Not sure where to begin? Just get something down.


Photo: Hyena Realty,

There’s a magic moment when good lede almost writes itself.

During the course of a great interview, a source will say something amazing, totally quotable and emotionally evocative and … ping! The story begins to unfold. Perhaps the lede comes during a telling exchange between the source and someone he is interacting with. Perhaps that opening sentence comes when you notice something the source does that aligns perfectly with the theme or message of the piece. These moments are amazing for writers because they make starting the story easy. And often, starting the story is the hardest part of writing the whole darn thing.

But what if that moment doesn’t happen?

What if you sit down to write and the beginning of the story just isn’t revealing itself? I’ve been there, and I can tell you there’s no real magic way out of this situation.

 In my experience, the only thing to do is to just sit down and start typing.

Even if it’s gibberish, begin somewhere. Start, maybe, by writing as if you were talking to a friend, and he or she has asked you, “What is this story about?” Stay informal and simply answer the question. Write as if you were chatting, not as if you were beginning a formulaic story. If that doesn’t work, ask yourself this question: “What’s the most interesting thing that occurred in the interview?” Or, “How does the source feel about his or her situation (in life, in work, at home … whatever the story touches on) right now?” Even if you have to turn the main events of your story into choppy sentences stating just the facts to begin, do that.

Do whatever it takes to get something, anything, down.

The idea is to start your fingers moving while, at the same time, wrestling with your story mentally in new ways, until something substantial, rhythmic and, well … right for the piece comes out. Doing this exercise helps you clear the clutter in your brain, gradually whittling the words down until you’re left with what matters most.

Writing is often like exercising: Our minds will try to override our bodies with all kinds of noisy messages about why we can’t do the thing. And the only way to break through the noise is to get up (in the case of exercising) or sit down (in the case of writing) and start something. View writing as an imperfect process and remember: We rarely end up with what we begin with. The point is to start, gather momentum, push through and then keep going.



Writing on the day your story is due? You could be hurting your business.

Illustration: Stuart Miles,

Illustration: Stuart Miles,

I don’t know why it took so long for me to learn this lesson, but I want to pass it on to you in the hopes that you’ll catch on sooner than I did. Trust me, if you follow this one rule of thumb, you’ll save so much angst:

Draft your story at least one week ahead of the due date.

I’m actually quite the planner and I don’t like to work under pressure. So each time I get a new story assignment, I set up a schedule for its production. I create a new project folder in my good ‘ol Omni Focus program. Then, I set up due dates for the important internal stuff, such as scheduling interviews, transcribing, writing and, finally, handing the piece in.

But there’s one process I have never factored in to my timeline before: Revising. That’s right:

In the ten years that I’ve been writing professionally, I’ve never factored in more than a day to write that first draft.

The thing is, a lot of unnecessary pain ensued as a result. No matter how hard I tried, without scheduling in revision time, I almost always ended up writing stories on the day they were due: getting up somewhere in the 5 a.m. or even 4 a.m. time frame to begin the work, battling mental exhaustion and writer’s block by 10 a.m., getting my second wind by 1 p.m. and finishing sometime between 6 p.m and 8 p.m. What a miserable day!

It wasn’t good for my clients, either. Recently, I got a gracious reply from an editor at 7 p.m. on a Friday, thanking me for having just turned in a story. That got me thinking: Even though editors rarely specify what time they want the copy in on the day it’s due, it can’t be fun for them to stick around on their mobile devices, even after leaving work and possibly settling in to dinner with their friends and families, still checking in to make sure the copy due to them by some freelancer actually came in before the stroke of midnight.

I realized that starting late meant misery for me and amounted to bad client management, too.

My solution: Start a week early. That way, I can ensure that the writing process is much less painful for me and and I’m handing in the piece at a much more convenient time for my clients.

I have two new projects on the books, and I’ve scheduled draft 1 to be written ahead of time. Something always comes up, so wish me luck in meeting my goal.

Are you a procrastinator? A get-it-done early type? Have you successfully kicked your procrastination habit? Drop me a comment and tell me all about it.