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Beat the Clock: Take Off Your Pastry Chef Hat and Write!

Beat the Clock: Take Off Your Pastry Chef Hat and Write!

Picture of William Heisel

If you don’t do anything else that I recommend in this series of posts on how to manage in-depth reporting projects, do this:

Start writing your story on day one.

I know I have taken some shots at the kind of advice you hear at journalism conferences, but one of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was from an editor at a Society for Professional Journalists. I was a reporter at the Yakima Herald-Republic, just a few years into my career, and the editor said that he had always started writing in his mind as he left an interview or meeting or other event.

This at the time seemed so counter to what I had been doing up to that point. I prided myself on filling my notebook first, then sitting down to sift through everything to write a story that covered all the bases.

I was approaching reporting and writing like a pastry chef. You need to have all the ingredients on hand first because if you start trying to make macarons without those critical two teaspoons of vanilla, you will find that you end up with a bunch of half-baked ingredients and no tasty payoff.

Since that SPJ conference, I have thought of myself as less pastry chef than taxi driver. Cab drivers think about the best route from A to Z from the moment they start the clock. They start writing that route in their heads as soon as they take their foot off the brake. If they run into traffic or road blocks, they adjust. If they had one plan in mind that doesn’t work out, they quickly make a new plan. The best of them don’t complain. They just get you there.

1. Write with your central question top of mind. Every time you find something that helps you answer your central question, add it to your outline. Include great quotes as you get them. Don’t worry about transitions. If something doesn’t advance your story, keep it out of the outline.

2. Write a new paragraph every day. If you find something new, write a little piece of the story that captures that finding. If you don’t find something new in a given day, flip through your notebook and capture something else you may have missed. You may have heard someone talk about “aha” moments. You should be jotting these down as you go, marking them with starts, circling them, drawing happy faces, whatever it takes to remind you later that this was something that made you perk up.

3. Write during the interviews. When someone says something in an interview that advances the story, jot down the lines that would come right before the quote and write after. They will help you ask your next question and anticipate gaps.

4. Write around road blocks. Investigations can become stuck when you put in a records request and are told it will take several weeks. Or perhaps you find out there’s only one person who can provide a crucial piece of information, but they won’t answer your calls. Stop and think about what would happen if you had to publish the story the next day. How would you write around that barrier to the story that you really want to tell? Does it change your central question? Is there a different question that you can answer with the information you have?

No matter what happens as you report, never stop writing the story. You will find that you often end up with more than one story, fully reported and primed for a final polish before you pass it to your editor. Now, I know that many of you will ignore this advice, so I also have a plan for what to do with that messy pile of notes. I’ll tell you about that later.

Have your own tricks for beating the clock? Share them with me at or via Twitter @wheisel.

Related Posts:

Beat the Clock: It's an Interview, Not a Date

Beat the Clock: Put Your Calendar to Work While Reporting Your Project

Beat the Clock: Lassoing and Taming Your Journalism Project

Photo credit: lecates via Flickr


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Once had an editor who promoted GETTHAT writing. He'd encourage reporters to write a paragraph at a time and fill in missing informational pieces with an appropriate reminder tag. Example: "The disease is spreading nationwide fairly rapidly," said Jones, who won his Nobel Prize in GETYEAR. The editor contended GETTHAT writing 1) allowed you to concentrate more on story flow and pacing without losing focus on the need for supplementary facts, and 2) provided a quickly identifiable guide to ask for what your story was missing.

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