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Your Writing Plan

Looking for ways to streamline the process of interviewing sources? Writers Joe Feiertag and Mary Carmen Cupito offer up some helpful hints.

Often, getting started on a writing project is the hardest part.

Most writing jobs, however, can be viewed as a sequence of doable tasks that follow the same general path from beginning to end. If you accomplish each task, in order, you can follow this plan to a finished piece.

A book, for example, is made of chapters. Break the book down into individual chapters, and break the chapters down into component parts. Schedule your writing project into your day at specific times, and, with a little luck but more hard work, you''ll finish your pieces on time.

For people who resent and resist scheduling, remember that creating a writing plan is meant to relieve some stress, organize your life and make your writing process more efficient. "Organizing is not meant to be uncomfortable," notes Stephanie Denton, a time management consultant who writes for Family Circle magazine. Meeting even mini-deadlines can lift your spirits and bolster your confidence. Simply crossing items off to-do lists feels so good that it rewards you for working toward your writing goals and keeps you writing.

Use these guidelines to help you fill in the charts in this chapter—to organize your time for writing—and finish your writing projects. There are seven general steps to take with any writing project, followed by a set of many smaller tasks that must be done to reach your writing goal.

The General Steps

  1. Set reasonable, measurable goals. Let''s say a magazine has expressed interest in your idea for an article and wants you to write it on spec (the publisher will only pay you the full fee if the editors like the article enough to publish it). The magazine has given you a month to write the piece. (If you''re writing without such an offer, give yourself your own deadline and treat it seriously.) Because you understand the power of the written word, you should write down a specific goal, complete with due date: "Finish article by [due date]."
  2. Divide and conquer. View your writing project not as an overwhelming monolith, but as a compilation of many smaller tasks. The reason hard jobs get bypassed is that they''re often not written manageably on your list of goals. "Write a book in the next year" is not only huge, it''s a nebulous goal, notes Denton. The scope of the project is daunting and the deadline is so far away that it seems unreal. So focus on smaller tasks you must do today, tomorrow, this week and this month to help you reach that goal. You''re likelier to accomplish many tasks in the near future than one vague goal in the faraway beyond; the specific tasks help you reach that distant goal step-by-step.
  3. Create a plan of ordered tasks. "Figuring out the order of things you need to get done is a priority," Denton says. Writing down these jobs in the order in which they should be done keeps you focused, as well as frees your mind to concentrate on the important thingsrather than wasting mental energy trying to remember all the niggling details that must be done each day.
  4. Set a starting date on your calendar for your writing project. Make it today.
  5. Work backward to make a schedule. The most important step in planning the time for your writing project is this one. On your calendar, mark the story''s final due date. Then, figure out when each of the specific items, in reverse order, must be completed if you are to meet that deadline with a finished piece. For example, if the story is due June 30, then the mailing deadline might be June 26, the final fact checking and polishing might have to be done by June 25, the second draft may have to be done by June 20, etc.
  6. Make a daily to-do list to accomplish the tasks. Next to each item on your list, write the time you think it will take to accomplish it and the deadline for completing it. People commonly put far too many items on to-do lists and, as a result, feel defeated when they have to copy uncompleted items from day to day. As William James once wrote, "Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task." So jot down what you can reasonably expect to accomplish in a day.
  7. This writing plan is likely to be forgotten in the pace of most hectic days unless you also formally make it part of your life. Transfer all your due dates to whatever organizing system you use to remind yourself of your other daily duties. Remember that even primary school children use day planners these days. Whether you think that''s a good development for civilization, it''s a fact of life that many grownups need them, too. Mark your writing deadlines on the daily planner to make them an official part of your day, as important as your other work and your personal commitments. Also mark them on a central calendar in your home or office.

The Specifics
Here are some specific tasks you need to do, in the general order you need to do them, to finish many writing pieces.

  1. Read. Take notes. Make copies. Read for content, but also read for what''s not there—questions that you need to answer. Read for insight and understanding. Read for new ideas. Do research in the library, on the Internet and/or at the scene. If you''re writing a complex, informational magazine piece, you''ll probably need many hours for research and interviewing. If you''re writing a personal-experience essay, you may not need any (but you do need time for reflection). Remember, most topics can be researched forever, especially if you use that great time-waster the Internet. Stay focused on your idea, and stop researching it when the information begins to sound repetitive.
  2. File your notes immediately, labeling them for easy retrieval later. Don''t skip this boring but crucial step. Nothing is more frustrating than spending hours looking for an article you know you''ve copied.
  3. Make a list of people you must interview. Depending on your story, you might want to subdivide this list into (1) official sources, who usually work in government or regulatory agencies; (2) expert sources, who know the topic better than most people; (3) academic sources, who study your topic and may teach others about it; and (4) "real people," whose lives are affected by your topic.
  4. List your interview questions. Usually begin with open-ended questions that the source will find easy to answer and will make him warm to the subjectand to you. End with questions that might annoy or even anger the source, but must be asked.
  5. Set up interviews. This step is often most difficult to manage, because your schedule must defer to those of your sources. So call people early to set up interviews. But don''t be surprised if a source says, "Let''s do it now." If that happens, pull out your question list and shoot. Tell all your sources that you may need to talk with them again to check facts to make sure your article is accurate. Most people welcome such follow-up calls.
  6. Conduct interviews. You will get better information, and far more descriptive notes, by interviewing people in person. But doing so eats up great quantities of time. Budget according to your time and your story''s needs.
  7. Read and reread your notes. Highlight important parts. Think about what you''ve learned. This requires time, too, so budget for it.
  8. Make an outline. Complicated stories probably require formal outlines, with main points and facts to bolster them. One easy way to do this is to write main points on index cards, along with their sources, and rearrange the cards into a logical sequence. Simpler pieces may need only a rough image in your head showing where you want the story to go.
  9. Write a first draft. Don''t put absurd pressure on yourself by expecting to write a lyrical masterpiece as soon as your fingers hit the keys. It''s often easier to write if you get a draft down and tell yourself you''ll rework it later to make it sing.
  10. Edit or rewrite as often as necessary (or until time runs out). Often, the first draft is too long. Rereading it, or giving it to someone else to read, presents options for tightening it. Work at polishing the ideas, the structure and the language.
  11. When you''re satisfied, check all the facts in your piecetwice. When it gets published, you can bet a reader will know if you''ve made a mistake.
  12. Mail it. E-mailing pieces to your editor may give you a few extra days to work on a story. But if your publisher wants paper, you must allow a few days in your schedule for the post office to deliver it on time.
  13. Work with editors to polish the piece. Editors are paid to ask questions, and they will ask questions. Build in time for working with them to make changes on one piece as you''re beginning this process again for another.
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