The Art of the Quick Turnaround

By Margie Zable Fisher May 20th, 2020

I had been pitching for more than a year, but I couldn’t break in to one of my target media outlets. Then in early March an editor put a call out on Twitter for writers to help out with coronavirus coverage. I responded, and noted that I could turn around stories quickly—even within a day. I got the gig.

Since then I’ve landed several bylines for Insider and Business Insider.

It’s not surprising that speed gave me a leg up. A recent Global Web Index survey found that more than 80% of US and UK internet users are consuming more content during the pandemic. Businesses and the media alike are responding in kind, scrambling to replace pre-COVID content plans with relevant content. In many cases, freelancers who’ve mastered the art of the quick turnaround are winning out on the work.

But the truth is, fast turnarounds aren’t just useful during extraordinary times. They can be an advantage (and a lucrative one if rush fees are part of the equation) during normal times too. So how’s it done? We reached out to writers who churn out quick, quality work for tips.

Upgrade your outline

Consider optimizing your outline process to save time.

Sarita Harbour, a finance and business writer in Canada, uses a simple 15-minute outline that serves double duty as a pitch template to speed up her process. Once a pitch is accepted, it allows her to dive immediately into writing:

  • Title
  • Four-sentence lead/hook, which later converts to the intro
  • Subheads: 3,5, or 7 depending on content length (option to list out key points in each section)
  • Sources: one or two websites or experts (requirements vary by piece)

Pitching this way is a time investment that can pay dividends throughout the project. “Sending the pitch as an outline also allows the client to approve the outline,” Harbour noted, “so I save time on revisions.” Clients can offer directional feedback or request new or different sources upfront, eliminating at least one stream of potentially lengthy re-work.

Have a list of sources at the ready

Finding useful and credible sources can be one of the most time-consuming parts of writing.

“You need to constantly build and grow a bank of credible research sources and interviewees that you can mine quickly,” explained Luke O’Neill, an Australia-based writer who works with financial services, e-commerce, and legal tech companies. He taps his repertoire to cut down on the potentially time-sapping process of tracking down an expert cold.

O’Neill’s list now counts hundreds after years of cultivation, and it’s well worth any admin time he puts into managing it. Having experts at the ready saves him hours of research and outreach per project, he said, particularly when sources are responsive.

He suggests building your list gradually, ideally adding to it when the deadline clock isn’t ticking. “Jot down useful sources you see quoted in trade publications, scientific studies, industry white papers, webinars, and conferences,” he suggested. “Introduce yourself over LinkedIn, Twitter, or by email, or have a colleague refer you. And of course you can also pick up the phone and politely ask for their time.”

When it comes to researching online, Harbour said she learned early on to pick sources carefully since some of her clients are financial institutions and have strict source requirements. She favors websites ending with .gov or .edu, and maintains a list of her favorite links in Evernote.

“I organize my sources based on the subjects I write most often about — personal finance and small business,” said Harbour. The list saves her anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes of research per piece, depending on the word count and topic.

Find new sources—fast

Regardless of how deep your source network is, many assignments will require you to track down a previously untapped expert. The writers interviewed for this article use a variety of methods including:

  • LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media, including Facebook groups
  • Professional associations and speakers
  • Knowledge institutions like universities and think tanks. “Universities have dedicated media teams who can help you source experts in niche fields. Make sure to approach universities directly—not through sourcing services,” advised O’Neill. “Most teams are quick, knowledgeable and committed to helping you find a relevant source by deadline.”
  • Free journalist request services like Help A Reporter Out (HARO) (strongest for US sources), Qwoted (best for business and finance sources), SourceBottle (Australian sources), and the #journorequest hashtag on Twitter (for UK sources)

O’Neill also suggested using sources to find other sources. “One way to do this is by asking each source who they see as the top three experts in their area,” he said. Even if you don’t use them for the piece you’re writing for that interview, file the names away for later use.

Sources are valuable, and keeping them happy is important, O’Neill cautioned. “Remember, interviewees are busy and they are often being generous and kind with their time and expertise. Be grateful, value that time, and share any published content with them.”

Set a timer and get cranking

Harbour sets a timer for each piece of content she creates.

“For my regular clients, the timer gets set based on the word count,” she said. “For example, a 500-word article takes me about 80 minutes if I don’t have research done ahead of time. It takes about 60 minutes if I can use current research from my list of acceptable sources/articles and I know the topic well. Articles of 1000-1500 words might take me about 150 minutes, depending on the topic and whether I can use my previous research or not.”

This technique has helped her produce 18-21 pieces of content each month—all while homeschooling two young children.

Exercise discipline and guard your momentum

Setting a timer is important, but discipline is a prerequisite to high output.

Writers love to play with words. And we’re curious. While we’re writing, it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole, or spend 20 minutes agonizing over the perfect syntax. But distractions and tangents won’t help you in your race against the clock.

To speed up the first draft, focus on getting it down on paper. If you need to include source material or quotes, don’t stop what you’re writing. Put a placeholder like [SOURCE] in the text and drop it in later if you know it’s out there. Refine the draft at the end during a self-edit once sourcing is complete and the word count is met.

And if you want to save even more time, consider “batching” your work if you have several assignments in the same subject area. This is one of Harbour’s favorite productivity hacks: “I save time by conducting all my research in one work period, my outlines in another, quotes in another, and then drafts. It makes the process much faster.”

Don’t waste hours transcribing interviews

Brooklyn-based lifestyle writer Aly Walansky averages two to three stories a day. She uses for quick, affordable transcriptions, at $1 a minute. “For the $15 I might spend on a 15-minute interview transcription, I get back an hour of my own time, which would equal several times that investment in work output,” she said.

Ilene Lelchuk Snyder, a San Rafael, CA writer, uses Otter Voice Meeting Notes ($9.99 per month) to transcribe recorded interviews to text. “I recently needed to transcribe nearly three hours of interviews and webinars for a client who wanted several blog posts,” she shared. Transcribing them herself would have been a tedious time suck. But with Otter, she dropped the audio files into the app and kept working.

“The tech lets me multitask, which means I’m actually making more money,” she said. “Plus, clients and editors like that I’m fast, which leads to more gigs. That’s invaluable to me.”

Other apps like Focus Booster and Trello can help you manage your productivity.

Work when you’re productive

Are you a “morning lark” or “night owl?” Larks are early risers who feel most alert in the morning; owls work best during the evenings.

One recent study confirms larks function best at 8am and owls are most productive at 8pm. During peak times, focus on work that requires the most brainpower, such as research or writing. During down times, work on administrative, routine tasks, advises Daniel Pink in his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, like reading emails and posting on social media.

Walansky offered some parting advice.“I might be a unique case in that many of my assignments are quick hit news/trend stories that I get assigned, write, and are published in a few hours,” she said. “It can be scary, but having those deadlines makes me more productive. Once you get used to turning around stories fast, it gets easier and easier.”

Margie Zable Fisher has more than 20 years of experience writing about business, personal finance, health, fitness, e-commerce, lifestyle, personal development, and aging.

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