TV news is a career that forces you not only to be a master planner, but to plan in chaos. I spent 25 years in front of a camera. Even though it’s been almost that many since I left the business, I can still tell you what time it is within a 10-minute window. I can read building shadows like sundials. I create long-term plans, short-term plans, backup plans, and contingency plans. And I almost never get writer’s block.'I create long-term plans, short-term plans, backup plans, contingency plans. I almost never get writer’s… Click To Tweet
TV forces you to be hyper-aware of the clock, in some part of your brain, at all times. You can boost your writing productivity, too, if you follow the mindset of a TV newsperson.
1. Nothing teaches time management like a 6 p.m. deadline
In TV, the term “back-timing” refers to how long it takes to read an intro before the sound on tape starts. It’s also the way TV news people live their lives. If you have the lead story for the 6 o’clock news, you need to figure in every possible building block of your day – plus Murphy’s Law. You automatically factor in drive time and traffic. You mentally subtract editing time from that long-winded interviewee and add it back in by eating at the drive-through. You calculate to the second how long it will take to set up and strike the equipment, write the script and set up a live shot. Practice this principle on busy days and you’ll never be late.
2. TV news breeds creative problem solving
Remember the reporter in Maine who hilariously imitated a bear attack in a live shot? She became the object of viral scorn, but I think she deserves kudos for improvisation on deadline. I’ll bet money it was a slow news night. Someone came up with a last-minute story idea – or their interviewee backed out – so the reporter winged it. Because the show must go on. Pretend you have ten minutes to prepare a major presentation and see how easily you can dip into that well of creativity.
3. There is no worse sin than a “black hole” in a newscast
Dead air. No story. “Technical difficulties.” They are anathema to a newscast. An extreme example is the time an Alaska reporter admitted at the end of her story that she owned the cannabis club she reported on and walked off the news set with a four-letter flourish. I felt sorry for the stumbling anchorwoman, even sorrier for the producer in the booth who undoubtedly used some choice words, too. The newsroom mantra is to do everything and anything to avoid the black hole. In everyday life, imagining a worst-case scenario helps to heighten your senses when you’re performing under the gun.
4. You’re only as good as your last performance
Unless you’re an OCD channel surfer, you won’t notice this, but if one TV channel has an exclusive, hot story, the competition goes crazy: objects are thrown in fury, phones are dialed, and sometimes heads roll. The stench of failure and lost advertising dollars wafts up from the newsroom to the sales department. If it happens on occasion, it’s chalked off as just being human. If it becomes a pattern, something needs fixing. The good news for media, and the everyday life of a writer, is that it’s always a news day, and very few mistakes are fatal.
5. Just start doing
In TV news, you can’t afford writer’s block. You can’t stress over the perfect shot you missed. Perfecting takes time, and most stories have to be pounded out. The more you practice letting ideas flow, the easier it will become to get started on that project. As my writer friend Barbara Grassey says, “It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to get done.”
TV news is part chess player, part live performer and part engineer. You must become a problem solver while making it look easy. You must be a perfectionist at high-level planning without ignoring (or sweating) the details.
Watch a few local newscasts and think about the sense of urgency behind the scenes that got that story on the air. You might rethink your own approach to productive freelance writing.'You might rethink your own approach to productive freelance writing' Click To Tweet