Down to the Wire: Deadline Writing

By Erin Valentine

Deadline writing can fall into the dark abyss of panic and dullness, and come out as a dirty piece of worthless coal. However, the pressure can cause for what would have been just another news article to become a diamond. If a writer can learn to harness the adrenaline and focus hurried thoughts, then a plain article can become a touching story woven with emotion and symbolism. “America’s Best Newspaper Writing,” by Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan, offers some of the best stories to come out of the pressure of a deadline.

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“Shiva for a Child Slain in a Palestinian Raid” by Richard Ben Cramer; The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 15, 1978

Cramer opens up with a simple scene that already has the reader asking questions. He focuses on the importance of family while telling the incredibly sad story of a young girl killed in a bus shooting. However, he does not narrate throughout the entire piece. He merely sets the stage for the true story. His quotes from the family are what make the piece so touching. If he had just stated the events are they happened, no emotion would come across. Instead, the reader can almost hear the desperation of the mother trying to save her daughter, and the sadness of a family ripped apart, yet still managing to hold on to each together. Cramer also finds wisdom from all three generations in the family about healing and the power of support.

“Jury Sends Santa Claus Killer to Electric Chair” by Leonora LaPeter; Savannah Morning News,  September 4, 1999

Through LaPeter’s detailed observations and balanced writing, both sides of what was a complicated case come to light. LaPeter allows for the reader to reach his own conclusion by allowing all sides to be equally portrayed. With such a horrific case, it would usually seem obvious to just condemn a murderer of four people as a raging psychopath. Instead, LaPeter includes the issue of Heidler’s past mental issues and unhinged state. It is interesting that LaPeter mentions the issue of mental illness and investigates it. Compared to the very recent appearance about violence connected with mental illness, this article was ahead of its time.

“Men of Steel Are Melting With Age” by David Con Drehle; The Washington Post, April 28, 1994

A running similarity of all of these articles is that they all possess some story-telling element. Drehle really capitalizes on this with his details about the setting and environment of this story. He allows for the reader to easily visualize wrinkled and balding politicians walking around, endlessly networking, even at Nixon’s funeral. He uses great phrases that set the scene perfectly, such as “pumping hands” and “full of the old sangfroid.” Then, his quick turn of attitude catches the reader by surprise and exposes the aging politicians for what they truly are: outdated and tattered. His visuals provide all the information needed to convey the story.

“In Belfast, Death, Too, Is Diminished by Death” by Francis X. Clines; The New York Times, March 20, 1988

Clines plays with symbolism and does not shy away from tucking a deeper meaning in to his article. From comparing a rambunctious young girl to a somber funeral scene, he capitalizes on the swaying stages of violence, death and grief. He also adds in mere sentences that take the reader so deep into the story, they forget that they became lost in only 12 words. (Reference: Graffiti that said, “I wonder each night what the monster will do to me tomorrow.”) Filled with metaphor and meaning, Clines is able to convey not just a story but also emotion.

Other Examples of Deadline Writing:

“A Day of Terror: The Rivers; A Battered Retreat On Bridges to the East” by Somini Sengupta; The New York Times, September 12, 2001

A truly gripping piece that tells a great story while also letting those involved have their voices heard. The story does not even sound like New York City at first. It seems more like refugees escaping from a war in a far away country, not American citizens fleeing from one of the largest cities in the world.


“After the Attacks: The Afghans; Taliban Plead for Mercy to the Miserable in a Land of Nothing” by Barry Bearak; The New York Times, September 13, 2001

After hundreds, if not thousands, of stories describing 9/11, it seemed rare to find one about the reaction of the attack from overseas. Bearak, an American journalist and professor who has worked the newspaper circuit, tells the story of the fragile physical and mental state of Afghanistan. He writes about the Taliban government legitimately pleading for their people to not be punished for the acts of extremists responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Not too many people considered the repercussions of 9/11 outside of the United States.


Barry Bearak

Barry Bearak, Courtesy of The New York Times


“6 dead in shootings at Kirkwood City hall” by Greg Jonsson; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 7, 2008

For their quick and solid coverage of a shooting of a city council, St. Louis Post-Dispatch was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for breaking news in 2009. In this particular article, Jonsson gives a very detailed and visual idea of the events of the shooting, merely a day after it happened. The fear and confusion of the tragedy is communicated well.



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