Book Review: Writing to Deadline

Writing to Deadline Cover 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.

13 Responses to Book Review: Writing to Deadline

  1. kusum April 24, 2007 at 6:18 am #

    hello, i am kusum i am very bad in reading and writing in english,i wanted to become a journalist.
    Can i ever become, is so what do i have to do about it.Do i have to first read and write lots of books.I have the problem of forgetting wordsin the context and even forget spellings,can you give me some advice. thankyou

  2. Charles June 1, 2007 at 7:14 pm #

    I attempted to order this volume from Amazon, but they will not deliver to the US. That’s not very nice!!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Bad Language » Blog Archive » Book review: The Pyramid Principle - February 17, 2006

    [...] Journalists (see my review of Writing to Deadline) tend to use an inverted pyramid, putting the conclusion at the top and the details afterwards. Minto wants us to put the problem first and the build a case for the proposed solution afterwards. It is, I suppose, the difference between writing to inform and writing to persuade. [...]

  2. Bad Language / Surprise and delight: ten tips for writers - June 8, 2006

    [...] Write 50 alternatives. My guru Donald Murray (see my review of Writing to Deadline) suggests drafting 50 alternative ledes. [...]

  3. Forward Blog » Blog Archive » Forward Podcast #9 :: Writing with Matthew Stibbe - September 1, 2006

    [...] 00:13: Podcast introduction. 02:08: Marcel Goldstein explains why writing is a critical skill for young PR pros. 04:47: Paull introduces Matthew Stibbe and asks him to outline his writing history and explain how he developed his passion for writing. 08:10: Matthew shares some general strategies for young writers to improve their writing. His first point is to ’see what works for you’. 09:30: Matthew’s second piece of advice – have a look at what some other people suggest and see if it works for you. Suggests The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto, Writing to Deadline by Don Murray and On Writing by Steven King. 12:18: Matthew’s third tip – read, read, read, read, read. 13:18: Matthew’s fourth tip – focus on proofreading. 15:26: Matthew’s final tip – a couple of pieces of technical advice: focus on your lead, use shorter sentences and words, find a simple way to explain something by pretending you’re at the pub having a beer. 18:57: Paull asks Matthew how young PR professionals can help improve the standard of writing in our profession. 20:43: Matthew outlines what he thinks goes wrong with PR writing. His advice: Don’t let pieces of writing be written by committee and write from the perspective of the journalist and the reader, not your client. 23:40: Matthew rallies against hype-words, jargon and ‘Franken-quoting’. 29:37: Paull concludes the podcast. [...]

  4. Bad Language / Writing to Deadline in ten minutes - January 29, 2007

    [...] am a huge fan of Donald Murray’s Writing to Deadline. (Read my review.) It is a practical guide to the art of writing.  He is a reporter and it is about [...]

  5. Bad Language / How to be a freelance journalist - January 30, 2007

    [...] Writing to Deadline, Murray (See also my recent summary of this book) [...]

  6. Bad Language / 62 ways to improve your press releases - August 7, 2007

    [...] press releases or soundbites. Donald Murray explains what a good story is and how to get it in Writing to Deadline (also available as a ten-minute [...]

  7. Bad Language / How to make money writing for the web - May 13, 2008

    [...] a writer’s bookshelf. I recommend The Pyramid Principle, The Economist Style Guide, Writing to Deadline (also see my 10-minute summary of the book), Stephen King’s On Writing (yes, really!) and [...]

  8. Bad Language / How to budget for, plan and measure writing output - June 10, 2008

    [...] exposed Richard Nixon. And it is hard to imagine that Donald Murray (guru of mine and author of Writing to Deadline) would have got a Pulitzer if his editors had only looked at quantity not [...]

  9. Writing tips online - Bad Language - March 10, 2010

    [...] and thought-provoking series. A bit like reading Donald Murray’s Writing to Deadline (see my review on this [...]

  10. The psychosis of a writer | Typing In My Notebook - March 24, 2013

    [...] In The Art of Nonfiction, Ayn Rand says that whilst you need to use the conscious mind for planning and editing, for writing you need the subconscious to be in control. Now, whilst her politics elicit quite a bit of controversy (I read her book for writing tips only) her guidance for writers seems less disputed. “I have learned to give writing tasks to my subconscious – which may, in turn, pass the assignment on to my unconscious,” says Donald Murray in Writing to Deadline.  [...]

  11. 50 words that will improve your writing - December 26, 2013

    […] Writing to Deadline by Donald M. Murray has this covered: […]

Leave a Reply