The secret to success … write lots

Someone once asked five-time Tour de France winner Eddie Merckx how to become a better bicycle racer, to which the Cannibal responded, “Ride lots.”

Over the past four months, I’ve been asked to “write lots.”

As a contract writer for both an individual television station news website and a freelance regional editor for a group of television stations, I write — lots. Most days it’s five to 10 stories or more.

My job is to take the broken English of reporters in the field and turn it into prose using what I commonly refer to as casual AP Style — it’s not quite newspaper worthy, but it’s not nearly as conversational as what airs on TV.

One of the trickiest parts of working with reporter scripts is to take stories that rely a lot on visuals to make them work and create word pictures that can carry the reader through. Trust me, there’s a lot of imagination required here.

I also interpret the language of law enforcement agents into the words that the person on the street can understand. In other words, less cop jargon and more common English. But even the best of us fall into the cop-speak trap every once in a while.

And, of course, there is the coaxing of news releases intended to promote a product or event into a newsworthy tone that can be used on local television websites.

What I do is often called turn-and-burn journalism. Because website news is constantly shifting, there’s little time to make things as pretty as other journalists who are afforded weeks or months to carefully craft words into magic.

But there’s something to be said for the MASH approach to writing. You write a lot. And you write things that you are unfamiliar with. And you write about places you don’t know much about.

But for a writer, it’s a proving ground like few others. It tests your speed. It tests your accuracy. It tests your ability to turn a phrase and then pick back up and do it again on the next story. It tests your mettle.

Because I’m a contract worker, if I don’t work, I don’t eat. It’s that simple here in the land of the new normal for journalism. So for nine hours a day, seven days a week, I write. I turn three lines of editor or producer notes into coherent content for the Web. I take involved investigative pieces and turn them into Web-worthy material.

I  imagine this literary boot camp is much like the one Ernest Hemingway experienced as he honed his economy of words writing style while working for newspapers, such as The Kansas City Star.

Make no mistake, I know I’m far from a Hemingway. But I look at this experience as just another way in which I’ve transformed myself throughout my career. At one time, I was a good writer for a photographer and a good photographer for a writer.

Then I became a photo editor. And then an assignments editor. And then a photo director. And in the past three years, it’s been back to my beginnings as a writer, but in a new genre.

After this experience of writing every day, I know I’m ready for whatever form of writing comes my way, whether it’s journalism, blogging, marketing, advocacy or public relations.

People always ask, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I guess my pat answer is to keep reinventing myself as the job landscape changes.

But one thing is for sure, the only true way to get better in whatever form of writing you do is to … write lots.


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