It was one of those days.
I was working on a story about ultra-green buildings for an environmental publication, an infectious disease feature for a junior high audience, a narrative about community outreach efforts for a medical center magazine and a complicated epidemiology piece in a cancer journal’s news section.
Being a generalist often means having to quickly shift between both topics and audiences. With four vastly different stories for wildly diverse groups of readers, however, my brain was spinning and my gears were in serious danger of seizing up.
Other writers have found themselves in similar predicaments. “I’ve definitely had points when I’ve found my brain going nuts over this,” says SciLancer Sarah Webb (bio). “For example, this type of combination can be deadly for me: working on a story about Mars for kids, while writing a business-laden feature for, say, Nature Biotechnology, editing chemistry stuff for researchers, and working on a careers piece for Science. If I have too many topics going AND multiple audiences and perspectives, I start to go a little insane.”
Her advice? Pace yourself. “My best strategy in that case is to not work on too many things in one day,” Sarah says. “If I’m working on the kids’ piece, I can also dabble in one other project. Or I’ll work on the scientist-focused stuff for a day and come back to the kids’ piece the next day.”
Finding the right rhythm can be critical for those of us who write for very different audiences on a continual basis and must constantly multitask. “The key for me is to get into one gear and stay there until it’s done before shifting to another gear,” says SciLancer Emily Sohn (bio). “So I may report multiple stories in the same day/week (keeping in mind with each interview what level of questions I want to ask), but I will generally only work on writing one thing at a time.”
Reacquaint yourself with your audience
One of the best ways to get your mind reconnected with a target audience is to immerse yourself in writing aimed at those readers or listeners. “Before I start writing, I usually read through a few stories in the publication that I’m aiming for, which puts me in the mindset for the kind of tone and structure and language I’m shooting for,” Emily says. “When I shift to a new audience, I read a few of those first to get in that kind of mood.”
Use technology to your advantage
“Switching gears is part of my work,” says Robert Frederick (bio), whose resume includes a dizzying array of diverse gigs: a technical manual for an engineering firm; a report for physics teachers; stories for newspapers, magazines and a local NPR station; a newsletter for general scientists; and a television program script. “Like Sarah, I try not to do too much at once and read (and re-read) content aimed at the audience I’m writing for at that time. So, it’s not so much multi-tasking for me as just figuring out what I need to do in order to focus on just one thing at a time, even if only for a short time.”
To help sharpen your focus, Rob suggests buying a tablet with a big enough screen for you to read a full PDF page. “I load lots of documents and PDFs on it of the different types of stories I’m writing (including radio transcripts and video scripts),” he says. “Then, when I need to switch gears and get deep quickly, I read/re-read content aimed at the same audiences I’ll be addressing before I start to write/report/edit again. It really helps.”
Seek out repurposing opportunities (and sources)
The ability to switch up your writing with minimal grinding can help you repurpose stories for multiple audiences. After SciLancer Jessica Marshall (bio) wrote a story about animal sleep for a specialty magazine, for example, she found that she could use much of the same material for a related story for a kids magazine. The writing style, she says, changed more than the content. “No matter who you’re writing for, you constantly think of your audience, read some of who you’re writing for to get the right pitch in your head, and try to keep that in mind as you write,” she adds.
The same can be true when interviewing a source. If a scientist has a particular knack for explaining something and you have visions of using some of the material for a second publication, try asking him or her to recast a particularly good phrase or explanation for, say, a 12-year-old (you can also try this trick if you’d like a less-than-clear scientist to talk in jargon-free sentences). Maybe a second story won’t pan out, but at least you might bring more clarity to your first one or find a valuable asset in a source who can speak at multiple levels.
Of course, exercising your inner gear-shifting abilities can help you keep the rust at bay, no matter which audience you’re addressing. “I imagine it’s like a musician who plays all sorts of different kinds of music,” Emily says. “As long as you keep practicing them all, it’s not that hard to switch back and forth from classical to jazz to rock and roll.”
Image credit: Pete Birkinshaw on Flickr Creative Commons