What are your “little dinosaurs”?

In chapters 8 and 9 in “Coaching Writers,” Clark and Fry outline the writing process: Idea > Report > Organize > Draft > Revise. Within that process, every writer has his or her own peculiar habits. Some of those habits are counterproductive. They are damaging techniques or methods that can hurt speed, accuracy or confidence. Clark and Fry call them “little dinosaurs.”

These “dinosaurs” are different from the harmless idiosyncrasies we discussed earlier. My need to have chapstick nearby doesn’t interfere with my writing. “Dinosaurs,” however, do interfere with our success as writers.

Most writers aren’t aware of and can’t identify their “little dinosaurs.”  But if we analyze our own writing process, we can identify our dinosaurs and figure out either how to change them or how to work around them.

Maybe you get hung up in the idea phase; you have ideas for stories, but they are vague or unfocused. Or, maybe you get hung up on organizing your story; you have a great idea and have reported thoroughly, but can’t figure out how to order the information in your story.

Clark and Fry write: “If you get stuck, look for the problem one step earlier in the process.”

Reflect on your own writing process. What are your “little dinosaurs,” your harmful habits? Where in the process do you get hung up? Can you trace that hang-up to an earlier step in the process?

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16 responses to “What are your “little dinosaurs”?

  1. I learned so much from the Reporting Step! I see now that area is my “littlest dinosaur.” The Idea Step is also somewhat challenging; knowing what I want the story to be about in its most general state can be a block for me, but I think it is an easier fix than reporting.

    I like the idea on page 77 where we should, “organize as [we] gather.” Honestly, I’ve never thought about that before. Consciously looking for leads, transitions and endings, as well as annotating notes by level of importance is ingenious!

    I appreciate the “five effective tests followed by three bad ones” for reporting. They are so helpful. I can easily get “bored-with-it” when I attempt to write because I’ve made another bad habit of putting off the writing too long after I’ve gathered my research. I hope to incorporate Clark and Fry’s advice to my own writing: “You want to write when you’re hot, totally engaged, not when you’re fed up with it.” So true.

    When I read on page 81 about “killing the babies,” I completely identified. Last year I wrote a story about a kid who constructed his own electric vehicles. My reporting was terrible because I didn’t really know what the story was supposed to be about, so I asked for a lot of auxiliary information. I found out that he was a lifeguard and he was only a few months away from his pilot’s license. I thought, “Wow! This kid is driven! That’d be so cool to put in the story.” But honestly, those things had nothing to do with electric vehicles; those were my babies, babies that I had to kill.

    Now I’m just going to quote from page 82 some advice that really struck me. I need to take it in. “We deal with our terror of imperfection by procrastinating. So just type a draft. Get it down, then get it right. Drafts don’t have to come out perfect; they don’t even need proper grammar, not even spelling, not even sentences, not even sense.”

  2. Where in the process do I get hung up? I’ve gotten hung up at every point in the writing process!

    I know finishing the story and turning it in helps me block out the memories of the difficulty of the writing process. However, I think reporting is my greatest challenge and one of my most challenging “little dinosaurs.” I’ll make excuses like, “This isn’t my full-time job and it would be different if I weren’t a student…” but it’s a little laziness, a lack of networking skills and lingering shyness that combine to prevent me from scoring awesome interviews long before deadline.

    I’m definitely an anxious writer. I’ll sometimes worry over a story without working out the issues or talking to my editor until the pressure of deadline gets to be too much. I sound like such a slacker, don’t I? I do take writing seriously, but there is an element of terror to the process, as Clark and Fry mention. I’m not good at removing or resisting distractions either, especially online. (The column of links over there has slowed me down writing this post four times already!) I guess even if I can’t diagnose all my little dinosaurs tonight, I’m going to pay more attention to my writing process as I write stories for 515 and try to use the editing strategies on myself, and increase my awareness of my writing process as I go.

    Brigitte, you have to read the “Shitty First Drafts” chapter in Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird. It’s the expands on the page 82 advice and will make you laugh out loud. It really helped me give myself permission to just crank out a draft and then revise… instead of laboring over each sentence until I ran out of time and thus freaked out.

  3. I have “Bird by Bird” on audio, and we can listen to that chapter on first drafts in class tomorrow. “Bird by Bird” is on my list of best writing books.

  4. It’s been some time since I’ve done extensive reporting. I remember however that in high school, I covered our talent show and during the idea phase a little dinosaur surprised me by making me spend too much time on what angle the story was going to take and how to come in with a zinger of a lead and more. Looking back on some of the bigger pieces that I covered in high school and even since then, it’s the idea phase that usually trips me up. Like the book said, sometimes I go into overkill and spend too much time trying to the find perfect quote to end the reporting on, or try and hunt for more people. As the book says, that wastes valuable time that could be spent writing the story and usually that means something may have been compromised if I’m trying to find the perfect quote. It makes sense however, that this process is a steady flow. Once blocked somewhere, you can most likely attribute it to something that was faulty in the previous step. I like to think I’ve gotten better at organization and on site reporting such that I can be in the newsroom writing but it’s still something to be aware of because I believe all good writers should be aware of any potential weakness that way it may be turned into a strength.

  5. I most often get caught up in the reporting part of the writing process. Like Maggie, I’m not a full-time writer—I’m in class and at work almost all day! Fortunately (??) I have self-diagnosed insomnia and get my homework and articles done late at night. But that causes some problems when it comes to interviewing sources.

    I try to plan ahead and make time for interviews as soon as I receive an article assignment, but it’s hard to get a hold of experts at my convenience. Sometimes, I’ll actually write an entire article before interviewing the primary sources (depending on the topic, of course). After I talk to them, I stay up late to rewrite and reorganize what I initially wrote. I realize it’s completely inefficient to write an article before gathering all the information—that’s why I can call it my little dinosaur!

    This hang-up isn’t really one that can be traced back to an earlier step in the process. I think I just need to make the most of my time and follow the Idea > Report > Organize > Draft > Revise writing process more strictly.

  6. Chapter 8 was so packed full of good tips, I don’t even know exactly where to start. I know that I have things that hang me up, little distractions that slow the writing process and muddies my copy.

    In the organizing segment I thought the three questions were awesome. They are something I can use as a writer to figure out how I am going to approach future stories and I can use it as an editor to help my writers get started (or restarted if they turn in off the wall copy). I know I would have been a much more effective writer last year and this summer if I would have known those questions and asked them before ever piece.

    As much as I hate the term “killing the babies” (the phrase seems a little more gruesome than the act deserves, anyone agree?) I think it is an important process and one that I overlook much too often. Those cool quotes or interesting asides might great bits of information, but if they clutter the story then as a reporter/writer/communicator you are not doing your job.

    I also liked the segment about budgeting time between reporting and writing. It really can screw you up if you wait too long to get started. With a looming deadline copy is sometimes rushed and that can lead to lower quality. Also, you tend to write faster when the information is “hot” and you’re still interested. As the book points out on page 79, “You want to write when you’re hot, totally engaged, not when you’re fed up with it. If you write when you’re bored, your writing will be boring, and it’ll take forever”

    The most important editing tip the chapter yielded was the passages about making story ideas clear. All too often reporters receive assignments like the asbestos example in the book only to get ripped apart once the copy is turned in. If we are all communicators we need to be able to communicate with our peers as well as we communicate with the public.

  7. Procrastination, procrastination, procrastination…I just can’t seem to manage my time well and plan out things before I get to the last minute and start to panic. For something that I enjoy doing so much, writing really shouldn’t put me into a procrastination funk, but it does.

    The ‘little dinosaurs’ issue came up at a perfect time. I have a profile article due Wednesday for my JMC 91 class. Have I interviewed my person yet? Nope…I probably shouldn’t be throwing out this information on a public blog (ha) but oh well! I will get the story done, I know that. I might even like the end result. But I just cannot seem to focus the week or two before the deadline and get my work done.

    This ‘little dinosaur’ of mine is counterproductive, yes. However, for my own personality, it seems to be the best way for me to go. I simply cannot concentrate too far in advance. I need that pressure and panic to get myself to sit down and write a story. It’s in those last few days or even hours before something is due where I can produce a piece of work.

    I especially liked the quotation from the chapter that Brigitte also quoted in her post. I can definitely identify and relate to that and it makes me feel a little better about my dinosaur. I’m not sure if I’m procrastinating due to fear of imperfection, but I do know that I can take their advice into consideration the next time I have a deadline.

  8. Molly Rasmussen

    I am going to have to agree with Maggie. I have gotten hung up on every part of the writing process at one point are another. My biggest, “little dinosaur,” however would have to be the reporting stage.

    I am a professional procrastinator and over the last three years of college I have gotten even better at it. I am with Maggie on the fact that it probably has to do with my lack of networking as a student and my inability to get over being shy. These seem like excuses and as I read them they seem even more pathetic. I always either seem to get way too much information or not enough. There is no middle ground in my reporting. Normally I am so afraid of not having enough information that I over report. This wastes a tremendous amount of time. Instead of spending fifteen minutes researching I spend hours. This is because I don’t organize as I go along. I end up having five different sources on one simple idea within the story. I end up just getting stressed out and either handing in my story late or not feeling satisfied with it.

    I am going to continue to look at the way that I go about the writing process. I am sure that the reporting process is not my only “little dinosaur.”

  9. My “little dinosaur” is probably over-reporting or under-organizing. I’m not sure what to call it. Basically, I try to cover everything I think is interesting about a topic or a person in one story. It’s hard for me to interview 4-5 great people for a feature story like I did in J120 and then have to cut out not only relevant, interesting information, but also people! I ended up using only 3 of my “real people” in the story when I spent hours interviewing the others.

    Cutting them out was hard because I felt each one contributed to the story, but I guess I somewhat agree with Tyler on his “killing the babies” idea (yuck, by the way). You have to focus the story around one central idea and do your best to use only the quotes/stats/other information that supports that general idea. Otherwise you end up with a very long, rambling story that readers will not even try to follow.

  10. Reporting is definitely the area where I get the most caught up. I have had issues in all four of the steps, however, I have always had problems with the “I’ve talked with all sides of this story” test. Like Maggie, I am an anxious writer and am not very good at finding good sources. I automatically assume the people I need for any story wouldn’t want to talk to some random student, and that I wouldn’t know how to get a hold of them anyways. This is definitely my biggest problem. I am fearful of “bothering” people with my questions and don’t always get the whole story because of it.

    My “little dinosaur” is probably my nerves about interviewing. I always get them done (usually at the last minute) but I always feel like they could have been better. I know I should be getting over this fear by now, and it is absolutely essential that I do soon, but “bothering” people with my questions terrifies me!

  11. Heather Shoning

    Okay, I’m late. Sorry. And, there’s my dinosaur. It seemed like a little thing when I called it an idiosyncrasy. Lately, however, I’ve been finding my level of procrastination to be exceptionally high.

    Part of it is due to my aversion to making the first contact for an interview. Not sure why, but I am always terrified to pick up the phone. If at all possible, I email. I know, I know, you don’t even have to say it. I really don’t even know why I have this problem because I know from doing enough interviews by now that people generally like to talk about themselves, so when given the opportunity, they usually jump at it. That’s been my experience.

    Once my reporting is done, I generally get right to work on the writing. ‘Cause I have to. I’m nearly out of time at this point.

    My next dinosaur rears its mesozoic head here. Once I’ve done all the reporting and written the first draft, I’m bored with it. Not interested in revising and rewriting. On to procrastinating something else.

    So, why the procrastination? No clue. Why do I get so easily bored? Again, no clue. That’s why they’re dinosaurs—I can dig up some of the bones, but I’ll be damned if I can put the thing together.

  12. I have two “little dinosaurs”, both of which can be the death knell for any good article. I have trouble self-editing, or even the motivation to self-edit. Read: Teachers, from grade school to high school, gave me A’s on papers that didn’t deserve one. Knowing I could get away with it, I formed a terrible habit.

    Secondly, when I don’t have enough information to complete an article, I use a glut of words to fill space, rather than do more research. Read: Thanks again, those educating our youth…

  13. Like most other people, my little dinosaurs appear at every stage of writing. With the idea stage I really struggle with narrowing down topics. I never had a problem doing it for newspaper writing, but when i had J91, I really struggled with finding a defined topic, and then sticking to it. Brainstorming ideas is relatively difficult for me also. Talking with other people and throwing around ideas in a group discussion always help in that area. Even if it’s talking to my room mate, I always find a way to narrow down an idea after hashing it out with at least one other person.

    Then, in the reporting stage my not so little dinosaurs appear. I (pardon the caps) HATE interviewing people. But more than that, i hate finding people to interview. Like Maggie, it’s a combination of laziness and lack of motivation, until deadline looms two days away. And what’s sad about that is every time I finish an interview I am completely relieved and tell myself, “now that wasn’t so bad and now it’s over with.” But despite that relief, I repeat the same bad habit for the next assignment. A smaller dinosaur I run into during the reporting stage is interviewing people I know, or at least am comfortable enough with to hold a conversation. I could find much better sources to use, but my overwhelming discomfort talking to people I don’t know takes over my body. I’m determined to get past this and have done well with my 515 assignments.

    Writing is the easiest part for me. Maggie mentioned that she finds it easier to go back and edit a draft than to perfect it (or try to) the first time around. I agree, but find that editing is much harder than the initial writing. The biggest changes I usually make are to the lead and concluding paragraphs.

    P.S. Bird by Bird is one of my favorite books, she’s hysterical!

  14. My biggest little dinosaur is definitely the fact that I spend far too much time rewriting as I work on the first draft. I’ll rewrite the first paragraph nine times before moving on to write the second! I know very well that I should just plow through the whole article to at least get it written first, but I simply can’t do it. Perhaps it’s my perfectionism kicking in, but I always try to make the first draft good enough to be the final draft.

    I also would have to agree with Leslie’s complaints about interviewing. I always put off interviewing people as long as possible because I get really nervous about asking the right questions. I also hate interviewing people when I know the story is just for a class and won’t actually be published. It just feels like such a colossal waste of the person’s time. But, as always, as soon as I sit down with someone or call them up, the interview goes much better than I expected and I end up enjoying the process. It’s just the anticipation of the event that can be a road block.

  15. I think that, depending on the story, my little dinosaur transforms. Sometimes, I’ll be unsure where I want to go with the story. Sometimes I have a hard time finding someone to interview or wanting to interview someone. Sometimes I’ll get so much information I can’t organize my thoughts. I actually almost never draft, I just write. I’m someone who gets really excited after an interview usually, so I never have a problem with the whole waiting to write thing. Killing babies just kind of comes naturally I feel. If I’m writing and information doesn’t fit in the story, I just don’t use it. Sometimes it is hard when reviewing my notes to decide what to use, but if it doesn’t flow, it doesn’t flow.

    I agree that I sometimes have a hard time interviewing people and i FREQUENTLY put it off for a very long time. But it really just depends.

  16. Procrastination when it comes to writing. That is in fact my biggest little dinosaur and it’s funny how there’s so many posts up here that can relate!

    I can also relate to Margaret’s procrastination when it comes down to the interview. Most of the time, when you ask someone to be interviewed for a story, they’re flattered and are willing to sit down and talk about themselves. However, I always have this feeling in the back of my mind that my source is tempted to look down at his/her watch and wonder when the interview is going to end. I feel like I need to get over that feeling that they think I’m wasting their time. Once this happens, I know that I could speed up the process.

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