Malcolm Gladwell spent years as a newspaper reporter before graduating to The New Yorker and publishing a series of best-selling books that made him a modern publishing icon.
If newspaper experience teaches you anything, Gladwell told podcaster Tim Ferriss last year, it’s that you can’t have writer’s block.
“I mean, you quite literally can’t,” said Gladwell on an episode of the Tim Ferriss Show that deconstructed his success as a writer
He might start on a story at 10:30 a.m. and it would be due by the end of the business day, held at the mercy of a hard deadline.
“If you went to your bosses and you said, ‘I’m blocked on this story,’ they would look at you like you were insane,” he said.
“I did used to have these issues and then I went to the Washington Post, and you get cured in a hurry of any pretensions you have about your writing.
“You just keep typing. There’s no kind of alternative.”
Journalists are prolific by nature. Their editors demand it, and so do their readers.
We can learn a great deal from journalists about how to produce quality writing at an impressive clip. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind
- Deadlines matter
A former editor of mine relayed a story about a colleague trying to explain journalism to a young reporter.
“We call them deadlines,” the colleague apparently said, “because if you miss them, you’re dead.”
That’s an extreme thing to say, but it hints at the truth. Deadlines matter, because without them the paper doesn’t make it to press on time or the newscast doesn’t make it to air.
Deadlines exist to ensure a publisher or broadcaster keeps its implied contract with readers and viewers, ensuring a high-quality on product on time, every time, with no exceptions.
It’s the same with many other businesses, and it should be the same for every blogger and self-published author.
Set deadlines and stick to them. You’ll be surprised how inspired you will become when you’ve only got a few minutes to deliver.
Write as well as you can in the time you’ve got, while being extra-careful not to make factual mistakes or grammar errors.
This is key to building a reputation as a writer who can be trusted, and it’s an essential step to becoming prolific.
- Keep a list of story ideas.
Most journalists have a list of story ideas they’re constantly updating. I keep one on my phone and add to it as ideas come to me.
When I was a newspaper reporter, I emailed my editor a story list every Sunday evening, and it became my blueprint for the week ahead.
We added to and subtracted from the list for any number of reasons – sometimes a big story broke mid-week, and there was no time to write a piece about the local man with the giant rutabaga – but most of my story ideas made it to print.
Keep a list and add to it constantly, providing a few notes about how you would structure the piece. When you sit down to write, those notes will serve as inspiration for publishable work.
- Be wary of your influence
Most journalists are extremely careful about the words they put into the world.
They know their writing has incredible power, so they triple-check facts, verify claims and ensure a story serves the public interest.
The need to be prolific doesn’t absolve anyone from the profound responsibility that comes with every type of publishing.
A former classmate of mine put it this way, channeling dialogue from a Spider-Man movie: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
All writers have power, so be careful.
- Use an outline
It’s hard to write more than 1,000 coherent words without one.
Whether it’s a feature story for a magazine, a lengthy blog post, or a book, you’ll likely need a map to stay on track and guide your reader from your starting point to the desired destination.
Gladwell says writing a book is maybe 20 per cent writing and 80 per cent organization and logistics.
“For every hour I spend writing, I spend three hours thinking about writing,” he told Ferriss. “I’m just putting down on the page what has already been kind of figured out in my head.”
- Always deliver a story
When a reporter heads out into the field, they often discover the story they planned to write isn’t there.
Once, an editor sent me to cover a billiards championship with this question in mind: Does anyone care about billiards in the age of video games?
I showed up and asked that question, but no one seemed interested in it.
Knowing I still needed to file a story that day, I wrote the one that emerged from my interviews – a short, interesting piece about women in what was then a male-dominated sport.
If you start out with one story in mind and end up with a different one, it’s no problem. Just be sure to deliver something worth reading before the deadline passes.
- Don’t be condescending
It’s easy to think derisively about journalists, especially if you are a literary type who wants to win a Nobel Prize.
Some people think of journalists as failed writers, or hacks who couldn’t get a real job. Most people who think this way don’t know much about the depth, breadth and quality of writers who rely on journalism jobs to pay the bills.
In any case, reporters can teach us a great deal about how to be prolific, and the habits they acquire are worth holding onto.
“Those habits that I learned over that 10 years at the Washington Post have stayed with me,” said Gladwell.
I don’t know about you, but what works for him is good enough for me.