The last word

When I was a newspaper editor years ago, one of my jobs was to read the competing newspapers on deadline to be sure my paper was covering every story important to our readers.  If we  missed something that our competition had covered,  a reporter would make a few calls and write a story — usually the same facts as in the other papers — but updated.Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.

Our obligation to our readers wasn’t to provide the end-all and be-all of news stories.  No, our obligation was to provide the facts as we knew them on deadline, realizing that later editions would have more facts or updated facts.  We rarely had the last word on an important story because there would always be later information.

Some writers become stymied by the infinite amount of information available on a given topic. The topic could be nonfiction such as what I did on my summer vacation or the best putters on the market today.   How can I cover it all ? (You can’t.)  The topic could be fiction such as flying to India or life in a boarding school.  How can I cover it all?  (You can’t.)

In children, I find this desire to cover everything is almost universal.  When they pick topics, they pick huge topics:  World War II, global warming, or the solar system.  When I tell them to limit the topic to say one moon of Saturn, fear fills their eyes as if there isn’t nearly enough information about one measly moon.

This same desire to say all that can be said confounds adults too.  Maybe you want to write the definitive book on war.  It can’t be done.  You need to reduce the scope of your topic to a particular battle or the development of a particular bomber or the role of a particular soldier.

With children, the teacher says, “Do it!,” and the essay gets written, good, bad or ugly.  With adults, the book might never materialize because there is always another interview to conduct, more data to collect, another book to read.

What should you do if you are overwhelmed by information?  First, think small.  Think minute.  Decide on one teeny, tiny aspect of your topic.  Second, research it well but within the confines of a deadline.  Third, write, but stick to a deadline to finish your first draft.  And last, celebrate a job well done.  Not perfectly done, but done.

One of the great rewards of working for a newspaper is a daily product.   At a certain time the first edition rolls off the presses, and reporters and editors bask in a job done.  Not perfectly done, but done.  Done well enough with the facts at hand on deadline.

An hour later, somewhere across town, in a competing newsroom, another editor would be searching through my newspaper to be sure her reporters were covering all the news her readers would want to know about.  And her reporters would be making calls to update stories, knowing that they, too, would not have the last word.

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