By Rocky Reichman
Ever have one of the moments where you don’t know what to do? Where a mountain of work faces you? Where you are given an assignment and don’t have enough time to do it?
The answer? Probably a yes for most people. Sometimes you end up in a crunch. Where it’s simply not humanly possible to get something done by an assigned deadline. It’s a fact of life. Stuff happens. The question is, what do you do to combat it?
How you react will determine whether you succeed. I have experienced these moments dozens of times during my entrepreneurial ventures with Literary Magic (.com), writing or even this past week. An assignment was given. The task? Write a Features story on an issue you think is important. Find sources from both social media outlets, and get one interview in person.
The assignment itself was simple. But on my end, I misunderstood how laborious and lengthy the task of finding the right sources could be. In this blog post, I’ll share my experience adapting to work on short notice and what I’ve learned.
When given an assignment, the first task of every writer is know what they are writing about. Sometimes an editor will save you the trouble by telling you outright what issue you’re expected to cover. In my place, I had my professor to guide me through the issues to see which would make the best story. But in many cases, you may not know the exact topic to write about. How do you go about choosing?
If you know the field you want to write about, the obvious answer is to first learn as much about that field as possible. Bruce Byfield has a longer piece about at this at his blog, http://brucebyfield.wordpress.com/2008/03/27/how-to-generate-ideas-for-journalism/. For me, what ultimately made my decision was importance. Find the issue you feel is most important. The issue you think really needs to be covered. Then go after it. Once you know what you are writing about, you know where you are going. Next you need to figure out a plan to get there. Brainstorm. Then outline your main points. Note that none of your “plans” can be set in stone. Why? Because you never know when your story will evolve, And usually, it will be a better direction.
The most difficult task I ran into in writing a story on short notice was finding the right sources in time. For example, if you are assigned a story one week before deadline, that does not mean you have a several day to find sources. Work on finding sources immediately. It helps you already know the exact topic you will be writing about, but even if you only know the area but do not have a set outline yet, start contacting people as early as you can. Especially any “experts” you will need. Sources can be hard to reach, and even if they respond to your request (and hopefully say yes) within twenty four hours, you still need to work around their schedule to meet them. The interview process itself is a whole different story.
Be ready when interview time comes around. Prepare a variety of questions beforehand. Be open to whatever direction your sources takes a question in. This could lead you to good points to build your story off of. Or it could alter your story and send it in a completely different direction. Which is exactly why you never want to set your story in stone. I had to scrap my original game plan twice before finally settling on a solid theme. I let my interviewees lead the way. Their passion for the subject fueled me with the right material for the story, and set me on course. Be prepared to improvise with new questions in case you or your subject changer course. Often the best ideas are found by accident.
Look at http://matadornetwork.com/bnt/2007/03/26/13-simple-journalist-techniques-for-effective-interviews/ and http://www.mediacollege.com/journalism/interviews/tips.html for basic interview techniques.
Record each interview as a backup. Gather your notes after each interview, then revise your story plan. Write up you first draft, transcribing only the quotations you know you will need. You can always add more in later. Sometimes, it pays to just listen to your recordings, paraphrase your future quotations, and see where the story goes before initiating the laborious task of transcription. Double check any facts like dates, names etc. and get your draft out as soon as possible. The war may not be over then—but at least you have survived the first few battles.