I started my writing career at a daily newspaper. This was in the ancient past, when computers had only recently replaced typewriters. We still harvested Associated Press wire copy from a hefty metal monstrosity whose endless roll of paper sputtered day and night.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the simple fact that readers expect to read stuff. And reporters are expected to write stuff. On a deadline, sometimes an absurdly tight one.
There’s no better motivation than a managing editor standing over you, glowering, as the minutes tick away. Sure, you’re probably not a beleaguered cub reporter (though if you are, you have my sympathy), but you can act like one to move your project ahead.
I’m well aware that your memoir or family history is not remotely like a news story in terms of content. But even award-winning novelists sometimes need to get into a productivity-at-all-costs mindset: You will write this [sentence, character, conversation, chapter], and you will write it right now.
If you’re determined to get your manuscript moving ASAP, try these time-tested journalistic strategies.
Get the Facts
What we call procrastination is sometimes just anxiety. We don’t want to write what we don’t fully understand. So print out your manuscript and highlight every fact that needs checking. All that yellow might be disconcerting, but the way forward will be obvious once you start resolving it. And it’s easier to stomach than your editor's proverbial red pen.
Go Straight To the Source(s)
The phone is your friend, and reporters rely on the fact that people love to talk about what they know. One call to an expert (and that could be a genealogist, a cousin, or a friend with relevant skills) can fill in the missing details—even better, the missing contexts—that have been making you nervous. At the very least, you’ll know what you don’t know!
Write Around It
When you inevitably can’t track down every answer, don’t let that stop your forward motion. It’s fine to admit that you don’t know a part of your story—and move on! Don’t let perfectionism or small factual holes impede the big picture of what you do know. Journalists sometimes use the magic phrase “It’s unclear…” in their writing, and you can too. For example: “It’s unclear how our family left Algeria, but we do know that Grandmère was living in France in 1950.”
What happens when you discover that the story you think you’re writing is not the story that wants to be written? Reporters sometimes start with a preconceived notion, only to hear “Well, actually” from every source. Instead of pounding away at your original idea, open yourself up to new possibilities. You might discover that family mythology can’t hold a candle to a more complicated (and interesting) reality.
For the beat reporter, that means short sentences and paragraphs, not grand epics. Just about every paragraph in a news story should be able to stand on its own (so that if one gets deleted for some reason, the whole piece doesn’t fall apart). Memoirists should think in similar terms: Aim to create vignettes, anecdotes, flashes of memory and insight. These impressionistic pieces will eventually reveal the shape of the whole story.
Traditional news stories are built with the most important info at the top, with supporting info unfolding below. (This system was designed in the Olden Days, when pages were composed by pasting down typeset stories and cutting them—with an Xacto knife!—from the bottom up if they ran too long for their allotted space.) You shouldn’t structure your biographical work so systematically, but in the same way, you can focus on the big picture and not be distracted by peripheral information, at least not in your first draft.
Ask For Help
Sometimes, the best course of action is realizing that you’re in over your head. It’s better for journalists to admit that they’re in trouble well before deadline and get another pair of eyes on their work. For the memoirist or family historian, it’s better to admit that you can’t design your own book—and really don’t need to learn how, frankly—than to make a frustrating mess of it. It might save both time and money to find a freelance designer, writer, researcher, or photo professional to help out (start by checking the BGGNY membership directory), or just to advise you.
If the above isn’t convincing, maybe it’s time for an encore viewing of All the President’s Men or Spotlight, a couple of films that elevate the life of the dogged reporter. Or maybe just sit down to write, set an alarm on your phone, and pretend your own glowering editor is waiting impatiently for that brilliant copy.