Dumb assignments

Sometimes you get an assignment you really don’t want, because your heart isn’t in it. It means nothing to you and sounds boring, and you can’t imagine investing ten seconds of your life in it. So you probably do what most writers do in that situation: you procrastinate, making it worse. Here are some strategies for dealing with other people’s dumb ideas:

1. Keep delaying until your editor forgets.

2. Write something sort of related to the assignment, hoping your editor won’t notice.

3. Do some gathering, then confer with your editor, presenting the assignment material dully, but related material brilliantly.

All three of these tactics involve guerilla warfare, and will probably lead to worse assignments, or none. Here are some better tactics:

4. Do some gathering and then discuss the assignment with your editor, moving sideways.

5. Get pissed off about the subject rather than the assignment.

6. Ask yourself how the assignment touches your life or the lives of people you know.

7. Start gathering information immediately before you drown in self-pity.

8. Narrow the context by finding the specific and the particular.

9. Expand the context and start exploring the context.

10. Brainstorm with a friend about potential approaches.

11. Imagine potential readers, why they would read this piece, and what they might want to know.

12. Talk to real people. As Jim Nicholson, the star obituary writer, said, “Everybody’s interesting if you’re a good enough
reporter.”

13. Go find someone whose life will be affected by this subject.

14. Do the assignment as quickly and simply as possible to get it out of the way.

The gist of all this is to give the idea a chance. Talk to people and see what happens.

I once asked Murray Kempton, the famous curmudgeon columnist for Newsday, how he dealt with dopey ideas from editors. He said he immediately leaves the building and starts talking to people on the street “to gather material to throw in the editor’s face to show him how dumb his idea was.” I asked him if his technique worked. He replied, “You know, once I start talking to people, the idea gets pretty good.”

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Published in: on June 19, 2009 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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