Thursday, November 15, 2012

Making it Sizzle

Is your keyboard sizzling?

Straight up, and no joke -- if you want to make it in this business, you need to be turning copy so fast that your fingers hurt typing.

If an editor says, "I have a story for you, but I need it Monday ..." and it's a Tuesday .... can you turn it around in six days?

Most magazine writers might sigh and complain and say it's absolutely not a possibility.

And that's what separates those of us who can from those of us who can't.

When I was in my 20s, I heard this anecdote about a journalist who learned to write sizzling leads in the back seat of a taxi. He was in a huge metropolitan area, and on his way back to the paper after every assignment, he'd jump into the nearest cab and furiously start scribbling. By the time he reached his desk, he'd just pound out the prose.

I practiced writing as fast as I could, and I would speak out loud to myself the leads of the stories I was covering, right on the spot. I hit my stride when I joined The Associated Press in Philadelphia ... and guess what ... I started writing my leads in the back seats of taxis. I grabbed on to that anecdote, and I became that person.

If you can't craft a lead in five minutes or less, then practice doing it. Listen. Your lead is the hardest part of the story that you'll ever have to write. Once you're done with that lead, IT FLOWS. It just rattles off your brain like a stream of consciousness.

OK ... now for those of you who are still dubious, I'll give you a little exercise that my J School prof taught me back in the day:

Every day, she gave us a story to research. We were not allowed to write it. We were to collect our facts. The next day, we came in with our information and sat down at our desks. She'd set a timer. For five minutes, we had to scribble out our stories, long-hand. If we lost a train of thought, we were to write, "Don't stop, don't stop, don't stop, don't stop ...." over and over and over again ... until the story thread picked up in our minds.

If she saw the pencil stop -- immediate five point dock.

Let me tell you, that I did this for four years with this J School prof. I really believe she's the reason I can do this ... but it takes practice.

So the next time an editor says, "I have a last minute assignment, but it's due in 2 days ...." TAKE IT.

And practice writing your leads in five minutes so that you won't be intimidated by such an offer.

Pretty soon, your keyboard will be sizzling so much that you won't be able to stand the heat on your fingertips.

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