Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

New Series: Writing Tips - 25 Years From FT to SVW...

Posted by Tom Foremski - January 21, 2011

The other day I was invited by the San Francisco Blog Club to speak on the topic of writing tips. My talk was titled "From The Financial Times to Silicon Valley Watcher- 25 years of writing tips."

I've worked in traditional media and in the "new media" so I've accumulated a few observations that have helped me in my work.

I came up with about 25 tips. It was a great turnout and I received some excellent feedback. It was interesting to see how people picked out different tips as being important to them.

I was also asked to write them down, so here is the first installment in a regular series that will appear on Fridays. I hope you'll find some of these tips interesting and useful. And please share your tips too!

#1 - Know your audience.

This seems like a very basic tip but in the same way that I have to remind PR people that they need to know the publication they are pitching to, writers need to have a good knowledge of the publication's readers.

When I worked at the Financial Times we needed to run reader surveys and focus groups to determine who our readers were and which sections they were reading. These days various online tools provide a very detailed snapshot of a publication's readership, in fact, a much more detailed analysis of the readership of a single article!

This would have been impossible just a few years ago.

When I left the FT in 2004 and became a "journalist blogger" it was interesting to see where my articles were being read and shared. Sometimes they would end up in communities that you would not expect, such as music DJs, or video producers.

That's an unexpected bonus to be picked up in diverse communities of readers but in some ways, that can be a distraction. It is important to know your core community and the topics that are important to those readers. It requires constant monitoring.

#2 - The importance of deadlines.

When I was working at the Financial Times we had three major deadlines throughout the day with the first deadline at 10am, which meant we had to write one to three news stories in about 2 hours. That's a very tight deadline to get your news list sorted and discussed with editors, then all your research and interviews, and then write the stories.

Once a story has gone to press that's it - it can't be changed until the next edition, which is hours away. This is both good and bad. The good thing is that your work is finished and you can move onto the next story.

But in today's online world a story is never done, you can go back and make changes, updates -- all day long. There is no end to a story. But you do need to end a story so that you can go onto the next one.

That's why it is important to set deadlines, even though they are arbitrary, so that you don't spend all your time fiddling with stories and can get onto the next one.

Deadlines also help with procrastination. When you have an hour to research and write a breaking news story you don't have time to stare out of the window. You need to get the job done well and on time. Deadlines are a great productivity booster.

Veteran writers will instinctively know how much time they need to meet a deadline and they will push it to the limit because there is nice adrenaline boost as you feel yourself working at peak productivity.

But it is tough to set arbitrary deadlines. I try and schedule events and other things throughout the day which forces me to get my work done before I go off to lunch, or yoga, or go join friends at archery in the park.

Another suggestion is to keep a kitchen timer on your desk and allocate specific amount of time to each task.

Having a set time where there is an end to your work day also helps to set a deadline.

Although the US workplace culture values long hours at the office and then taking your work home it doesn't mean it's productive work. Sitting at a desk is easy.

When the French instituted a 35 hour work week many people, especially in the US, sniggered because of our long work hours and a masochistic pride in being "always-on."

But France didn't sink below the waves. Instead, the French labor force became the most productive in Europe. That's because it had to get the work done in the 35 hours allotted.

It's amazing what you can do when your time is constrained. Seek out those constraints and use them to your advantage.

More tips next week. It's time for some archery in the park :)


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