On Speed (not the drug … or the Keanu Reeves movie)

I was at the Star until 10:30 last night, working on a story about neighborhood watch parties for the All-Star Game. I went to the 18th and Vine jazz district, stood around, eavesdropped on snippets of conversation, chatted up strangers and took notes on the weather, the number of people there, the food, blah blah blah. As Jacqui would say, it was a “state fair” story: you go, you gather facts, you throw them together and boom – you’ve got something that fills column inches, and that’s about it.

It was a quick-turn story that ran in page 10 of the Sports section today. So you know it was a huge priority.

It wasn’t the kind of thing that I expected to be very thought-provoking or cause me to run to my keyboard, but it ended up making me excruciatingly aware of my biggest flaw as a writer/reporter: I’m slow as hell. I mean glacially slow. And here’s why.

I went out at about 6 p.m. and did everything I mentioned above. I snagged a quote from legendary Royals Hall of Famer Frank White while he mindlessly shook hands and scribbled on baseball caps. I talked to a girl who had just moved to KC and threw me a quote about what a nice place it is. It was perfect color reporting. I got back to the newsroom at about 8:45.

I met up with Allison, the business intern I was partnered with, who had been back at the newsroom for about half an hour and had already written out her half of the story in a Word document. We worked at her desk.

OBSTACLE NUMBER 1: A NEW ENVIRONMENT: I need to have consistency. I’m prissy. I need to be writing on MY laptop or at MY desk. Anywhere else and the ideas get stuck while I navigate the unfamiliar keyboard.

Allison is a business intern who likes doing investigative pieces. Her stories are all about facts and accountability, and they really don’t need any of the creative flourishes that characterize feature stories. She was sitting by me while I sat down to type.

OBSTACLE NUMBER 2: SOMEONE LOOKING OVER MY SHOULDER: I can’t type with anyone watching for the same reason I can’t pee with anyone watching: too much pressure.

So with Allison and Craig, the metro editor in charge of the story, waiting for copy, I started hacking a lede out of the whitespace in front of me. “Just write everything else and go back to the beginning,” Allison suggested.

No.

OBSTACLE NUMBER 3: I CAN’T WRITE OUT OF CONTEXT: I have to start at the beginning and follow it through to the end. There are some brilliant writers out there who will write their entire story and come back to the beginning to craft an amazing lede. I can’t do this. I have to have the beginning down before anything else comes to me. This makes writing on tight deadlines difficult.

The way I get to my lede is by trying out a thousand possibilities until I come up with one that sounds good or characterizes the story well. This means that I sit and type sentence after sentence until I randomly generate a good idea. Craig called at 9 and said he wanted the story in less than 15 minutes. Cool.

OBSTACLE NUMBER 4: FALSE STARTS: This is probably the most inefficient way to accomplish anything, and yet it’s how I’ve always worked. That may be all well and good for Anne Lamott, but in the world of newspapers, it’s not gonna fly.

I could go on and on and further deconstruct why it takes me hours to churn out a few hundred words, but I doubt that’ll hold your interest and besides, I don’t think my ego could take the hit. Suffice it to say, my bad habits haven’t caught up with me as long as I’ve been sheltered in the bubble of features writing and magazine stories. But that’s not all I want to do. I don’t want to be a one-trick pony; I want to be able to cover all kinds of things on all kinds of deadlines.

I know the only way out of this is to practice. So that’s what I’m going to do. That’s 50% of what this blog is about. The other 50% is for anyone else who feels like they have the same problems or tips on how to deal with them. I do check my stats from time to time, so I know there are at least a few (very few) people reading this. If you feel like you sympathize with anything here, post it in the comments. If not for me, then for the random drunk person who accidentally finds himself stumbling across this obscure corner of the interwebs.

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