Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Are you doomed like Sisyphus?

In a dark and gloomy pit, deep in the bowels of the earth, a large and strongly muscled man rolls a heavy boulder up a steep hill. The task takes him the entire day. But when he gets to the top, ooophhhh, the stone escapes his grasp and rolls right back down to the bottom. So the next day he must begin all over again.

If you received a classical education, or if you simply enjoy mythology, you will recognize this story as the myth of Sisyphus from the Greeks. Poor Sisyphus never catches a break. The same damn stone rolls down the same hill every night and he must push it right back up again the next day. For eternity. So, my question to writers: Why are you behaving like Sisyphus?

I often talk to writers and corporate communicators who do the same thing again and again every week -- seldom recognizing that they are doing unnecessary work. Whenever I hear from writers or editors who are frustrated about having too much to do, I always ask "do you have any content templates?" Usually, their answer is "What does that mean?"

Here's the scoop.

Similar to a graphic template, a content template is a form letter or document that sits on your computer to address communications you have to do repeatedly. For example, I have a "request for an interview" template that resides in one of my Outlook folders. Whenever I need to interview someone for a story, I simply fill in the blanks and send it off:

Dear _______,

I produce the publication _______ and I am working on a story about ______. I was wondering if I could set up an interview with you? I need about 20 minutes of your time, by phone. Is there a time that would be best for you? My availability is pretty good over the next week, except for ______. Please note that I am in the Pacific Time zone, but I tend to be an early starter and am prepared to book as early as 7 am. My deadline for having the interview completed is: _______. Please let me know as soon as possible.

I also have "templates" for:

  • fact checking
  • instructions to suppliers such as photographers, graphic designers and printers
  • pleas for story ideas

These content templates might sound like small, inconsequential things, but over a week or month they add up dramatically and can save you a lot of time and aggravation.

In a similar vein, I have a story template (a table in Word) for each publication I produce. In it, I list the number of stories I need (this usually doesn't change much from issue to issue) and a target word count for each. Then, when I do my story lineup, I'm essentially filling in slots and not starting from a "blank page" each time.

I know this all sounds woefully uncreative -- but here's the secret: It frees up your mind for creativity where it really matters. And besides, it stops you from rolling boulders uphill.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 21st 2007, 6:57 AM
Comment by: Ercolino
Sisyphus, the first person quoted using the F-word with an exclamation point.
Wednesday November 21st 2007, 10:23 AM
Comment by: John H.
Kudos! Well done!

All the best,

Wednesday November 21st 2007, 10:46 AM
Comment by: Clark H.
Do you have anything for a realtor writing about his homes for sale? I love the idea, just need to focus it on my employers needs.
Wednesday November 21st 2007, 2:58 PM
Comment by: Steve V.
What a great idea!
Wednesday November 21st 2007, 5:00 PM
Comment by: Stephen A.
Grand idea... but the comparison with Sisyphus is a stretch. The point of the Sisyphus story was that his task *couldn't* be done --not that it could be done better/faster/easier another way. I would have thought Hercules' cleaning of the Augean stables would make a more apt allegory.
Wednesday November 21st 2007, 10:13 PM
Comment by: Bob H.
"Grand idea... but the comparison with Sisyphus is a stretch. The point of the Sisyphus story was that his task *couldn't* be done --not that it could be done better/faster/easier another way. I would have thought Hercules' cleaning of the Augean stables would make a more apt allegory."

Wow. Theres always someone out there that will correct a good thing. Incredible. Good job Daphne!
Thursday November 22nd 2007, 1:06 PM
Comment by: Raul M.
Do you have anything for an actor trying to submit himself to people in the industry(agents, managers, casing direc.....? I love the idea.
Saturday November 24th 2007, 9:45 AM
Comment by: gretchen W.
Because I'm a traditional wife and mother, that's why! Retired from a rewarding career, and now relegated to what I was avoiding and hiring done for me all those working years.
Monday November 26th 2007, 6:04 AM
Comment by: Herman B.
I thought the Sisyphus angle was quite nice--having to do it over and over again-- the labors of Heracles were simply virtually impossible tasks, but poor old Sis had to do a simple thing again, and again, and....

Like writng the same old letter over and over again--changing in many cases just a word or three.

We could call it the "Sisyphian approach" as a work study heading!
Monday November 26th 2007, 7:46 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Interesting debate -- Sisyphus vs. Hercules! I'm not sure I'd be ready to declare one more apt than the other. I do know that Sisyphus is more fun to say aloud, though!

Clark & Raul: I suggest you have a look at what you have to do regularly. Writing a description of a house, perhaps? Sending a letter to a director, maybe? Identify anything you have to do ALL THE TIME. Then try to create a "fill in the blank" form letter for it. Ideally, this "form letter" should be written in friendly, casual language (so it doesn't sound like a form letter). Then you just fill in the blanks. Depending on circumstances, you might even add an additional sentence to personalize it further.

Does that make sense? -daphne
Sunday December 2nd 2007, 10:44 AM
Comment by: Christopher K.
To the realor looking for templates... Chris Hitchcock. The Keller Williams realty company has myriad templates, form letters, and scripts for you to use in your job. They are doubtless not the only ones who employ scripts when calling clients or prospects, but its a great place to start. Good Luck!!!

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