At the age of 19, I had one major goal that was driving my journalism education: Impress Steve Lorenzo.
Steve was the instructor of my first journalism writing class and he was pretty much exactly the guy I wanted to be: Smart, funny, talented and gifted. He had a way of grabbing the most chaotic sentences off the screens of our Mac Classic computers and crunching them down into incredible journalistic prose. He was able to reorder your messy chronology into a perfect inverted pyramid on the fly, never once stopping to ponder what he needed to do. The way you or I would wiggle a finger is how Steve would keyboard our work to perfection: It was as if journalism was attached to his central nervous system.
Of all the things he taught me, the most important came when time was running out during a lab exercise and I was one of the last people in the room. I was trying to make the words of a lead do what he said they needed to do, even as those words were being decidedly uncooperative. I was always looking for “another word for…” whatever it was I was trying to write. (I think it was an accident brief. You can only say “accident” or “crash” in so many ways…)
As Steve called out the minutes until our stuff was due, I kind of yelped out a phrase that I know I’ve heard at least a squillion times as an instructor: “But I’m not DONE yet!”
Steve’s response: “Journalism is never done. It’s just due.”
Whether he came up with that on his own or he borrowed it from someone else, I’ll never know. (I use this constantly and always do my best to disabuse students of the notion that I was smart enough to come up with it on my own.) However, that became the “a-ha!” moment for me that made journalism a lot less painful. (It still was painful, but not as much as it would have been had I not heard that bit of wisdom.)
His point was that you can always make something a bit better or a bit smoother or a bit clearer if you had five more minutes or 10 more months to work on it. However, the goal of journalism is to put forward the best possible representation of reality for your readers in the time you have available.
As I began to work deeper into journalism and then into journalism education, I took this to heart and used it to craft what I called my “90% rule.” The idea was that I wanted my writing to be 90% of the way to “as good as it’s gonna get” in two good swings: Draft one-Edit 1 and Draft 2-Edit 2.
After that, everything was a function of time and diminishing returns. I could spend six hours debating a comma that might make something .00001% better, but that’s a waste of time. That said, if I put in another hour and got it to 95%, that would be good if I had the hour to give. If not, at least 90% gets me to a point where I don’t embarrass myself.
For those of you still looking for your “a-ha!” moment or just feeling like you’re a 3-year-old who lost your mom at Walmart when you write, give this Columbia Journalism Review article a look. Dozens of top-notch journalists reveal when they learned a lesson they carry with them to this day. They share their “a-ha!” moments, with some being successes that inspired them while others were failures that left scars.
Another good read, especially if you’re the kind of person who can’t let go of a piece, is this take on perfectionism. A lot of students I know struggle to make something perfect, even when they aren’t entirely sure what it is they’re doing. That added investment and struggle is admirable, but it can also be devastating when they get the graded piece back and realize it seemed to be all for nought.
In any case, the best thing I can tell you about the “a-ha!” moment is it sneaks up on you when you least expect it. You can’t go looking for it, but don’t worry.
It will find you eventually.