Most people can write. Fewer can write well. Fewer still can write well on demand, day after day, at the rate and consistency required to make a living at it. A handful of people can do all that while also creating great works of art. As a result, writing carries both a well-earned reputation for difficulty, and a largely unjustified mystique. It’s the hardest part of my job as a science journalist, and the most over-glamorized skill I have.
That’s because I, like every other working journalist, am not creating great works of art. All I need to achieve is the level of workmanlike competence required to write the news. I’m not in the studio vying for eternal fame with the literary masters; I’m out back building the deck.
Time to get to work.
In science journalism, the hardest part of writing a story is thinking: figuring out how to explain complex, highly technical experiments and results to an audience unfamiliar with the field. To do that, I first have to understand those experiments and results myself; you can’t explain what you don’t know.
Fortunately, I almost always have access to the researchers who did the work, and can talk to them to get one-on-one tutoring. Between those interviews and close readings of their published papers, I eventually learn enough to tell the story. My beat focuses on fields I already know reasonably well, so in most cases I can get up to speed without much trouble.
At that point, I’ll have some handwritten notes and an automatically generated transcript from the interview, plus a text file of additional notes and links from my background research. From those materials and the specifications for the assignment, I put together an outline.
The level of detail in the outline depends on the length and complexity of the story. For a 500 word brief about a new paper, the outline might be little more than a reminder at the top about the subject and word count, and a placeholder for the headline. I’ve done this long enough that the rest of the structure for such a short piece is already in my head. In contrast, a 3,000 word feature article covering a whole sub-field, with five or six source interviews underlying it, requires a more elaborate outline, which I’ll spend some time rearranging and thinking about before I even begin writing.
Regardless of the size of the work, I have a few rules of thumb. The introduction should be no more than about 10% of the total word count. Short pieces should almost always put the standard Five Ws in the lede or as close as possible to it. At the end, I need a concluding sentence, quote, or paragraph that somehow draws the story to a close, again in less than 10% of the total word count. Anything over a thousand words should have sub-headings breaking up the text. I also make a note of my target word counts for each section, and make sure they add up to the assigned count.
Once I have my outline, I write from beginning to end and edit as I go. I’ve met writers who prefer to blast straight through a first draft before going back to edit the whole thing, and others who write individual sections, working out of order, before adding the lede and conclusion. There are still others who will launch into writing even the longest pieces without any outline at all, a thought I find terrifying.
On a good day, working from a solid outline and editing as I go, I can write at about 1,000 WPM. That’s words per morning. I might be able to manage another thousand in the afternoon, and if I’m on deadline I can even grind on past that, but the process gets slower the longer it continues. As a result, it’s more efficient for me to continue writing on consecutive mornings instead of pushing ahead the same day, if the deadline allows it.
This discussion of word counts and deadlines raises an important distinction between workaday journalism and literary writing. While novelists can choose to tell a story in 50,000 or 500,000 words, and finish their masterpieces at their own pace, journalists work in a more industrial setting. If I’m assigned to write a 1,000 word piece and turn it in next Tuesday, submitting 2,000 words will make my editor hate me, and finishing on Wednesday is out of the question.
I am a contractor building parts for larger projects. Those parts need to fit the specifications the editor gave me, and they need to show up on time. These are not my rules, they’re fundamental commandments of journalism. When I was an adjunct professor in the science journalism program at NYU, the classroom where I taught had an engraved plaque mounted to the wall next to the whiteboard. It said: Better Never than Late. Words to live by.
In the same spirit, I never think of a story I turn in as a “first draft,” even if the editor I’m working with uses that term. My goal is to submit a piece that could be sent straight to press without embarassing me or the publication; it’s as good as I can make it. That’s a matter of both pride and business. My editors are not my bosses, they’re my customers, and customers who’ve gotten exactly what they wanted are customers who’ll be calling me again.
Follow a repeatable process. Understand the story. Nail the word count. Hit the deadline. That basic formula, and not any mysterious artistic talent, is what’s kept me working in this business for twenty-five years. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some more decks to build.