A soda, a candle, a couch — talismans of a writing routine from 3 journalists
The pandemic has changed the space where journalists work, their reporting habits, even their attention spans. Three accomplished writers shared their tips on how to adopt a routine, find efficiencies, and use timely breaks to write with focus and speed to meet the deadlines that the stream of COVID-19 news requires.
“I’ve always written in short bursts; I don’t have a whole lot of attention spans when I’m writing,” said Lane DeGregory, a Pulitzer-Prize winning enterprise writer at the Tampa Bay Times. “I write to a Diet Coke. When I finish my can or my bottle of Diet Coke, then I can get up and do the laundry or play with the dog or take a break.”
How many Diet Cokes per story? “A thousand-word story is about three.”
DeGregory joined Deborah Netburn, a science and feature writer at the Los Angeles Times; and Marla Broadfoot, a science writer with a PhD in genetics, for a virtual conversation Wednesday hosted by the National Press Club Journalism Institute and the National Association of Science Writers.
All three confessed to struggling at the keyboard sometimes, temporarily sidelined by distractions, worries and cluttered head space. They rely on routines. They might break away to read short fiction, to light a candle, to take a walk. And they pause when they need to without forcing themselves to power through.
Some of their top insights.
Netburn: The situation is so new and fluid, I feel like I just need to keep reading to learn more about what’s going on. I’ve been writing a lot of explainers about COVID, and it’s just hard to kind of focus on my own stories when I feel like I’m constantly gathering information, which I think informs the stories.
DeGregory: I used to love, love writing at home because it was quiet. The kids were in school or gone. Now it’s never quiet in my house. … It’s just really hard to focus — not just because of the distractions of people in the house, but just because of everything that’s going on and how it’s changing so much.
Broadfoot: With the pandemic life, I felt like life slowed down, but then the work didn’t. … I’m feeling like I’m trying to jump in and I’m developing a pitch and then the story already broke the next day. So trying to keep up is really a struggle. And then the emotional part of it, too, definitely weighs on me. It’s not even necessarily the science; it’s the humans and their response to it that sometimes keeps me from focusing on the task at hand.
Writing in bursts
DeGregory: A lot of my best thinking comes when I’m walking the dog or doing laundry or … taking a shower — taking a longer, longer shower, like being in a sensory deprivation tank. So I think writing, it definitely is a discipline that I have to make myself sit here and get to a certain point in getting words on the paper. But a lot of the work is actually done in my head when I’m not sitting here.
Broadfoot: I don’t think I can sit down at 4:45 and say, the Muse is going to arrive at that moment. I do have to do the work … like thinking through things or coming up with a metaphor or really thinking about how I was going to set up the story or outlining it in [the] shower, to be able to do it at 4:45. But, yeah, if I could work from 4:45 to 7:45, I guess that’s my burst — it’s three hours.
Lately, since I have the puppies and the kids and the dogs, I have a candle I light. … Normally it’s so smelly, anything to not smell dogs. So I’ll light the candle and then I write. It’s kind of like you have your talisman. Maybe not everything else is perfect, but you have your one ritual that you can do that sets you off.
Switching from breaking news to longer pieces
Netburn: That’s been a really big challenge for me right now. It’s easier for me to be on a deadline. I like knowing that readers are hungry for what it is that I’m going to be writing. And I feel answering coronavirus questions right now or showing a scene of life right now is of great interest to people. I was wrapping up a bigger picture [story] right before this started, and I’m really struggling with, like, does anyone care now?
Broadfoot: There’s going to be the before coronavirus and the after coronavirus. We can’t ignore that. I think it’s important — just like we have to go for walks and we have to spend time with our family — we have to not let these other stories fall to the side because we have to find balance somehow.
DeGregory: I’m having a really hard time thinking about longer enterprise projects. These little 1,000-word features on coronavirus which I can knock off, I don’t know what that appetite is. I know analytics in the Tampa Bay Times show some of the best read stories that we’ve been doing are not the body counts or the hunt for the vaccine. They’ve been personal, first-person stories.
Netburn: That makes a lot of sense to me because I keep thinking that in this time where things are so confusing, you want your experience reflected back at you a little bit. I know that that’s what I gravitate toward, too.
It’s OK to lower the bar
Broadfoot: You have to turn off that internal editor, and I struggle with that because if you get excited about a story, you’re like, ‘This is going to be the best story I’ve ever written.’ … And it’s either the worst thing in the world or the best thing in the world. You have to say, ‘Just get some words on the page, we don’t know what it is, it doesn’t even exist yet.’ Having that ability to say, ‘Yeah, there’s a good chance it’s not going to be the best thing,’ maybe a lot of people won’t read it because they’re busy reading about other things because there’s so much out there, and just give yourself that leeway because you can’t keep producing at 100%.
DeGregory: It’s really up to me to take small bites, instead of thinking about my big 10,000[-word] epic I want to do. By the end of the year, I’m thinking 1,000-word things and a lot of day-in-the-life type things where the frame is really small. …
So many of my ideas come from being out in the world. But sitting here in my little office by myself I feel like I’m not overhearing conversations. I’m not in a bar or restaurant or some place where people are talking about things. So the dearth of ideas is also a problem in terms of focus, because the only thing anybody’s talking about is coronavirus.
Netburn: Yeah, I totally agree. I haven’t really had any feature ideas. … My kind of [story] container is a question that should get answered: How risky is it for me to visit my friends? What are things going to look like when they open up again? It’s actually relaxing to write so tight. There’s a question and there’s an answer; it doesn’t require a lot of creative thought. …
But in the context of journalism, I feel like those types of stories are not professionally what we all aspire to. And that has been a little challenging on my ego.
Broadfoot: Sometimes you have to take a break and do these other things, like exercise that helps you focus, or go for a walk or meditation, if that appeals to you. … What you’re doing is you’re teaching yourself. You’re training your brain to focus on the task at hand and nothing else. So that when you sit down to write, in theory, you can actually focus.
DeGregory: Sometimes you need inspiration, and I have a whole bookshelf of short stories back there. So if I’m really super stuck, I’m not going to dive into a novel, but I’ll look through Flannery O’Connor or Ernest Hemingway or something and just read the beginning of their little short stories. And sometimes that gets the juices going again.
Don’t power through — take a break
DeGregory: I think it has made me a world of good just to leave and take a walk to go to the beach, get in my car just to drive just to see something different. … Even when you’re walking away and doing something else, you can still be productive in your brain without beating yourself up for not being in front of a blank computer.
Netburn: I feel better always when there are words on the page. Just even if they’re bad words, and I know they’re not going to stay on the page, it feels like I did something.
Broadfoot: I agree. When I hit a wall, the idea is maybe to get something done before I walk away from it. So maybe I’ll just say, ‘make sure you’ve read about this, don’t forget to include that research.’ Almost like a to-do list that I’ll tackle when I come back so that when I come back I’m not back at that wall.
This program is one of an ongoing series of free conversations. Click here to see our upcoming programs, or to watch a recording of a previous event. Please contact Journalism Institute Executive Director Julie Moos with questions.