It was no different when I was in Helsinki a few weeks ago, at a workshop for the Union of Finnish Journalists. We spent a bit of time brainstorming solutions to that challenge: knowing the six (or seven, or five) step writing process, saving string, pre-writing outlines, plug-and-play story formats, free writes and more. But alas, no sure answers or great epiphanies.
Then, during a break, one of the journalists came bouncing up to me. Seriously, he was bouncing, like a happy puppy who couldn’t wait to play. He asked if he could tell me about the fast writing process he had discovered “by accident.” Always looking for new tools, I said of course. And that’s how I met Matti Seppänen and learned a bit of writing magic: a five-minute start, then sleep. Lots of sleep.
It’s a bit more complicated than that, but not much. First, an introduction:
Seppänen is a Finnish journalist and science editor and part-time physician who specializes in editing medical handbooks and manuals for medical specialists, and producing a steady run of health articles for the general public. As I understood it (his English was far better than my non-existent Finnish, but some things no doubt were lost in translation), these aren’t your glib 10 Ways to Get Healthy riffs that circle social media, but pieces written by doctors and other medical experts, based on rigorous research, vetted and edited for lay readers by Seppänen’s team. Think JAMA without as much jargon — if that’s even possible.
The demands his team faced were were intense. Example: They had to produce a 500-page handbook for ophthalmologists, with a complete draft delivered in six months. That meant each of his editors was on tap for 10 articles a month. But after two months, Seppänen had only done five. That’s when he took another tack — one that he has used ever since, and teaches his staff. It’s build on a three-day writing plan for writing any story. He gave me permission to share.
- Day 1: Five minutes.
Seppänen has most of his reporting done, and now it’s time to write. He likely has gone through his notes a few times, and has a sense of what additional research or reporting he needs to do to fill in any gaps. He pours himself a cup of coffee, sets a timer for five minutes and opens his laptop. He then commits to writing two lines — just two lines. They can be the start of his story, a summary of his “nut graf” or main point, a question he wants the story to answer. “Whatever I want,” he says. “I don’t think about it. I just make it enjoyable.” That’s it for the day.
REQUIRED: Eight hours of sleep that night.
- Day 2: He gets his coffee, opens his laptop and “everything is ready” in his mind. The timer is set at one hour and Seppänen goes to work. For the next hour, he writes or does additional reading. “On Day 2, it feels like someone else is writing, like I’m in ‘Matrix,’” he says.
REQUIRED: Another eight hours of sleep.
- Day 3: He sits down to write and rewrite for an unlimited amount of time on the final day. It sometimes takes a full work day to finish a piece, but not always.
REQUIRED: Celebration. Sometimes with bubbles.The key to this process are focused bits of time that feel manageable rather than draconian and endless. Most important, he says, is the commitment to regular, restful sleep.
“Something magical happens when we sleep,” he says. “In waking times, I can read anything and do my research. While I’m asleep, my subconscious arranges things and tells me how to do them. It has made my work faster, and I’m much more relaxed.”
He and his team got into a rhythm. “In addition to the rhythm, what was important was the amount of time I spent on the articles at each stage,” he says. “At the end of the project, it was possible for me and the rest of our team to produce up to 5-10 articles per week for our publisher.”
He introduces the approach to all new hires, but doesn’t force it. “For some, the method is suitable, for others it is not,” he says. “But most have adopted the method where appropriate.”
There you have it. It took me more than five minutes and an other hour to get through this, but not much. And I didn’t need a third day.