The best way to get writers to turn in stories by deadline? Don’t assign them stories at all. Give them 24 hours to write a few sentences. Then teach instead of edit.

Before I explain how that works, let’s unravel the psychology behind deadline-breaking.

At even at the best college newspapers, the most experienced writers are still new to the craft. Writing hurts. That’s why they procrastinate, hoping random inspiration will suddenly propel them through a story they’ve come to loathe.

When they turn in that story, they know it sucks – they’re as unhappy with it as you are. But they’ll resist your edits because you’re not paying them enough to suffer more. They also resent you for sending them back to do the same work twice.

So they’ll make minimal changes to barely appease you, which will barely please you. You’ll rewrite the whole thing, and by the time it publishes, everyone is pissed off.

The solution? I do this, even as a professional editor…

Assign the HDLN

That stands for hed, dek, lede, and nut. Basically, I ask writers to turn in just the top of their story…

• Hed (headline) – Usually written last, even though it’s the first thing a reader sees.
• Dek (subhead or deck) – Nothing takes the pressure off a headline like a smaller headline right underneath it.
• The lede (lead) – The hardest part of a story, so it deserves more attention than it usually gets on deadline.
• The nut graf – This transition from the lede into the guts of the story. If it doesn’t make sense, nothing after it will.

Instead of asking for an entire story next week, I ask for the HDLN the next day. If I hear resistance or excuses, I simply say, “You can’t write 100 words in 24 hours? You should probably go into accounting, because you’ll never make it as a writer.”

I edit the HDLN within hours of getting it – because it’s a hell of a lot easier than editing an entire story. Then I send back my changes (or even a rewrite) and ask the writer to proceed from there.

Once my writers get accustomed to this system, they love it. Here’s why…

1. It saves time and aggravation

Instead of writing an entire story that might get shredded from top to bottom, they submit just a few sentences. Even if those get heavily edited, it’s now a public service instead of a hassle: Hey, here’s the blueprint for finishing the rest of the story!

2. It prevents procrastination

Writers can’t wait three days to start a story if I need the HDLN the next day. Since the top of a story is more time-consuming than the bottom, once I approve the HDLN, they have the wind at their backs and can power through the rest in no time.

3. It’s educational

All editors have their own peculiarities. It’s easier to communicate those in a short email about the HDLN many days before deadline than in a long email about the entire story on deadline.


I’m editor of a financial news outlet called Debt.com. I have a small staff (only three full-timers) so I hire many freelancers. I assigned one to explain a report about millennials and credit cards. Here’s his HDLN, which sucked…

Millennials Don’t Know Enough About Their Credit Cards

From using them to info about their cards, the generation misses the mark.

Millennials often get a bad rap when it comes to money knowledge, but their knowledge of credit card use is seriously lacking.

Nearly 31 percent are dependent on the card for day to day living expenses, according to a study from Lend EDU. On top of that, 23 percent think that missing a credit card payment will either raise your credit score or keep it unchanged.

This is typically terrible: The hed is vague, the dek doesn’t add any new information, and the lede repeats the hed and dek. Meanwhile, the nut graf cites statistics without any clear purpose or angle, and every bit of the writing is clunky.

I rewrote it in a few minutes and sent it back to be finished…

Are Millennials Better Than Their Parents When It Comes To Credit Cards?

They pay them off more often, but they have too damn many of them

Parents often tell their children, “Don’t make the same mistakes I did.” When it comes to credit cards, the kids seem to be listening.

A recent poll of millennials reveals more than half (52.4 percent) pay off their balances in full each month. Overall, only 35 percent of Americans can manage that. And while 36 percent of millennials have maxed out their credit card before – a costly and disturbing trend – 61 percent of all Americans have done that.

…and the young writer learned something. He still sucks, but he’s sucking much less with every HDLN he submits, and every story he completes. If it can work for me at a boring financial website, it can work for you at a college newspaper.