On knowing when to take my own damn advice

I remember well the week leading up to my sophomore year spring break. I was in the midst of a busy semester that consisted of school board elections, meetings and my first longer project. I was ready to flee from Columbia as soon as I made my Thursday night deadline.

Because I can remember acutely how I felt sitting in the newsroom that Thursday at midnight, I started imparting a very specific kind of advice. Since then, the first thing I would tell new reporters on my beat was to make sure to take some time for themselves when they felt near a breaking point. I’ve probably repeated that sentiment to three or four iterations of my beat, not to mention countless peers and students who ask for advice on working at the Missourian.

But of course, as we all are wont to do, I failed to take my own advice just two quick years later. Before I could leave for spring break this year, I had to finish a first draft of each of the two stories I’ve been working on for Intermediate Writing. I didn’t have a single word written on Monday, the cherry on top of a frantic month of reporting and trying to make up for inconvenient snow days.

Suffice it to say, I turned in my drafts after having spent a solid week compressing my writing process. Normally I’d take probably twice as much time to go back through notes, transcribe interviews and plan out drafts, but not this time. By Thursday at 6:20 p.m., I sent off 112 total inches of copy and didn’t look back once I set foot in Shakespeare’s. Phew. I did it.

And I had an interesting bit of self-discovery along the way. I nailed down my process to get from reporting mode to writing mode. For all those inquiring minds, here’s a brief sketch:

  1. Transcribe all notes and interviews and get them in one place. Make sure studies and documents have been read and annotated.
  2. Print out said notes and documents, and read through them, labeling sections in longhand based on loose themes or subjects
  3. Write a brief outline, mostly consisting of orders of subjects and descriptions for ledes/nut grafs. Also include which parts of interviews were most important to get in.
  4. Take the outline and, side-by-side with the printed notes, start writing, crossing out sections as you go. It’s easiest to write based off one interview, study or subject at a time and then combine sections, but this might vary. A squiggly line means something was used, while short diagonal slashes mean the section should be cut. Write until you think you’ve used everything.
  5. Mess with the structure until you can tolerate it, refine the nut graf and the lede, do cursory editing. Decide whether you included voice or just rambled incoherently.
  6. Close you eyes and hit “send.” Hope for the best.

While the drafts were my primary exit ticket, I had grand plans to work on my annotated bibliography and research paper proposal for other classes during my week “off.”

But the best laid plans of mice and men, they say, often go awry. And awry they went, though not in a bad way.

I decided, after an almost seven hour drive back home to Chicago, that I wouldn’t be doing much work while I was home. I deserved a little break, right? I could spare the time, I told myself. Plus, I had various editors urging that in no uncertain terms, I was to take some quality time for myself. A move, I imagine, that probably benefits their well-being as much as my own.

So, since last Friday, I’ve slept, eaten, cooked, enjoyed Pesach with my family, shopped, watched mindless television, and just plain vacationed for a change.

This really isn’t a writing-centric post this week, but that shouldn’t discount its importance. To be a good writer and reporter, I need to be able to give my all to my work. To be able to give my all, I need to be in relatively good humors. And to be in good humors, I need the occasional bit of time off. I’ll return to Columbia well-fed, well-rested and with a couple more sweaters to my name.

Moral of the story: everyone can spare some time to relax and recharge. And even when I forget to let myself off the hook from time to time, I’m grateful I have editors and parents who don’t mind giving me a nudge in the right direction.