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Words of Wisdom

The funny thing about writing is that whether you're doing well or doing it poorly, it looks the exact same. That's actually one of the main ways that writing is different from ballet dancing.

— John Green

November 2009

MEGHAN: Howdy Ags and welcome back to “Write Right.” Today we are continuing our conversation on journalism with Dale Rice, Director of Journalism Studies here at Texas A&M University.  In our last episode Mr. Rice discussed the steps to writing a news story. Today we are talking to him about the importance of deadline writing in the news business.

Here’s what Mr. Rice had to say about the topic of deadline writing.

MR. RICE: If you’re not going to be a good writer on deadline you’re never going to succeed as a journalist. That is going to be the primary way in which you are judged early in your career; how well do you write on deadline? And so, in class,  I’ve had people every semester say, ‘Well what happens if you don’t finish it by the deadline?’ That is not an option; you have to turn in the best job you can do by the deadline. It may not be the best job you can do if you had an extra fifteen minutes, an extra two hours, or extra two days, but if that’s the deadline for the story and it needs to be in the next day’s paper then you have to finish it by that deadline. And so, what you have to do as a deadline writer is say to yourself, ‘What is the best job I can do within that amount of time?’ So that may mean that you don’t have time to search for the absolute most clever way to say something, that you don’t have time to look for the interesting and varied ways to construct the story. You know, what you have to think about when you’re deadline writing—what are the most important facts? How do I just get them into the paper and get them there quickly? And I can give you in a sense a really good personal example of how critical that can become. The Dallas school board, when I was the education reporter for the Dallas Times Herald, was about to make one of its critical decisions on a new desegregation plan. And dozens and dozens and dozens of people showed up to the school board meeting and they talked and talked and talked for hours because they  all had the opportunity to get up as part of a public hearing. And that moved the board’s time for taking action from like eleven to eleven-thirty, from midnight to twelve-thirty, to one am. At a point in which, when I called the newsroom and said to the lone editor still on duty waiting for my story, ‘They’re going to take action as soon as they stop talking,’ he said, ‘Okay here is what we’ve had to do, we are holding the presses, and we are holding a ten-inch space for you, six columns across the top of page one, and you’ve got to give it to me within minutes of it happening.’ And so fifteen or twenty minutes later, when the board actually voted on the thing, I had to go in to the telephone, call, and simply dictate the story that would fit in that amount of space. And what do you do when you’re dictating a story like that? You do what you would do if you were going back and actually sitting at a keyboard and having time to write: you think about what are the most pertinent facts that I’m going to put in the lead; what am I going to support that lead with, in a couple of paragraphs; what am I going to say in my nutgraf, and then what are the very best quotes and supporting pieces of information I can give? And I’m thinking to myself, I have ten paragraphs, each one inch, each one just four lines long to do it. So you do that and you think about those things, and it become a way of thinking. If you’re going to be a good deadline writer that’s how you have to think; you have to think about how to compartmentalize what you’re working on and how to do it quickly and not to worry, ‘Gee, maybe I could of said that a better way.” You don’t have the luxury of worrying or second guessing yourself on something like that.

MEGHAN: What tips do you have for becoming a better deadline writer?

MR. RICE: On your way to the newsroom you have got to write that lead in your head, whether you’re walking several blocks back to a newsroom or driving a few minutes across town. You have to use that time to say, ‘Okay what is going to be the lead of my story? What is going to be the most important supporting information I’m going to use, and what am I going to say in that nutgraf?’ And you walk in knowing those kinds of things. You do not think about other kinds of things on your way back to the news room, sit down at a key board, and begin thinking there. You have to have done your thinking. And so, that’s one of the things to be a good deadline writer, you have to think on the go. You know, you always have to be thinking about and anticipating what am I going to be needing to do in ten minutes, in thirty minutes, in one hour?

MEGHAN: What tips do you have for organizing the information while you are reporting?

MR. RICE: Your at a meeting and dozens of people are talking, and of course you’re taking notes on what all of them are saying, but are you really going to use all of that information? On deadline, no you’re not. So you need to be thinking to yourself, ‘Ooh somebody just said something fabulous.’ What I would do, and I had my reporter’s notebook, I would fold the corner of the page when you know I’m madly writing, and I’m going, ‘Oh that’s great.’ I’d fold that page up, crease it, and go on to the next. So that when I knew that I had to go back and find four or five really good quotes to put in my story, and I had fifty pages of notes, I didn’t have to leaf through fifty pages of notes looking for it. I’d already marked where the good quote was so  I could go directly back to it. And those are little tricks you learn over the years as a journalist. And that’s one of the advantages that you have in journalism education, of if you’re taking a course from somebody who has been a working journalist. You get not just kind of the textbook example of what you should be doing, but you get a lot of the practical education that’s come from the experience of doing it over and over and over again.

MEGHAN: As college students, we are used to writing papers last minute, but with deadline writing, procrastination is not allowed. You usually only have a few hours to come up with a story idea, do research and conduct interviews, and write the story. In Dale Rice’s Media Writing I and II, you will gain experience deadline writing.  Each day, you will be expected to research an issue, report on it, and write a 400-600 word story by the end of class.

Even if you don’t plan on going into a career in journalism, learning how to write on deadline can be helpful in improving your overall writing skills.  Writing on deadline teaches you to organize your ideas quickly, write clearly and concisely, and revise your work in a timely manner.

In our next episode Dale Rice will discuss the difference between hard news and feature news writing.  Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Write Right, we’ll see you next time.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute The University Writing Center, Texas A&M University.

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