Before I ever considered reporting the news, I wrote fiction. For fiction writers, the story is usually finished (or abandoned) when the text feels immoveable, or after countless redrafts and edits. It’s about the story, no matter how much time it takes to write it.
In journalism, the story is subservient to time. Timing is everything, and as important as what you produce can be the time in which it takes to do it. A news story isn’t a masterpiece penned within an eternity. It’s the best possible draft written when there’s no time at all.
I learned this the hard way while interning for The Wall Street Journal’s Greater New York section last summer.
For one assignment during my first week, I returned to the office with a heap of notes, some of which would be used for color in a national story due that night. I learned quickly that I returned far too late, and that the U.S. desk needed my feed as soon as possible.
My editor gave me a few minutes to put things together, and I froze. I had some idea of where to begin, but the English language had apparently buried itself with the rest of my notes.
After a second visit from my editor to hurry things up, and a single deep breath that took several more seconds, I did the best I could and filed my portion.
It was my first defeat of the summer. I learned that I was a slow writer, a clumsy thinker when the clock’s comfort eroded and, consequently, a bad reporter. After writing nearly a hundred stories in college and at a previous internship, perhaps I was still taking too long to get the facts and report them.
The Journal proved to be the best training ground for time management, where the deadlines were more rigorous and the standard of good work demanded more from me than in prior newsrooms.
By the end of the summer and after a hundred teachable moments, here’s what I learned in my relays against time:
Write more slowly
When the deadline was only minutes away, my brain would still kick into overdrive. Faster thinking would mean faster copy, right? Not necessarily. Instead, “faster” usually meant I had to retread the same sentence until it read well.
When editors reviewed the copy, I observed their Zen approach to writing. “Think twice, write once,” they might have said, slowly deleting a sentence they didn’t like, thinking for a few moments how it should read and then keying, word by word, what they imagined. They would still retrace their steps and correct a phrase or two, but their decisions were finalized once they hit the page.
Track time to save time
By the end of the summer, I knew I could reach the uppermost part of Manhattan in 30 minutes from our office in Midtown, and the borough of Queens in 45 minutes if the stars aligned and the trains were on schedule. During the ride, I could research, think of questions and even write the nut graph if I had the information.
Much more difficult to do in the backseat of a speeding taxi, I learned, so if I needed to catch a cab back to the office, I knew it would be faster to file first.
I noted how long it took to get to certain areas of New York City and sought advice from native staffers on the fastest routes.
While keeping track, I realized the obvious: that everything takes time (and patience, as counterintuitive as it sounds), and while my mind enjoyed racing to a crime scene in a millisecond, my body needed to get there as well.
Some editors and reporters offered their own advice on time management. Greater New York’s news editor, Michael Saul, said he wrote his stories mentally as they developed so that when he reached his desk he had a clearer idea of where to begin. Some reporters allocated more time to color coding, highlighting and organizing their notes to simplify the writing process.
As I got a better handle on time management, I realized how futile a one-size-fits-all method is to approaching stories. While 400 words might take 20 minutes to write in one situation, another story of the same length could demand an hour to produce, depending on the reporting required.
Adaptation and embracing the nuances of every story (and their deadlines) became the only constants in using my time well. For a novice like me, this often led to trial-and-error judgments, like choosing to stick around a scene longer than I could afford to gather better voices.
Doubt would absolutely halt the momentum required to push my stories forward, and so reporting was no place for overthinking. Quick, creative decisions needed to be made, from the story’s organization to the questions that were missing to the ideas that deserved the most space. Relying on my gut saved me time more than once.
The struggle between filing my best work and meeting the deadline inevitably led to compromise. One reporter mentioned this over drinks, and so I think that reality doesn’t change with experience. At several points in a story’s life I had to move on and let go.
For a creative writer who secretly trusted his own perfectionism, I dreaded eventually getting comfortable with the idea of my stories simply sufficing.
The truth wasn’t that I was curbing my standards. Instead, I was learning how to “kill your darlings,” advice given to storytellers regardless of their medium. The hope was that I was not only becoming a better writer but a better reporter as well.