Writing Fast and Under Pressure
David Elliot is known for his writing skills, especially his ability to write fast and under pressure. When I reached out to him to ask if I could interview him for the PCDC blog, he said sure, but he did not know that he had much to share. He was wrong!
David works for the Coalition on Human Needs, an alliance of primarily national organizations with a broad scope of work, including civil rights, religious, labor, health care, nutrition assistance, anti-poverty, education, the elderly and people with disabilities. David says, “Our strength comes, not from within our talented but small staff, but from our coalition, which has over 100 member organizations. Our job is to amplify the work of our coalition members.” Even so, David has to write about a lot of different issues, sometimes at breakneck speed.
How does he do it? David says he had some great experience early on in his career, when he was a reporter at the Bryan-College Station Eagle. ‘When I was hired at the Eagle,” David says. “I was told there was a quota for reporters — three stories a day, Monday through Friday, in addition to two longer think pieces a week. I thought, that’s kind of a lot, but I got going. From the get go, I did it! I was meeting their silly quota. In fact, one day, I wrote the entire front page of the paper. After six months or so, one of my colleagues pulls me aside and said, ‘You know there is not really a quota. One of the editors says that to intimidate new reporters.’ No one had actually achieved the quota before. But what this did was, it helped me figure out how to multi-task in my brain. I was getting call backs on three different stories every day and juggling diverse beat areas back and forth like you would not believe.” David’s advice to anyone in their twenties? “Put yourself through a boot camp like that. It’s worth it!”
While he confesses that he has not had to churn out pieces at such breakneck speed since then, he does have demanding assignments. His most important tip might be considered by some as counter-intuitive: “avoid creating in front of your computer.” He suggests instead: “Create when you are waking up. Create when you are falling asleep. Create when you are in the shower. Create when you are commuting to and from work, but try not to get killed in the process! By the time you sit down at your keyboard, you should be all about typing and polishing as you type your copy.”
I got quite a chuckle out of that because I have been doing that all my life, but not on purpose. I think about a writing project while I run, walk my dog, take a shower, and ugh… as I am trying to fall asleep. In fact, I keep a notebook beside my bed to record ideas as they come so I don’t stay up worrying about whether I will forget them by morning. While I considered that a problem, David considers it the best way to write. As we discussed this, I found that l loved that he turned my accidental process on its head. Instead of trying to stop thinking during these times, I need to embrace it. This is when my brain is most relaxed and creative. Why not purposely take advantage of it?
David says this process allows you to have your piece mapped out in your brain before you sit down at the keyboard. An example of his writing before typing is in black and white in his recently published blog that explains why the Trump admin keeps losing in federal court. He started thinking about the pieces in June… yes, I said June. He was regularly seeing new court rulings. He looked it up. There had been 58 cases, and Trump prevailed in just five. He’d never put anything down on paper, just thought a lot. Last week everything fell in place and it was time to write. “When I finally sat down to write,” says David, “it took me 30 minutes, but that was because the story needed a lot of links. The piece was kind of complicated; I had to figure out how to make the Administrative Procedures Act sound sexy. I think it worked.”
“The same thing happened with a piece I did this week. Last week we lost an amazing leader and civil rights hero, Representative Elijah Cummings. When he passed, I had been writing a series of blog posts on seriously ill immigrant children who were being cut off from medical treatment by Trump. I saw a story on CNN that reported that just hours before Mr. Cummings died, he signed off on subpoenas for two Trump officials to testify before his committee on how the hell the White House came up with this policy. There was no record of the policy on paper, it was a black hole.” He connected the dots in his blog, paying tribute to Cummings, while at the same time updating the public on what is happening to seriously ill immigrant children. The piece is a great read and a great tribute: Protecting Immigrant Children: The Last Acts of a Hero and Civil Rights Icon. “The way this piece came together, I did not even write it, all I had to do was sit back and type the words into the computer.”
As someone who worked for the federal government for years, I am used to relying on talking points to help frame out my writing. I asked David about this. He says, “A lot of people rely on talking points, and I am not going to knock that, but I find them somewhat stilted and inhibiting. I can’t write an interesting blog from talking points. I want to tell a story and hopefully that story is going to involve people. It’s amazing the amount of copy written about health care, preexisting conditions, or uninsured Americans. I read these stories and so often something is missing, there is not a single person in there. It’s important to make people feel the pain that Americans are feeling.”
Even people like David must get writers block every once in a while, though, right? Maybe not. David says, writers block is “code for you don’t know what your message is; you don’t know what your story is; you don’t know where you are going.” And probably it means you are writing at your keyboard, right? Got ya! “If you have writers block,” says David, “you probably did not think it out while you were walking the dog or showering, so now here you are.” Time to take a walk, get a cup of coffee, or maybe sleep on it. Once you have your thoughts in order, or do some more research, you will be ready to write. Just ask David.