If you asked what my job as a morning news producer was like, I’d tell you to imagine that it’s 10 p.m and you’ve suddenly remembered a 20-page research paper that’s due at 6 a.m; the next day. You must work through the night, frantically typing away, checking references, editing, and organizing a respectable body of work.
Then, rinse and repeat that stressful night — for two years.
Writing the news is not for the faint of heart: the breakneck pace, unforgiving standards, and high-stakes format are all part of the industry. But, the truth is, whether you’re a self-paced blogger, freelance copywriter, or long-haul novelist, your writing task can benefit from applying a few newsroom principles.
If you want to learn how to produce reliably crisp, concise copy, these seven tips can help streamline your writing, cut unproductive habits, and shorten the gap from idea to final draft.
Read and send emails, check socials and co-working platforms, and set up supplemental materials like prospectuses, outlines, background info, and style guides before you sit down to write. How many times did I check my email late, only to find a message telling me to scrap a story I’d been working on for 15 minutes? How often did I forget to check the news wires where a directive had changed or information was updated?
That wasted time adds up.
The first step isn’t a step at all: it’s prep! Doing ten minutes of groundwork before hitting the keyboard will save you thirty minutes in the long run.
In my job producing the news, I had to be a “three-o’clock expert”: given a totally unfamiliar story at 9am about say, the Yugoslavian economy in the 90s, I had to know almost everything about the subject by 3pm to report the information accurately.
(Please don’t ask me about the Yugoslavian economy in the 90s.)
Efficient writers can flesh out unfamiliar content easily by establishing information reservoirs they can draw from for reliable, fact-checked data (like government agencies, research journals, company guides or style manuals, etc). While the contents of your reservoir are tailored to your writing field, investing in the dig will pay off — no matter what your style is.
Compile online sources to streamline your writing, set up favorites tabs for quick access, and you’ll be another step ahead.
Successful writers don’t operate in a bubble: we collaborate with videographers, photographers, editors, directors, PR folks and publishers to get our content out there, so take advantage of online spaces to divide and conquer.
Maintain a team working program or app so you can monitor projects, stack and condense ideas, and share resources: platforms like Google Docs, Slack, and Asana can make group work easier. You can track pitches, rejections, and analytics with agents, and share projects and edits with contributors and editors.
Sometimes I was so focused on getting the perfect phrasing on my scripts, I got bogged down combing and re-combing for minor edits and sacrificed the quality of the show’s other elements. It’s easy to get hamstrung by octuple-guessing yourself on comma placement or word choice, even if you don’t get paid by the second!
Perfectionism is great if you’re a pharmacist or a gymnast, but at some point editing becomes unproductive and it’s time to “commit and submit.”
Each writer’s threshold will be different, but overall if you spend more than 20% of the writing process going back through your work, your writing is probably hurting because of it. Set reasonable limits for making changes, make sure your idea of “work I’m proud of” meshes with your clients’ expectations, then move ahead confidently.
Viewer surveys, social media feedback, Nielsen ratings, the ire of my executive producer: there are many ways the news industry calibrates its content, and its livelihood depends on its ability to measure and respond to viewers.
Set up analytics and be ready to integrate them into your writing plan; not having to guess what resonates with readers will give you momentum and better content.
Add a business or branding questionnaire to your website, send clients follow-up surveys after completing projects, and take note of what works and what doesn’t in a spreadsheet. If you freelance, lay out your entire process (from initial meeting to follow up edits) on your website in detail, to filter out incompatible clients.
Do you find that one query format gets better results than another? Do you shine on Twitter, or is blogging your bread and butter? Then use that feedback to rechannel your skills into the most responsive area.
Need to research a company or special subject to verify a detail in your writing? Minor structural edits or a quote needed? Don’t leave it until the end of the project: at worst you might forget and omit it entirely, and at best, cherry-picking back through your work will break up your pace.
I know, I know, a cardinal rule of writing is to edit after you finish a draft, but in many time-sensitive or demanding industries you won’t have that luxury: the process is condensed and often overlapping.
Accuracy, context and mechanics are the main strengths — and weaknesses — of any writing project. How many ads have you personally seen get dragged on social media for a tiny misspelling? Too many overlooked details can steal the shine from your content, but you will save time and mistakes in the long run by knocking out small items as they crop up.
Like many writers, I’m a solo flier. I used to believe I did my best work when left to my own devices, but in the newsroom I was lucky to work under industry innovators, learn new technology, and teamwork with super-smart peers — all of which polished my process over time.
If you want to consistently produce exceptional writing and thrive in a demanding field, learn to love the idea of being a collaborator and a student: take classes, seek out mentors, join related writing groups and volunteer for projects. There are endless programs, apps, online courses and communities to help stack your skills and brush up on related fields like digital marketing, interviewing or publishing.
Be open to constructive feedback, acknowledge and push your limits, and be willing to be the greenest person in the room — it might feel uncomfortable now, but your writing will definitely reap the benefits.
If you’ve ever scrambled to compile information, felt overwhelmed by a complex, unfamiliar project, or sweated over lean timelines and surprise edits, I’ve got good news. Whatever its style or pace, your writing assignment doesn’t have to be a frustrating chore.
Every writer from blogger to novelist can use newsroom tricks to create tight, stressless deliverables. If your goal is consistent, efficient content, then borrow from the bullpen: prepare assiduously, consolidate resources, embrace technology and integrate feedback, trim your writing process, collaborate fearlessly, and never stop learning your trade. You’ll be ready to air every time!
Rachel is an all-terrain media writer who has garnered little acclaim for her media reviews on Book & Film Globe, and won zero Emmys while working as a morning news producer. She is also a no-time finalist for any award, prestigious or otherwise, for her work at Curve and Girlfriends magazines. Rachel lives in Bakersfield with her partner Jason and pup Bandit, where they hike on the spectacular Kern river and ride motorcycles. When she isn't studying theology or Spanish, Rachel is cooking, exploring abandoned spaces, and stalking mid-century furniture sales online. Follow her on Instagram @little.red.writing.good