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.

Posted in thoughts from the spiral, writing & publishing.


  1. maybe part of this incubator/collective effort could be a writing group element: we each make a commitment to produce something by the following week. perhaps a piece we've avoided or have, for whatever reason, been unable to complete (or even complete a first draft, shitty or otherwise). help each other avoid excuses, time sinks, etc.

  2. I like your idea, T.A., and I'd like to participate. I've tried similar goal-setting with other groups — which worked in the beginning, and then slacked off. I'm hopeful such a push will be more successful and longer lasting in the incubator context.

  3. Wow Jen, this is a great way at articulating what I was thinking of at WMTM when I said "we miss the newsroom." I'm glad to hear you and TA (at least) are on a similar wavelength, as I think this addresses part of what makes the physical element of the incubator so important. It dovetails with the idea I mentioned on Wave that was previously mentioned to me by Abraham Hyatt about pitch groups, too.

    Perhaps in the incubator there will be a way for participants in the incubator to state, maybe even sign some sort of commitment (though I wouldn't say a legally binding contract by any means) when they choose to participate that expresses something about what the best motivator is and how to deliver it (i.e. positive/negative reinforcement, a certain frequency, etc.). Then incubator participants will have some sort of idea of how their "colleagues" work and a hint of how to keep them on task with the knowledge they'll be kept on task too.

    I'm just brainstorming on that, but I'm happy you're thinking about that to keep these ideas alive in Thursday's discussion. As always I look forward to keeping it alive too.

    Another brainstorm, while I'm on it, is perhaps we could set up some sort of light weekly "competition" for number of pitches, completed stories, interviews, transcriptions, whatever the case may be. Maybe everyone pitches in a buck or two at the start of the week and the winner gets a case of beer or pound of coffee or something. Or we could even solicit minor donations from businesses for monthly events (a $15 lunch certificate, a powell's or new season's card, etc.).

    Just ideas, but worth keeping in mind.

  4. Your weekly competition reminds me of the "Query Challenge" that Freelance Success sponsors for its members several times each year. I've participated a few times, and it's always helped me be more productive with querying and follow-ups.

    I do National Novel Writing Month every year (November), with the goal of writing 50,000 words (first draft of a novel) in 30 days. I've done this six times now, and it's worked for me every year — whereas other fiction projects have taken closer to a year for a first draft.

    There's something about that spirit of both encouragement and collective competition — even when you're just competing against yourself in the company of others competing against themselves — that spurs me to greater productivity.

    (And if I seemed a little brain-fried at WMTM — I was! I was in the bottom half of NaNoWriMo, writing fiction every day on top of everything else. 😉 )

  5. Maybe you just need to program an editor avatar to pop up on every computer screen in the incubator space at 4:30 p.m. every day and yell at people to finish their stories.

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