We’ve all been there. The clock seems to tick at the same tempo as the cursor blinks on your blank computer screen, and with every second that goes by, your deadline inches a little closer.
Your piece is getting nowhere fast—perhaps it’s that your mind feels as blank as the monitor screen; or perhaps it’s the swarm of thoughts in your mind, so muddled you don’t know how to begin to sort through them. In any case, you haven’t the time to figure out the exact cause. You need to get writing—and fast.
But where to begin? Here, several journalists, PR professionals and writing coaches share secrets to getting the words on the page when deadline panic starts to set in.
- The computer is your friend. When stuck staring at a blank computer screen, Wendy Beckman, public information officer at the University of Cincinnati, suggests pretending your computer is a friend who has asked “What do you have to write about?” and then typing the answer onto the screen. This approach may lessen the pressure-induced panic that keeps writers from moving forward. “Just put it down exactly as you would say it to someone in person,” says Beckman, author of the book Communication Tools Made Easy. “At least it gives you something on the screen,” she says. “You can edit it later.”
- Clustering. If your mind seems pulled in a thousand directions, organization may be your problem, and clustering is one approach that may help, according to Beckman. After writing your topic in the center of a blank page, circle it and record every related thought that enters your mind as branches or bubbles off the main thought. Do not worry about using complete sentences, stresses Beckman. Once finished, use these thought bubbles to outline and thus organize your paragraphs. “Clustering works whether you know nothing about the subject or whether you know too much and need to organize it,” says Beckman. “It shows you the gaps in your knowledge and what you need to do next to fill in those gaps. It helps you prioritize and organize the flow of your writing. It can be circular and help you touch back on something you mentioned at the beginning.”
- Sources on reserve. Having a list of dependable sources you can rely on long before your topic is even devised is a tactic that Jayne Iafrate, senior associate director of communications at Wheaton College, swears by. “It is a process that takes years,” she says. “You really need to work with people and understand how they work, to make them understand how you work.” Iafrate’s department meets with professors at the college regularly to prepare for upcoming communications opportunities. “We run our communications office as if it were a daily news operation, identifying sources all over campus, understanding what kind of sources they can offer, should we need to pitch them for national news,” she says. “There’s no substitute for making sure that you develop those relationships in advance.”
- Get more sources than needed. To prevent a last-minute race for quotes should your key sources end up unreachable or back out, seek out more than you’ll need, suggests Cathy Areu, contributing editor for the Washington Post Magazine.
“I never rely on two or three people. I double the amount of sources I need,” says Areu, who usually shoots for 10 sources, no matter the length of the piece she is working on. “If five come through, I’m okay. If all come through, it turns out some are savvier.” Doing so also may illuminate positions that you may not have considered, she notes, adding, “If you’ve only got one angle, how can you write a detailed press release or story?”
- Clip inspiration. The old adage says that every great writer is also a reader. Areu clips articles she admires for times when her inspiration runs dry. This practice also helps her to keep her writing audience-centered. “When I’m stuck, I step away from everything, and I read over those pieces. You get in that mind-set and become the reader again,” she says. When under pressure, she scans these clips and asks herself, “What excited me the first time I read that?” and often recognizes a tone or angle she can incorporate into her own writing. Areu doesn’t limit her clips to writing similar to her own. She includes, as she describes, “anything that I like—for action verbs, flow, great transitions . . . I constantly teach myself to be an inspired writer.”
- Remember the reader. One way PR professionals get off track when writing under deadline is by forgetting their key audience, stresses Bill Lampton, Ph.D., president of Championship Communication. Actively focusing on your ideal response from your target audience can help, especially in discarding worry about your time constraints. “The time that an assignment is written in is irrelevant,” he says. “Readers don’t care how long it took to write it. They just care that the information is there. All that counts is the finished product.” Remember that your audience will only see the polished piece, not the panic behind the scenes. “To the reading public, time is not a controlling factor,” says Lampton.
- Support system starting points. Amanda McKeen Simpson, in her former position as public information officer for the Dallas County Health Department, sometimes relied on a support system of others in similar positions in nearby counties during flu outbreaks in 2003 and 2004. “I asked them to send me their press releases, and I sent them mine,” she says. When crunched for time and under high stress, McKeen Simpson used others’ work—as well as her own past work—as a starting point. “I pulled up an old release and started substituting,” she says. “I had a standard text for certain things.”
- Just get it out there. “Recognize that you’re not going to be perfect, that you’re going to look back at some things you write and cringe,” urges McKeen Simpson, who found that once in a while it was important to just complete a given piece and move on. “Sometimes getting the t’s and i’s out there was more important than crossing and dotting them,” she says. Her work for the Dallas County Health Department during two flu outbreaks was done under tight time constraints, forcing her to rush through writing she would’ve spent more time on under normal circumstances. “Sometimes you have no choice but to do it. Sometimes you just have to get the facts out there and organize them later,” she says. At times she sent reporters a fact sheet and promised a formal press release later, just to communicate information even though it wasn’t polished.
- Train and trust. Lampton thinks that panic under pressure can be alleviated if writers trust their abilities more. “There’s a phrase in athletics, to ‘train and trust.’ When the time comes for the competition, you’re confident in what you do, and you trust it. The same takes place in writing. All of us have a period of apprenticeship. We continue to train. Likewise, when we get a topic we want to write on, we research it.” Lampton continues, “So when we sit down and write under a tight deadline, why would we have the shakes about what we’ve been trained to do?”
© Public Relations Society of America. Used with permission.
For more information, visit www.prsa.org