Have you ever wondered how sportswriters produce stories so soon after the game ends? The Toronto Sun could get articles and columns on the street by 1 a.m. about a hockey game that ended after 10:30 p.m. They didn’t write it after the game, but during the game, using techniques called “running copy.”
You write a continuous narrative to capture a developing event, such as the championship game of the Final Four, a chef preparing a miraculous dessert, or a problematic birth. You draft action paragraphs as events unfold, without worrying too much about significance until later. The problem is that you don’t know until the end what was really important for the outcome. So running copy is like taking notes, only in a more finished form. The techniques work best when you can predict the overall shape, actors, and conventions of the event, such as a Senate hearing.
Themes develop as you go along, and you can revise key paragraphs during breaks in the action. If leads or endings or key sentences pop into your head, you type them in. You can select or revise or delete them later. Some writers take separate notes, while others simply type notes into the running copy.
When the event ends, you may want some reactions from the actors, and it’s easy to poke them into the existing frame. You make final decisions about beginnings and endings and structure, do a quick revision, and submit it. Although I’m emphasizing speed here, these techniques work well for handling a lot of fairly predictable information seen from a limited vantage point.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? They key sentence in that previous paragraph is “predictable.” Sometimes the event is running smoothly on rails, and you know exactly how it’ll all turn out, and you start revising toward that end, just tidying up. And suddenly, the patient dies. Luckily you don’t have to write from scratch. You re-select what you’ve written, re-cast the order, compose a new lead and ending, maybe grab a few new reactions. See why screenfuls of pre-written paragraphs pay off?
In a related technique, you compose running copy and file it as fast as you type it, usually by some sort of electronic hookup, such as the Internet. An editor receives it, and edits each bit as it comes in, awaiting the writer’s final decisions. In some cases, the editor actually writes the story from what you send, reminiscent of early days of newspaper rewrite men. “Hello, Sweetheart, get me rewrite.”
Like all methods that try to get things out as fast as possible, running copy risks publishing errors by not being properly edited. Copyeditors may not have time to check facts outside the narrative, such as sports statistics. For example, the writer might say from memory that this is the worst loss in 15 years, when it isn’t.
Now, you’re thinking that you don’t cover events, much less sports, so running copy is irrelevant for you. But you should try it, even on a few pieces you don’t submit. You’ll be surprised how it improves your normal notetaking and speedy decision making.
[Know any running-copy techniques? I’d like to hear them.]