AJR logo     

 AJR  Books

From AJR,   June 2000  issue

A Valentine to the Art of Writing   

Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work

By Donald M. Murray
218 pages; $15.95

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Few people know as much about writing as Donald Murray, and even fewer write about it with such grace and wisdom.

He does have enviable credentials. Murray is a Boston Globe columnist, former Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer, veteran journalism professor, published poet, productive author and undisputed elder statesman among writing coaches.

Mostly, he seems to love writers and writing, and his new book is one more valentine to the art he has practiced for 65 years.

"Writing to Deadline" is oddly mistitled. It is not mainly aimed at journalists crunching against the clock, though it certainly can help them. At heart, this book embraces writing with a capital W, the craft and soul and lifestyle of writers, the compulsions and idiosyncrasies and rituals that define them and their work.

It covers the entire process from idea to editing, the tangibles and intangibles, the range of demands from story vision to sentence architecture.

Much of "Writing to Deadline" will be familiar to fans of Murray's out-of-print "Writing for Your Readers." "This book is built on its foundation," Murray writes, but it "adds far more as it describes what I am still learning in an apprenticeship that began in the fourth grade when I was ten years old and continues at the age of seventy-five as I write my weekly 'Over 60' column for the Boston Globe."

The book teems with good advice on large and small issues. Murray specializes in introducing a topic with a nice conceptual insight, then following up with specific advice on technique.

Take the matter of story organization. Where many writing books struggle through tedious descriptions of elaborate story forms, Murray presents three pages of simple drawings that illustrate various approaches. For example, he draws a cross to help visualize a feature story's anecdotal lead, context paragraph and body. He draws two wavy parallel lines to dramatize how a story can be "a meandering river as long as the current is strong enough to carry the reader forward."

Later he writes conversationally about seeking a "natural order" for stories, such as "the trip," "the search" or the "problem and solution." Then he offers and examines numerous examples from his own work and that of various Boston Globe writers.

Murray exudes an avuncular confidence that writing is not as hard as most of us make it. "Writing isn't a mystery," he maintains. "It is a process, a logical series of language acts that anyone who can write... can perform.... This book demystifies journalism."

But he does demand work. For example, he asserts that as a magazine writer he "regularly--and compulsively--averaged seventy-five draft leads (yes, I counted) before I found the right one, which of course might be lead number three or number twenty-seven, but after writing the others I now knew it was the right one."

He backs this up with a section called "Thirty Questions to Ask to Produce Effective Leads," in which he both spells out 30 questions and offers striking examples of 30 possible leads for one of his columns. Among the questions he recommends are:

* What one thing does the reader need to know more than any other?

* What would make the reader turn and say, "Now listen to this, Ira..."?

* Where is the tension in the story?

* What surprised me when I was reporting the story?

Murray firmly views writing as a process. He enumerates the steps in the process as follows: explore, focus, rehearse, draft, develop and clarify. But he also recognizes that writing calls on the right-brain imagination. "The most important writing is done away from the writing desk," he says, "when your unconscious and subconscious are playing with the subject."

He stresses the virtues of surprise. "The best writers seek surprise," he says, and he advises reporters to "look for what isn't there as much as what is, hear the unsaid as well as the said, imagine what might be." And he makes creative suggestions for both reporting for surprise (inventory the obvious, brainstorm, change your point of view, keep a notebook, read outside your interests) and writing for surprise ("write with velocity so that you race beyond your censors").

Frequently he delivers one-liners of near-perfect insight:

* "The biggest problems between writers and editors occur when the writer is at one stage of the process and the editor at another. This may happen when the writer is trying to find the order in which to tell the story and the editor responds line-by-line to spelling, mechanics, and grammar."

* "Here are reminders of what goes into the good reporter's notebook: What isn't being said--significant pauses, distances, facial expressions, gestures, body actions and reactions."

* "Say one thing. The greatest problem in news writing is the story that lacks focus."

Writing is a solitary act. "Writing to Deadline" is a companion that will make it much less lonely.