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.

Writing to Deadline coverThis 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

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • How
  • Why

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.
  • Rehearse.
  • 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.

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Story

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • How
  • Why
  • 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

Process

  • Explore
  • Focus
  • Rehearse
  • Develop
  • Clarify

Use your senses

  • Hearing
  • Touch
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Sense of change
  • Effect and consequences
  • Conflict
  • Context
  • Self

Ask the reader’s questions

A good reporter is forever astonished at the obvious.

  • Brainstorm
  • Change point of voice
  • Compost
  • 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

30 Questions

  • 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
  • Where?
  • 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
  • POV?
  • 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?

Vision

  • Wonder at the commonplace
  • Circle the subject
  • Use a zoom lens
  • Where’s the fight
  • Reveal the characters through the story
  • Hear them talk

Information

  • Accuracy of fact and context
  • Revealing details
  • As short as possible but not shorter

Voice

  • What’s the voice of the story
  • Talk with (not at or to) the reader
  • Listen to what you write (read it out loud)

Invite surprise

Attitudes

  • Know yourself
  • Welcome the difference problem or opposition
  • Connect
  • Play
  • Confront your fears

Techniques

  • 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

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Preparation

  • Write five readers’ questions
  • List as many sources
  • Imagine you are the subject
  • Read clips but don’t be swayed

Reporting

  • 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

Writing

  • Use dialogue as well as quotations
  • Find a revealing action
  • Consider anecdotes
  • Give the reader a trail

Description

  • 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

Develop

  • What works
  • What needs work?  Context, documentation, faces, voices, voice, distance, first person, setting, action, chronology, answer readers’ questions
  • Clarify
  • Turn traitor on your own copy
  • Read fast for meaning
  • Half speed for evidence
  • Slowly for language

Story proposals

  • Headline
  • 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.

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Matthew Stibbe

Matthew is founder and CEO of Articulate Marketing. Writer, marketer, pilot, wine enthusiast and geek. Not necessarily in that order. Never at the same time.