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A Deadline Column About Writing on Deadline

For the hell of it, I’m going to write 800 words by 10:30 a.m. because it’s a column about writing on deadline. It is now 9:52 a.m.

I thought of this because I bought a card the other day that had a drawing of a computer monitor above the words, "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."

I don’t know who said that, but it was not a daily newspaper hack.

We hackers – no matter my disguise today, I am and always will be a daily newspaper hack – can not afford to miss a deadline. Deadlines exist for good reason, sometimes ignored by artistes who believe they are a construct of wicked editors out to sabotage their art for the cackling good fun of it. Well, on deadline, I don’t want artists, I want mechanics. Get the thing done.

To miss a deadline is to make a page late. Then the presses start late, the trucks can’t get on the road without the papers, carriers stand around in the dark cursing because they can’t deliver the paper before everybody leaves for work, and, next thing you know, the industry is dead, finished, kaput, -30-, and will the last guy to leave the press box please turn out the lights?

OK, yes, of course, I exaggerate. I do it to make the point that it’s a better paper with your stuff in it than without. And anytime we can make today’s paper better than yesterday’s is a good day.

A hundred years ago, the New York Post columnist Milton Gross gave me the best piece of deadline-writing advice ever.

"Always be ready to write," he said. We were at a heavyweight championship fight. "Be thinking, if this ends on the next punch, ‘What can I write?’"

That question works for everything. I have worked with one of newspapering’s best sportswriters, a brilliant, gifted guy. But it often was hours after the event before he could write. He tape-recorded everything. He made notes that filled pages. Then he transcribed the tapes and re-read the notes. He made the writing an act of masochism. He typed in five possible adjectives for every noun and then went back later to delete the four he didn’t need. If he ever filed on deadline, it was not in my presence.

He was never ready to write.

To be ready, edit every minute. Don’t wait for it to be over. Think of the event as a kaleidoscope, the story changing with each turn.

Mark your notes as their importance. Things that must be in the story, make them distinctive – by using a colored pencil, or by asterisks, circles, whatever works to remind you, under the gun, the vise of time closing on your privates, THIS MUST BE USED. Furman Bisher, the Atlanta legend, writes notes in complete sentences that later show up in his column, somehow fitting perfectly into his theme. The rest of us lesser hacks are forced to translate from our scribblings. I’ve tried Bisher’s method, and can not make it work because I want each word and each sentence to grow out of the previous – and anything written out of context seems jarring.

(Speaking of jarring, my darling wife just showed up. "Whatcha writing?" she said. I said, in my kindest on-deadline way, "Go AWAY.")

Make cacophony your friend. You can not avoid the noise of an arena or the yakking of press box wits. Make it the music you never hear. Stephen King, in his book "On Writing," (oh God, now I gotta look it up, deadline flying toward me – 10:21 now), says he writes "to loud music – hard-rock stuff like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses, and Metallica . . . It surrounds me, keeps the mundane world out. When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds."

Do not go to the hospitality room at halftime. Figure out what your world is, not what someone else thinks it should be. Take the time to review your notes, get them in order; the more preparation you do during the event, the less you need to do later.

Then comes the fun part, the writing. My friend Bud Shaw of the Cleveland Plain Dealer says he does deadline columns in short, punchy sentences to achieve a "rhythm that makes me write quicker." It’s no time to get complex, not time to get artistic. It’s time to walk out there onto a high wire in the wind and see if you can you get to the other side.

It’s a test, it’s a dare, it’s a game within the game.

It’s an adrenaline junkie’s fix.

Done, you can smile.

It’s 10:29 a.m.

It’s 802 words.

Close enough.

Dave Kindred’s next book will be "Morning Miracle," an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295
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