At last night’s Digital Journalism social, I was talking to Michelle Rafter about writing habits and deadlines. She mentioned that her time as a newspaper reporter was probably the best training she’d gotten as a writer.
“Because every day at 4:30, you had to have something to show for yourself,” she explained.
The staff room kept her on deadline and boosted her productivity in ways she hadn’t previously thought possible.
One of the biggest pitfalls I’ve run into as a freelancer — sorry, entrepreneurial journalist — is the tendency to overwork my projects. Yes, I still have deadlines for assigned pieces, but it’s not the same as working in a newsroom. A staff reporter might be assigned a story and have just a few days or mere hours to turn it around, where I generally have weeks — sometimes months — to complete the assignment. And when I’m writing on-spec essays or am working on queries, I can end up tweaking and rewriting the thing to death, trying to capture every nuance, craft witty phrases and generally make the thing perfect.
I’ve tried setting daily quotas for myself — of sending out X number of queries, or drafting/completing Y number of essays. Those goals always inspire enthusiasm and help keep me on track with great productivity, for about a day-and-a-half. Then it invariably falls apart again. I can be quite self-disciplined, but I still need external structure and accountability to support these good habits.
I’ve tried working with “goals groups” and writers’ clutches in the past to set measurable goals and to establish accountability, but for that to work, everyone needs to be committed, and there have to be consequences for missing deadlines — even if it’s just disappointment in the eyes of your peers.
This is another area where I’m hoping the “media incubator” will help. By creating a newsroom-like workspace for independent journalists and content creators, there will be other people around me to say, “Hey, Jen, how’s that piece coming?” or to goad me to “Send it now,” rather than spending another hour obsessing over punctuation and gerunds.
Regardless of your years in the business, every independent writer can use this kind of kick in the pants.