Writing to Deadline in ten minutes

Posted by Matthew Stibbe
Picture of Matthew Stibbe
on 29 January 2007
Advice How to write Writing tools Writing

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 we do at Articulate Marketing

In fact, the lessons in the book are essential for our written marketing activities. 

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 WorkWriting to Deadline in ten minutes 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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  • 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


  • 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?


  • 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)

Invite surprise


  • Know yourself
  • Welcome the difference problem or opposition
  • Connect
  • Play
  • 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

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  • 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
  • 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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