Tuesday, August 7, 2012

How Journalism Can Make You a Better Novelist – Deadlines

‘A Lessons From the Newsroom’ Series: Part 4

Welcome to part four of my series of lessons from the newsroom. You can see the other posts by clicking here.

Today, we’ll be talking about the dreaded d-word; that’s right – deadlines.

There are some lessons all writers could learn about deadlines from journalists.

In a newspaper office, you’ve got to write fast and you have to make your best effort to write it right the first time. Because, if you’re late turning in an article, proof department is going to be late; and if the proof department is late, the page lay-out department is going to be late; and if the page lay-out department is late, then the printer is going to be late.

And then everybody’s mad at you.

So basically, if you ever get the chance to work at a newspaper, my biggest tip is this: Don’t ignore the importance of a deadline.

But that’s just one of the results of pushing the deadline in the newspaper industry; the other is far scarier.

If you push the deadline too much, you may not get a chance to go over that story just one last time before you’re forced to turn it in for proof. It’s embarrassing when you have no choice but to turn in a piece to your editor that you know is riddled with mistakes because you couldn’t afford more time on proofreading.

It’s a good thing my editor is tolerant of my spell check dependency.

Deadlines: enemy or best friend?

"Without deadlines and restrictions
I just tend to become preoccupied with other things.”
– Val Kilmer

I work for a weekly newspaper and write around a dozen new articles each week ranging in length from advertorial snippets to feature stories and breaking news. The thing is, although the word count is not set each week, I still have to figure out what I’m writing and get it done without fail each week.

There’s something about the thrill of racing the clock, seeing what you can write in a set amount of time. Think word sprints in JuNoWriMo. Tight deadlines give you razor sharp focus, or rather, forces you to forget about the distractions.

When I was a kid, my mom would always ask me, “Why do you wait until last minute with everything?”

Back then, I always answered, “I don’t know.” But today, I understand that the proper answer is two-fold. The first reason was (and still is) procrastination. But the second reason is that there is an adrenalin rush that deadlines seem to induce.

Deadlines are scary monsters.

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
– Douglas Adams

Experts say that the pressures of a deadline can cause something like an adrenalin rush for some people. However, there are those out there on whom it can have the opposite effect. They can feel a sense of panic rising in them as the clock ticks away and it can be crippling to their creativity.

I happen to be of the type that thrives under pressure, but I’ve also experienced the panic a deadline can induce and know how readily that can overwhelm you.

There’s a trick to overcoming that desperation and for channeling that adrenalin. You basically have to let all the distractions fall away and simply do the work.

Flighty folks, just make sure you plan accordingly to give yourself plenty of time to get your writing done. Adrenalin junkies, don’t let anything interrupt your focus, including email and social networks.

Deadlines push you to push yourself.

“One forges one’s style on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines.”
– Aaron McGruder

We’ve all heard the importance of writing daily for our creativity as writers. But do you truly understand why? 

Think of it like this: Exercising a muscle (writing) will make it grow stronger. And add force or resistance to your workout (deadlines), you’ll grow even stronger yet.

The difference between a novelist and a reporter is sort of like the difference between a marathoner and a sprinter. They’re both running, but for one of them, the finish line comes up quicker.

Both the newspaper reporter and the novelist get better at writing by writing and by writing often. 

Making the deadline easier.

“A harsh reality of newspaper editing is that the deadlines don’t allow for the polish that you expect in books or even magazines.” – Bill Walsh

So newspapering has taught me that deadlines can be my best friend or my worst enemy, it’s taught me that I can produce some of my best work under pressure, and the importance of turning my work in on time to avoid awkward exchanges with my editor.

But there are also a few things that I’ve learned about making deadlines easier to handle.

Reporters are taught to write their story as soon as they can after conducting an interview. That’s because journalists’ know it’s easiest to write while things are fresh in their mind. If you get an idea, or a flash of inspiration, make every effort to take a second to write that down before it’s lost forever.

For such occasions, you should carry a notebook and a pen or pencil with you at all times. Reporters do this too. I have a minimum of four pens, two pencils and two notebooks on my person at all times. I never know when some news is going to happen that I’ll have to report on.

I’ll sum this post up by saying that deadlines and I have a love-hate relationship. But I’m curious about you. How do you handle deadlines?


  1. at one point, i hated deadlines. but it hasn't taken me too long to realize that if i didn't have them: i would actually finish anything i've started.

    so i'm someone that needs a deadline, and i thrive with them because i'll force myself to write something- ANYTHING- and i'll finally, eventually send it in. hopefully before the deadline comes.. haha

    i'm still enjoying these posts! and i liked the quotes in this one very much. great work. thank you!

  2. *would NOT actually finish anything i've started (:

  3. I definitely think journalists have the whole deadline thing down pat. Cool post! I'm following you now as well. :)


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