I 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 journalism but it applies to the kind of professional copywriting I do at Articulate Marketing.
This article contains my summary notes from the last time I read it. It’s a long post but easy to scan. I still recommend reading the whole book and this post is a sprat to catch a mackerel.
You can buy Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work from Amazon.
The Craft of a Reporter
The Craft of a Writer
- Write with information: specific revealing details, concrete images, quotations, statistics, records, facts. Individualise by specific detail.
- Accuracy. Get the names right.
- First the lede. If you get the information the reader needs in the sequence they need it, the rest will follow. Write seventy five ledes.
- Less is more. Clarity, grace, simplicity, varying sentence, writing as simply as the subject allows. Worry about length after five typewritten lines.
- Get out of the way of the story and let it tell itself.
- Encourage able editors by thanking them for their feedback, encouraging them to call you at home and treat them and the editing process with respect.
Writing to deadlines
- Know the limits. Understand the budget, schedule, context, purpose and audience.
- Focus. Bring all the elements of the story together somehow. A line or fragment that creates a tension.
- Select and develop. Pick the key one, two or three points (if they are related) and develop them within the limits of length.
- Order. Find the racing line.
- Write fast. A flood tide towards meaning. Quickness evades the censor.
- Write out loud.
- Edit: explore, focus, rehearse, draft, develop, clarify. Process discipline helps the writer. Prewriting, discovery drafts, ledes. Be disciplined about time – it’s a matter of economics.
- Write with information: revealing details, concrete images, quotations, stats, facts
- Accuracy – objectivity comes from not making facts up not by distancing yourself
- First the lede – draft 50 ledes
- Less is more: use strong verbs, tell by revealing
Use your senses
- Sense of change
- Effect and consequences
Ask the reader’s questions
A good reporter is forever astonished at the obvious.
- Change point of voice
- Role play
- Read new magazines outside your interest area
- Try another genre
- Try free writing
- Avoid stereotypes (e.g. CEOs are workaholics)
Find the tension
- Line: tension, conflict, irony, energy, discover, play, music, form
- Qualities of a good story: information, focus, context, faces, form, voice
- “Write what makes you happy.”
Rehearse: writing before writing
- Give assignments to the subconscious
- Talk to yourself
- Make notes and outlines
- Lead with the lede.
- Not: cluttered, flabby, dull, mechanical, closed or predictable
- Think about: focus, context, form, evidence, voice, authority, audience, length, pace, order
- Possible forms
- News, anecdote, quotation, umbrella, descriptive, announcement, tension, problem, historical, narrative, question, POV, reader identification, face, scene, dialogue, process
- what one thing?
- what would make a reader say ‘listen to this…’
- What surprised you?
- Is there an essential anecdote
- An image that reveals the story
- Where’s the conflict
- How will this affect readers
- What’s going on
- Why should anyone read the story
- Is there a telling metaphor
- What voice?
- Who? Face?
- Where’s the tension?
- A quote?
- Which elements of the story connect and how?
- What is the shape of the story?
- What generalizations can be made about it?
- What questions must be answered?
- What’s the best form?
- How can I summarise the story?
- A telling specific?
- What is the story’s history
- What problems must be solved
- What’s the central event?
- What is my opinion?
- Should I tell the story?
- Why did this story happen?
- What is the process?
- Wonder at the commonplace
- Circle the subject
- Use a zoom lens
- Where’s the fight
- Reveal the characters through the story
- Hear them talk
- Accuracy of fact and context
- Revealing details
- As short as possible but not shorter
- What’s the voice of the story
- Talk with (not at or to) the reader
- Listen to what you write (read it out loud)
- Know yourself
- Welcome the difference problem or opposition
- Confront your fears
- Write faster than your censor
- Try a way of writing you have used before
Tricks of the trade
- Ask the readers questions
- Collect abundant details
- Use POVs
- Listen for the key / opening line
- Say one thing
- Write without notes
- Write many ledes
- Write easily
- Write with your ear
- Show don’t tell
- Write with information
- Answer the reader’s questions
- Cut anything that doesn’t move the story forward
- Stop mid-sentence if interrupted so you can easily pick up your thread
- Be your own editor: read for meaning, read for structure, read for language
- Write five readers’ questions
- List as many sources
- Imagine you are the subject
- Read clips but don’t be swayed
- Pay attention to what surprises you
- How much of yourself to reveal
- Listen to what and HOW people say stuff
- Observe the subjects world and work
- Take notes as well as tape
- Try to do three interviews – one to meet, one for info and one to follow up
- Ask subjects to describe themselves
- Be a professional ignoramus
- Research enough so you don’t ask foolish questions
- Sensible curiosity
- Intense attention
- Respond deftly and intelligently
- Most people dislike and mistrust reporters
- Always keep off the record assurances
Prepare to write
- One sentence summary
- List 3-5 specific pieces of information thread into the story
- Visualise and draw the story
- Use dialogue as well as quotations
- Find a revealing action
- Consider anecdotes
- Give the reader a trail
- Use active verbs
- Use a different connotation
- Specific bits of information
- Revealing details
- Give the reader an image
- Describe a process
- Use senses
- Use analogy
- What works
- What needs work? Context, documentation, faces, voices, voice, distance, first person, setting, action, chronology, answer readers’ questions
- Turn traitor on your own copy
- Read fast for meaning
- Half speed for evidence
- Slowly for language
- Lead – focus, tone and shade
- Bullet – 3-5 main points
- Summary of sources, art etc.
Don’t lecture on why the story should be run, it should be obvious.