Recently one of the editors on my team came to me with six words that no manager is excited to hear: I don’t have enough to do.
At first, I panicked. Was it my fault? Mentally I scanned through our upcoming deadlines. Did we forget to assign a story? Would we have a big gaping hole in the next issue of our magazine? But no, we were on track. Had I been tough enough? Should I have sent her copy back for a few more rounds of revisions? Again, the answer was no. Her work and process had improved with each issue we had put out since our team came together less than a year earlier to relaunch a food and cooking magazine.
And then, I smiled. Because within her revelation, I recognized myself.
After college, I moved back to my small hometown to start as a cub reporter at our local newspaper with only a few published clips to my name. I’d never worked for a newspaper, even in school, and had not set out to start a career in writing. It was a mix of unexpected events that led me to the position and back home.
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During the first few months, I learned in real time how to cover old-fashioned New England town meetings, high school plays, and disputes among county officials. Often I was responsible for filing up to eight stories each week. It was a pace that left little room for thinking beyond the next assignment, but, still, there were days when I managed to turn in my work by 2, or 3, or 4 pm. At those times, I would sit at my desk with the sinking and shameful feeling that somehow I had done something wrong because I wasn’t busy.
And so one day, I got up and walked timidly into the office of my editor, a small, scrappy woman who could instill fear in local politicians and her staff alike with a single sidelong glance. I don’t have enough to do, I said.
Admitting that you do not have enough work is a hugely uncomfortable thing to do, especially in a deadline-driven profession like media, where it seems there’s always another piece to write or scoop to get. To say I don’t have enough to do out loud actualizes a fear that you are, in some way, inadequate – that you might not know everything you need to in order to do your job, that you might need help, that you haven’t figured everything out on your own.
As a manager, there are many ways to react to those words. That day, my editor asked me to sit down, and we talked about why I felt like I didn’t have anything to do. Over the course of the two years I worked for her, I must have walked into her office 25 more times and told her, again, that I didn’t have enough to do. Never once did she react with frustration. Instead, she offered up pieces of advice that, over time, knit together a broader lesson in patience and the art of honing craft:
Read. If you have nothing to write, read what other people are writing. Notice what you like and imitate it. Pay attention to what you don’t like and self-edit yourself to make sure you aren’t doing the same. Find writers whose work you would want to be doing and read everything they put out. Take note of interesting techniques or moments that grab your attention. “If you have nothing to read, go find a box of cereal and just look at the way the words are laid out,” my editor told me one day. To get better at writing, you have to read.
Get outside. There’s only so much you can write from inside a newsroom, or an office, or your writing studio. To write well, you sometimes have to stop writing long enough to actually interact with the world. “Grab your reporter’s notebook and get out there,” my editor would say. “Walk around, record what you see, and write down any questions you have.”
Talk to people. As a beat reporter, my stories often came out of meetings or press releases. Sometimes these stories were good. But the better ones came from more unexpected places. “Go down to town hall and ask people what’s going on,” my editor would tell me. “Go out to the farm and find out what they’re planting and why. Go to a coffee shop and listen to what people are talking about.”
Take a break. My editor never discouraged getting out of the newsroom for an hour to take a walk or leaving the office early on days when I truly felt done. And inevitably, in this time of slowing down, of taking stock, I would have great ideas for upcoming pieces. Or maybe I wouldn’t. And that was OK, too, because both my editor and I knew that soon enough, maybe even in a few hours, the deadlines would again be looming large, and the pace would be back to frenzied.
And so this is the advice I shared with my staffer, advice that, especially in the age of cellphones and 140-character sound bites, we so rarely hear or follow: Slow down. Take stock. Ask questions. Shut down the computer. Get outside. Meet people. Read. Because, if you’re good at your job, the day will come when those deadlines are piling up, when you can’t remember the last time you had a meal besides crackers and peanut butter, and when, no matter what you do, you just can’t get to inbox zero. So this is the time – the slow moments in between issues, or after you’ve turned in your last piece of the day – to stretch your mental muscles and to just observe, to push yourself, without the pressure of publication, to get better at the craft you love just because you can.
Julia Rappaport is a Boston-based writer and managing editor of a Northeast food and cooking magazine.