Pat Milhizer is the editor of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and Chicago Lawyer magazine. Before becoming editor, his beat was the Daley Center, where he covered the Cook County Circuit Court and Illinois Appellate Court. Teddy Greenstein is a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune, and his beat covers Chicago sports and Northwestern-Big Ten football and basketball. On October 30 at the Union League Club in Chicago, they discussed a common concern with all of us: writing under pressure.
Pat Milhizer described deadline pressure at its height--when Rahm Emanuel was thrown off the ballot for mayor. His article's first sentence read that the race for mayor had just gotten more interesting. He thought about his readers: lawyers, including those interested in municipal law. He thought not only about the key facts but also what the appellate court had decided. This was important because it was a 2-1 decision. He wanted to get the important content "high up," present the impact of the court's decision, and then transition to the rest of the article.
Teddy Greenstein similarly explained that our job is to make people wantto read what we write. He encouraged the audience to "go the extra mile" and do something different. He provided an example of an enterprise story in which he followed baseball's Frank Thomas to Las Vegas and turned it into a story. One of the best lessons he has learned is to "show, don't tell," that is, don't tell your reader that a person is generous, explain the conduct of the person so the reader will understand the person's generosity.
Past ALA president Mike Rathsack moderated the discussion and next asked them about overcoming the pressure of writing under time constraints. Pat Milhizer discussed some of the things we can do to put ourselves in a position to succeed, such as limiting distractions, clearing our mind, and prewriting arguments or issues. Next, he talked about "barstooling"--sitting down and telling the story as if we were in a bar talking to someone. Teddy Greenstein told the audience, with respect to word count, to write 1,000 words and revise that to a great 500 words. Keep revising; avoid adjectives, be concise, and use the most important facts. When you're finished writing, edit the work product by checking facts and trimming the unnecessary portions of quotations. Pat cautioned though, to ask for help when writing about unfamiliar topics or issues.
Mike Rathsack asked how to handle the one thing we all encounter: criticism. Pat Milhizer responded that he treats all criticism seriously. If there is an error, then it must be corrected. But when there is a misunderstanding or someone misreads the content, then
there is not much he can do other than to focus on the reality of the facts. Rather than being defensive, Teddy Greenstein offers an apology and says that he will try harder the following week. But both agree it was necessary to let the person have his or her say. Mike also asked how they dealt with difficult people, and Teddy encouraged the audience to do the research before talking to the personalities; show that you put in the work to learn about them or the issues. In working with lawyers who do not wish to discuss a particular ruling, Pat stressed the need for accuracy in reporting, so his goal is to better understand what the ruling means.
Discussing the division of labor between writing and editing, Pat explained that the Law Bulletin was based on a time schedule. He suggested staggering the deadlines to decrease the pressure. Teddy discussed the various formats, such as his blog, in which he can post something quick but then add more later, such as a video clip.
The Association thanks Pat Milhizer and Teddy Greenstein for sharing their experiences and providing a refreshing viewpoint of writing under various constraints. The Association also thanks Mike Rathsack and Karen DeGrand for their service in organizing the program.