn to write fast. How? By forcing yourself to finish your stories quickly. Most deadline news stories - ones that typically run 500 to 1,000 words - can be written in an hour or less. So when you sit down to write, note the time, and force yourself to finish the piece in under an hour.

The key? Don't agonize over your copy. Don't worry about whether every sentence is brilliant prose. Just get the lede right, and the rest of the story should fall into place.

In other words, don't fuss too much over all the stuff your English teachers told you to worry about; just get the words into the computer, and revise as you go. Often you'll find that fussing over your writing doesn't help much anyway.

In fact, many experienced reporters will tell you that some of their best stories were done on very tight deadlines, when they didn't have time to think very much at all about what they were writing; they just had to write, to get the story done.

A great example of this is a story I always tell my students about Rick Bragg, who used to write for The New York Times. On the day of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995, Bragg was working in the Times' Atlanta bureau. An editor called from New York with a simple command - get the first flight out to Oklahoma City and cover the story.

Bragg rushed to the airport, caught the flight, landed in Oklahoma City and rushed to the scene. By the time he'd done his reporting he had just an hour or so to write a story on what was, before 9/11, the worst terror attack in U.S. history. Bragg finished the piece on deadline and ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize, journalism's highest honor, for that and several other stories he'd done.

In describing that experience Bragg said, "The Oklahoma City bombing, that story was easy to write because I had no time and I went on automatic. ... You really don't have any time to think about it."

The good thing about writing fast is that it's not rocket science. Force yourself to do it, and the more you do it the better you'll get at it. It's that simple. Over time you'll discover something - stories that once took you an hour to write will eventually only take 45 minutes, then 30 minutes and then even 15.

In fact, experienced writers at places like The Associated Press, where reporters are expected to turn out lots of copy, sometimes end up writing seven or eight stories a day. It's not impossible. It just takes practice.

A good way to start is with newswriting exercises. I have a bunch of them here. Try writing the first one as fast as you can. Then go back and revise. Then move on to the next one. Each time focus on increasing your speed.

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