Writing to Deadline is my writer’s bible. I’m nervous about even mentioning it in the same way that evil supervillains in Hollywood films ought to be nervous about monologuing their plans for world domination – it helps the competition! Still, I want to be a mensch and spread some good karma, so here is my review.
It is the distillation of Donald Murray’s experience as a journalist and a teacher. It goes straight to the process by which a writer absorbs information from first hand experience, interviews and background research and shapes them into a story which readers will find engaging.
In the 212-page book, Murray talks about how to research a story, how to find the right angle, how to ask the reader’s questions, how to structure a story, even how to write the first sentence (“thirty questions to ask to produce effective leads”).
It is full of hard-won experience and advice from someone who writes at a high level every day. For example, I was struck by Murray’s admission that he sometimes writes as many as 50 opening sentences before writing the rest of the article. He argues that this helps him get the story straight from the beginning. I don’t do this but reading it reinforced in my mind the importance of “writing without writing” as he calls this preparation phase.
Another telling insight was the empahsis on answering the readers’ questions. What will they want to know? What will they find surprising?
While the book is focused on the craft of the newspaper journalist, hence the title, I find that it is as useful for technical or marketing copy. I think this is true for two equally important reasons. First, no-one has a right to readers’ attention and time. We have to earn their trust and win their interest. This is true whether you’re writing a marketing brochure or the lead story in a national newspaper. Second, everyone is familiar with the conventions of newspaper and magazine journalism, which have evolved to serve readers.
Perhaps this area of journalistic conventions is the one area where Murray might seem a bit formalistic, especially to people in the UK who are used to a more subjective and editorialised kind of writing and, in many cases, a much more informal style. Incidentally, it is the formalism of American journalism that makes the satire of The Onion doubly effective. I have a whole thesis about this and perhaps I should save it for another post!
I originally read Writing to Deadline in an afternoon and re-read it every six months or so and I often find myself reaching for it (or the summary notes I made once) when I’m stuck on a writing problem. Of all the writers books I have, this is the one I find most useful. Apart from anything else, it teaches me some humility. Even after five years, I realise I still have a lot to learn.
Buy Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work from Amazon.