A Writer’s Time: Making the Most of Yours

Re-used with kind permission from Poynter Online for Journalists: www.poynter.org A Writer’s Time: Making the Most of Yours Who-or what-controls your time?

A. Deadlines.
B. Sources.
C. Events.
D. Editors
E. Reporters
F. Life
E. All of the above
F. Me.

Those were some of the answers when I posed that question last week to a group of reporters and editors at the Orange County office of the Los Angeles Times. Only a lucky few said they controlled their time.

“Productive people have a love affair with time, with all of love’s ups and downs,” Kenneth Atchity observes in “A Writer’s Time: A Guide to the Creative Process, from Vision through Revision.” “They get more from time than others, seem to know how to use time much better than nonproductive people–so much so that they can waste immense quantities of time and still be enormously creative and productive.”

But many of us consider time an arch-enemy, a force beyond our control.

Actually, the relentless ticking of the clock may be one of the only things we can control.

We can’t force sources to tell us things. Try as we might, we can’t demand that that our stories cause meaningful change, either in society or within people’s hearts and minds.So much of what we do eludes our attempts at mastery (although the quest for it makes the writing life all-absorbing.)

But we can master our time. Perhaps not all of it. But enough of the minutes and hours in a day to make a difference. I says this not as an expert, but rather as a student of time management. It’s an aspect of the writing craft that too often goes unrecognized, even though, as veteran writing teacher Stephen Koch says, mismanagement of time is one of “the two most dangerous enemies of a young writer’s productivity. (As a not-so young writer, I’d say age is no barrier to mismanagement of time.) The other enemy, Koch says,is “an undue vulnerability to self-doubt and self-criticism.”)

“You must learn to mark off, manage, and defend your work time,” Koch counsels in “The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop,” that, along with Atchity’s “A Writer’s Time,” is one of the few books that address the issue of time management and the writer.

I offered LA Times staffers ten tips for better time management (my thanks to Orange County Edition Editor Richard Kipling for his summary of the session below) and then asked them to give me their best time management tips. I hope you’ll add to the list too.

1. Plan. Know tomorrow’s task today. Estimate how much time it will take. Then, tomorrow, keep track of the actual time it took to accomplish the task. Eventually, you’ll understand the real time a task takes and be better able to deal with it. Axiom: everything you write will take longer than you think it should. Corollary: several things may take less time than you expect.

2. Schedule tomorrow’s task. The news dictates most of what we do, but we can take charge of the process. Control whatever you can during the reporting, planning, writing and rewriting. If the desk wants your copy at 5 p.m., make your deadline 4:45 to give you time to read the story aloud and make changes for clarity, accuracy, precision.

3. Focus early. What’s the story really about? In one word, describe your story. Focus almost immediately. Be flexible: it may change as you report and write.

4. Write early. You’ll learn what you know and what you need to know. Write to guide the reporting. Write beyond the story early, then fill in.

5. Free write. The key is velocity. You can control velocity. Instead of pondering each sentence, start typing. Get something down, and do it fast. If you want to be a better writer, lower your standards. After all is said and done, nobody cares about your work as much as you do. Just try it — write for 20 seconds on each of these questions: Why does the story matter? What’s the point of the story? Why are we telling the story? What does it say about life, the world, the times we live in? Free writing is good because you’re less invested in the words. It’s easier to revise.

6. Hit the print button. Get your story off the elegant, clean screen and onto the messiness of paper, which shows the reality of the writing. Read it aloud. Does it make sense? Does it answer the questions?

7. Divide your writing into various, brief sessions. Write the end first, so you know where you’re going. Write through the story quickly. Write in short intervals, then step back and edit and revise.

8. Set your own deadlines. To revise, you need distance. Give yourself distance from the story by allowing time. You actually have multiple deadlines – idea, reporting, writing, revising.

9. Make friends with a clock. Use an actual clock or watch to signal how much time you have. if you know it will signal time’s up, you can quickly write to meet the clock. Just give yourself 15 minutes to do this, 15 minutes to do that.

10. Follow productivity expert David Allen’s two-minute rule. If you can do it in two minutes or less, do it!

Want to Turbo-charge Your Writing and Produce Articles Faster and More Effectively?

Study journalism with one-to-one tutoring by an award-winning journalist.

BEST OF THE WEST: Time Management Tips from Los Angeles Times reporters and editors

Make an end of day list.
Early morning list. Amended.
Cross off what you’ve finished.
Finish one of tomorrow’s list items today.
–Richard Kipling

1. Make a list of the top 10 stories you want to work on.
2. Make monthly goals for when you want to finish these stories.
3. Chip away at those goals every week in between everything else.
–Erika Hayasaki

When I’m working on a long-term story in which I’ll collect lots of paper, I’m a big fan of the 3-hole punch and 3-ring binder. That way, I won’t waste time searching for misplaced documents, or worse, tracking them down all over again.

Organize while waiting for answers

From Franklin-Covey:

Prioritize A, B, C.
A = Must do.
B = Important
C = Optional
Then number A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, etc.
I also have a list of tasks to do after work at night.
–Roy Rivenburg

Get calls out early. Wait till afternoon and you won’t do it.

Know the work will get done. Stop worrying it won’t happen.

Find routine.

Take a break for five minutes (even 30 seconds).
It’s better than stressing for 10 to 15 minutes about what’s ahead.
When I come back I just do it.

Know the most efficient order to do things in. Do it in that order.
–Danette Goulet

Be organized.

Anticipate tasks far in advance and plan to do them or do them slowly over time so they are done in advance of a deadline and there is time to correct any errors.

Break up every intimidating task into parts.

Schedule time to think, reflect.
— Steve Marble

Make next day schedule before leaving for day.
Come in earlier than everyone else and get to work without dithering.
–Claire Luna

Actually file a beat memo. When I do it, it does work. (LA Times Orange County Editor Richard Kipling provides an anatomy of a beat memo here.)

Put in open records requests early because it takes a long time to get them back. If you wait you won’t have the info when you need it.
–Charlie Ornstein

Schedule an evening out.

Any one of these techniques can help you take control of your time. Try one for a few days and see the difference a little time spent managing your time can make in your writing…and your life.

Time Management


Making Friends with a Clock: Time Management for Writers

Check out a trio of tips and the Orlando Sentinel’s 20 time management techniques in “Chip on your Shoulder”

“The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations and Books,” by Eviatar Zerubavel (Harvard University Press, 1999).

“Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” by David Allen (Viking, 2001).

“How Writers Journey To Comfort and Fluency: A Psychological Adventure,” by Robert Boice (Praeger, 1994)

“A Writer’s Time: Making the Time to Write,” by Kenneth Atchity (Norton, 1994).

“Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work,” by Donald M. Murray (Heinemann, 2000).

“Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity,” by Susan K. Perry (Writer’s Digest Books, 1999).

“The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction,” by Stephen Koch (The Modern Library, 2003).