How to Write Fast

I wrote my new article on the dangers of indoor air in ten days, because I had to.

Last June 13, Meg Merrick, editor-in-chief of Metroscape, sent me a frantic email:

Merilee,

I don’t know how quickly you can turn your article around but we have run into a crisis with our lead article and need to come up with a new article for our upcoming issue. Would you be willing to do the article you pitched now instead of later? Unfortunately, we will need a quick turnaround.

Let me know.

Thanks!

Meg

By “quick turnaround,” she meant “in about ten days.” Normally I would budget six to eight weeks to research, construct, and polish a major feature article, the kind I had been expecting to produce for Meg’s Winter issue.

Ten days? That’s crazy. Could I do it?

I did already have all the research, huge files of research papers and interviews, because I’ve been looking into this problem for years. Indoor air is one of my public health beats, ever since a brilliantly curious engineer and HVAC contractor told me that when he fixed people’s houses, their asthma and allergies got better.

But I digress. Ten days?

Of that six to eight week feature story timeframe, about a third goes to setting up the approach, the play’s first act. From the research files I select a main character, a person or place to embody the problem. Then I write the first scene, with that character. I can spend a week choosing the perfect first line. The middle is easy. The end has to tie all the threads together. I didn’t have time for all that.

The only way to compose this story in ten days was to find a structure already built, and hang my new material on it. I’ve admired the concise, punchy, no-fluff “Five Studies About X” series in Pacific Standard, so Eureka! I told Meg yes, I could do it.

Expanding from five to seven studies gave me room for a dramatic arc. Study Number One, on Seattle’s Breathe-Easy Homes, laid out the problem like an opening scene. And the real-world built project gave me the gift of public relations materials about a representative family and kid who benefited.

With the problem established – and, hopefully, the reader hooked – by Study Number One, we flash back to the oldest study, from 1960, to find out how indoor air got so bad: the invention of plastics, and their use in buildings and furniture.

Then we move forward in time, like any historical mystery story, until we reach the present again. Voila. I turned in the story in the wee hours of the eleventh day.