How to Write Fast & Well: A Lesson From Journalists

By Spencer Critchley

Compared to our pre-digital forebears, we’re expected to produce torrents of writing: emails, text messages, blog posts, social media, presentations.

That’s because publishing all that stuff is easier than ever. The trouble is, the actual writing isn’t — especially if you care about quality.

“Easy reading is damn hard writing,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne said.

So how to write both fast and well?

You can learn from people who have always had do that for a living: journalists. Here’s a tip based on what they know about hitting deadlines, while keeping readers.

have just one strong idea.

Journalists know that in a single article, they can’t say everything, or even much, about a subject, at least if they expect people actually to read it. So they choose one very specific aspect — the "angle" — and write only about that.

For example, a reporter would never be assigned to write a story about “Crime”. That topic can, and does, fill libraries. Neither would they do “Crime in Our City” — still too broad.

Instead, a good angle might be “Why Our Youth Are Becoming Less Violent” (which is true, BTW).

Two things to notice:

  1. How specific that angle is. It’s about a particular group of people (our youth), in a particular location (our city), doing a particular thing (becoming less violent), with a particular explanation (why).
  2. The emotion. Readers will probably care, because (a) it’s about our young people and (b) it features a threat, which in this case is decreasing.

Imagine the difference if we had framed it like this: “New Youth Violence Statistics Show Decline”. Not as specific, drained of emotion, and much less interesting.

Blurred fingers flying over a laptop keyboard

 

With a strong angle, writing happens faster.

That’s because, as a scientist might put it, you’ve shrunk the size of the “problem space”. You’ve eliminated a universe of things you might explore, in favor of a tiny but interesting island. From a small set of relevant facts and observations, you can select the “who, what, when, where, why and how” that readers will care about.

There’s a bonus. Not only will you make your life easier, you’re likely to make this happy discovery: by focusing on the specific, often you will uncover larger truths.

As James Joyce said, “In the particular lies the universal.”

You’ll have saved yourself a lot of work — and your results will be all the better for it.

Warning: Fast writing can be good, but it probably won’t be literature. George Orwell is still right: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Some things never change.