The 15-minute workout

Serious about getting better? Pick one technique from our list and work on it–every stinking day

While you were making your New Year’s resolutions, did you pledge to improve at your job? Was it a big, fuzzy promise? (“I will be in the paper more often with more dailies…” “I will be in the paper less often and do more A-1 stories…” “I will try harder to help my reporters…”)

The 15-minute workout

The 15-minute workout

The world gets in the way of those kinds of resolutions most days. So, instead, how about promising to do something practical–something you could actually do every day? How about promising yourself to steal a small amount of time every day—let’s say 15 minutes—to do one thing that will make you better? For example, you can vow to apply one additional minor refinement to every story you do, if you tend to do a lot of them. Or, you can create a daily habit (such as more one phone call a day to build a potential new source) that doesn’t depend on whether you’re writing.

Last year, in a variety of seminars throughout California, I asked each participant to pledge 15 minutes a day to a particular personal cause that would make him or her better. Here, for your consideration, are some of the ideas I heard:

1. One more read of my copy to cut fat.
2. One more read to hone the perspective graf
3. One more read to try to make a “report” sound a little more like a “story.”
4. Think more about story structure before writing, rather than heading for the keyboard and “discovering” the story while writing it.
5. Polishing the language that connects the anecdote to the nut graf
6. More one more call to a source who will allow me to write with more authority/confidence.
7. Writing a theme statement that guides my writing.
8. (From an editor) Read stories earlier in the day so I have time to ask for a rewrite rather than trying to fix them myself.
9. One more read to eliminate mediocre quotes
10. Spend more time preparing interview questions.
11. Read my story aloud before filing it.
12. Interview a person affected by the government story I’m writing.
13. Read one great newspaper story a day.
14. Translate jargon
15. (From an editor) Do a better job of explaining the changes I want to make.
16. Write better transitions to explain why a new theme is being introduced in the story
17. When I self-edit, envision an audience that has Attention Deficit Disorder.
18. One more read to reconcile detail with the larger question of what is essential.
19. Try harder to humanize crime stories
20. Make sure I know beginning and end of story before I start typing.
21. Probe the senses
22. One more read for sentence length.
23. Use my own voice instead of an anecdote
24. Improve endings by injecting a sense of anticipation.
25. (From an editor) Encourage my writers to take chances
26. Examine whether each graf plays a specific and unique role
27. Make sure the ending resonates back to the beginning
28. Start over when my first draft requires it
29. If the lead won’t come, try writing the body.
30. (From an editor) Read the whole story before forming a judgment
31. Write subheads in longer stories as a way of reminding yourself to write in chunks/scenes
32. (From an editor) Make sure in prewriting consultation to reach a consensus on the theme of the story
33. Stop worrying what “they”–bosses–will think of it. Use your instincts
34. Ask yourself repeatedly: “What happened?”
35. When interviewing, ask enough questions so subjects are forced to put themselves into a scene, giving you more opportunities to present them in action
36. Do a post-mortem on your story once it’s in print

Some of these considerations can eat up more than 15 minutes, but many the can be accomplished quickly. They’re presented as a reminder of the endless number of calculations we make—or should make—every day. Getting better may start with a general promise, but inevitably you’re going to have to sweat the small stuff.

Pick one, or perhaps two, qualities and devote yourself to them for a month, or until they become part of your hierarchy of habits. Then add another, and another, and another.

Let’s take an example: Number 6—”I promise to spend an extra 15 minutes a day doing one more interview to help me write with more confidence and authority.” Let’s combine it with Number 13—”I promise to read one great newspaper story a day.” The reading can help you discover specific qualities of authority, studying how the writer accomplished it. Let’s take the L.A. Times’ Page 1 examination of the sloppiness of America’s vote-counting process, and see what we find (with my reader’s observations in italics at the end of each graf):

Because ballots can be bought, stolen, miscounted, lost, thrown out or sent to Denmark, nobody knows with any precision how many votes go uncounted in American elections. (Hmmm, the punchiness of that dependent clause is interesting—bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, five verbs in a row. I could steal that trick…)

For weeks, Florida has riveted the nation with a mind-numbing array of failures: misleading ballots, contradictory counting standards, discarded votes–19,000 in one county alone. But an examination by The Times in a dozen states from Washington to Texas to New York shows that Florida is not the exception. It is the rule. (Hmmm, each of the three sentences in that graf got progressively shorter, which seemed to have a focusing effect…)

State and local officials give priority to curbing crime, filling potholes and picking up trash. That often leaves elections across the country underfunded, badly managed, ill equipped and poorly staffed. Election workers are temporaries, pay is a pittance, training is brief and voting systems are frequently obsolete. (Hmmm, I love the way specifics fly at me, building a case, and there’s no attribution…)

“You know why we never paid attention to this until now?” asks Candy Marendt, co-director of the Indiana Elections Division. “I’ll tell you: because we don’t really want to know. We don’t want to know that our democracy isn’t really so sacred. . . . (Hmmm, love the directness of the quote; she’s right in your face…)

“It can be very ugly.” (Hmmm, quote breaks to a separate graf for impact…seems a little hyped but it’s a trick worth thinking about…)

The examination shows: (Hmmm, nice set-up… anticipates that I’m ready for a tour around the nation…good speed…)

–New York City voters use metal lever-action machines so old they are no longer made, each with 27,000 parts. Similar machines in Louisiana are vulnerable to rigging with pliers, a screwdriver, a cigarette lighter and a Q-Tip. (Hmmm, look how quickly that second sentence moved, just the essentials. I’ll bet if I were writing it I would have wasted another sentence on how the rigging was actually performed….)

–In Texas, “vote whores” do favors for people in return for their absentee ballots. Sometimes the canvassers or consultants, as they prefer to be called, simply buy the ballots. Failing all else, they steal them from mailboxes. (Hmmm, there’s that three-sentence trick again: narrower, narrower, narrower….)

–Alaska has more registered voters than voting-age people. Indiana, which encourages voting with…

Focusing on a primary quality often allows you to stumble into a secondary quality that serves as a building block. Let’s say you were cruising the Chicago Tribune’s web site on Nov. 19 and happened to begin reading Part I of a four-part series about a day in the life of O’Hare Airport, which won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. You might have been looking for tricks to more authoritative writing, only to realize that the top of this story gained its authority by using the power of sensory description (Promise No. 21) in favor of quotes (Promise No. 9):

The air smells like stale hamburgers and unbrushed teeth.

It smells like cold coffee, like sour beer. It smells like exhaustion.

The air smells as if it has been inhaled and exhaled by too many people for far too long and they are breathing it still, snoring and snuffling, sighing and murmuring as they sprawl about O’Hare International Airport like refugees from some invisible war.

Everywhere you look there are bodies. Stretched along tables and the conveyor belts of X-ray machines. Curled up on baggage carousels, slumped against walls and draped along benches. There are people slung out on the floor, their faces inches away from swinging feet, and people draped around one another like sculpture, trying to find comfort in the curve of a shoulder or bend of a back.

Some feign or force themselves into sleep, shutting out the fluorescent lights, the blare of “Monday Night Football” on television sets they can’t turn off, the incessant beep of motorized carts. Others stare, glassy-eyed, at lightning flickering against the dark, rain-spattered windows, thinking about meetings unmet, vacations postponed and children who went to bed unkissed.

There are almost 6,000 people at O’Hare tonight. They are all supposed to be somewhere else. (Yet another promise is about to be fulfilled, No. 5, on better anecdote-to-nut coordination. Watch how the story moves toward it from this graf.)

They are stuck here instead, in an airport that once prided itself on being the world’s busiest and now is notorious for making more of its passengers late than any other airport in the country.

In many ways, the transformation of O’Hare from sleek symbol of the jet age to the bus station of the skies parallels the changes in air transportation itself: from fine china and travel suits to foil-packed peanuts and cutoffs, dirty diapers jammed into seat pockets and security guards stationed behind the customer service desk.

Almost 700 million passengers now fly…

Raise your right hand and repeat after me: “I promise to spend 15 minutes a day doing (fill in the blank) to get better at (fill in the blank).” Remember, there are only two kinds of journalists…