Sometimes an opportunity is too good to resist, so we say, “No problem” and then scramble like crazy to deliver. This happened a few weeks ago when the publisher of a prestigious journal offered a chance to write an article. The only catch was, it was 3:00 on a Friday afternoon and she needed it by end of day.
So what’s a writer to do?
1. Clarify the topic, purpose, word count, and deadline. Ask if visuals will be needed. If the editor can provide 3 questions or copy points that should be addressed, even better.
2. Review the publication or website for style. If it’s sophisticated, opt for an erudite tone; it it’s grass-roots, be conversational and down-to-earth.
3. Establish a premise around the topic. Decide whether you’re informing about it or arguing with it. Make sure you understand the audience.
4. If you don’t know the subject area, locate experts for quick interviews or quotes. Keep track of your source information, including URLs, for proper attribution. Verify name spelling and titles simultaneously so you don’t have to go back. If you know the subject area, this will be easier.
5. Remember, there’s always more time than you think. Days don’t end at 6 p.m. and chances are, you can get a modest extension. Check the publisher’s time zone; that could buy you a few hours, too.
6. Clear your desk and your head. Step outside for a breath of air or open the window. Pour a beverage that puts you in a writing mood – to soothe or exhilarate. Shut out/turn off distractions. Don’t watch the clock or computer time bar; it will only make you nervous, but check it after a relevant interval: research completion, outline, or rough draft.
7. Create a voice and stick to it. Better to write authoritatively in third person than emotionally in first unless you are asked for a first-hand account.
8. Substantiate generously. Use concrete examples. Cite metrics. Include an infographic. Let existing information make you look smart.
9. Draw on transitional phrases to move smoothly from overview to details. Consider phrases like these: “To this point,” “From this perspective,” “One good example is…”
10. Include phrases that show balance and objectivity. “Despite this fact, one could argue,” “While many agree, some offer a different interpretation.” “Although this once was the case, new technology enables XYZ.”
11. Keep Miriam Webster or another online dictionary in your Favorites, and have a style guide close at hand. When in doubt, change the word; don’t waste time agonizing over it.
12. Think of synonyms as you write. Don’t use the same word twice in close proximity. Avoid: “While fishing, the fishermen catch fish.” Much preferred would be: “While at sea, the fishermen catch stripers.” If you’re writing about a survey, for example, be armed with words like, “study, report, poll, questionnaire, opinion, findings, and respondents.”
13. If something stumps you, note it in caps with a question mark and put it in parentheses as a cue to revisit. This could also signal that the editor should weigh in later, which will save you time now. My favorite is: (CK THIS!)
14. Avoid long, tedious blocks of copy. Keep your paragraphs short and punchy. You can always string them together if the body feels too sparse.
15. If your writing is to be reviewed before submission, give the reviewer a heads up about the urgency. Be very clear that you will need edits or approval by an exact time.
16. Label the document as a “Draft” but don’t rely on the file name or e-mail subject line. Documents are often extracted and passed along, so make sure your contact info is on it. All pages should be numbered and include your initials, time/date, and draft version.
17. Don’t worry about styling your copy. A designer will lay it out, i.e. don’t bother thinking the about lead caps; just think about the lead.
18. Plan a clincher for the end. If this comes to you early in the process, jot it down. Simply set it aside and it will be ready when you are.
19. Do a quick internet search to make sure you’ve captured key words, but don’t borrow too much. Industry jargon can quickly backfire as clichés.
20. If questions come up while you’re writing, shoot the editor an e-mail. Don’t delay. A good editor can get you quickly back on track.
21. Use a simple font. This is not the time to experiment.
22. Print out a copy to proof. Read it out loud to help check tense and noun/verb agreement.
23. Back up your writing to an external hard drive andor USB stick. E-mail a copy to yourself for remote or mobile retrieval.
24. Don’t forget your by-line or copyright. You’re doing the work, so command the credit.
25. Mostly, cut yourself some slack. You may hit a few roadblocks, but keep the momentum going. Don’t stop. When in doubt, use a placeholder such as “Say something here about the company’s past connecting to the present.” Then move on!
Even if you have not achieved perfection, get your draft to the editor on time. Call out any “gray” areas. Offer to be available to edit. Take your hard copy home to read at your leisure with fresh eyes — and chances are, you’ll feel pretty good about your accomplishment. Next time: 1 hour, 45 minutes!