Sunday, April 11, 2010

ADHD, Journalism, and the Nightmare of Finding Manna in the Desert

Guest Post by William Gray for Talking Writing

I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in third grade, when the only medicine available was Ritalin, taken twice a day, with a 30-minute activation delay. I still believe my preference for creation over editing stems from the ADHD test with a blue pencil—and no eraser. Who gives a third grader a pencil with no eraser on a timed test?

Little did my doctor know, he spawned my first habit as a writer. I am happier to find new stories than to edit existing ones—far happier. Don’t get me wrong, I accept and welcome criticism, copy-edits, and content clarification. But if an editor suggests one change in the lede or nutgraf, that gives me a new story idea. I cast off stories like hair clippings.

Hello, by the way. My name is William, and as far as professional writing goes, I am belly-button deep in Year Three, contemplating whether I’m an “innie” or an “outtie.” I’ve just completed a Master’s in Journalism at Harvard. So do I continue professional journalism with a healthy dose of ADHD, or do I give into the “dark side” and leverage my skills into public relations, social responsibility, and consulting?

Like most writers I am cursed with black-hole bookshelves. My personal literary tastes range from this blog, which I devour for its wit and charm to Colossus: Bletchley Park’s Greatest Secret. Oh, and Mika Brzezinski’s All Things at Once is under the pillow. I’ll ignore the stacks of science fiction and Robert Jordan.

I am fascinated by the process of writing, of getting somewhere, of the follow-through reporting and hard work. I want to know how it’s done. I want the 5 Step Process to Make Readers Read Your Writing. But there are only templates and email addresses.

The media world has changed, certainly over the past decade. It’s changed since I entered j-school three years ago. What began as an uncertain career covering nonprofits, homelessness, and the small-store owners of Boston has blossomed into the William Gray Media Empire-TM. Whether ADHD is a good match for new media—perhaps even a dynamite match—remains to be seen.

My usual story process is the same as any other reporter’s. We read an article in the paper or see something strange. We engage in conversation and realize nobody has answered the question we’ve been thinking about for the past ten minutes. Writers see opportunity in every crumpled napkin and discarded Big Gulp on the sidewalk.

But then we veer off-course to the Empire-TM where my ADHD is king. I must know everything about the subject. When did it start? Why? What’s different? Why the name? What were days 1-30 like? If I didn’t hate dates, I would be an historian, and Doris Kearns Goodwin would be See Spot Run to my Encyclopedia Britannica.

As an example, I will provide a personal labor of love: The Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, more fondly known as C-SPAN. Full-disclosure: I interned at C-SPAN for three months in the Summer of 2009.

C-SPAN was manna in the dessert for my ADHD. The network had me tracking coverage during the day, researching the history and health of senators and media personalities, and consistently updating graphics for live on-air publication. I was sated and happy. And it was long-form, so I had to breathe, take notes, and pay close attention.

I wrote my final 5,000-word project for Harvard on C-SPAN. That meant I read the only book that exists on the subject three times in the space of six months. I dug deep into the C-SPAN website—I went to the Wayback Machine and tracked the content and design change since its first recorded site. I found interviews of Steven Scully on and dusted off copies of C-SPAN’s in-house graphic creation guidelines. I sat down with the CEO to ask the simplest of questions about Tip O’Neill and the political climate of Washington during the network’s conception. I still have copies of the employee documents, internship guidelines, and the C-SPAN badge that hangs on the wall behind my couch (I promise I’ll return it). I’ve watched enough of the C-SPAN Archives to justify canceling my cable bill.

There I was, with a network that pioneered the call-in program, with thirty years of material. Let’s not forget Booknotes by Brian Lamb, either, which is a reader and interviewer’s dream.

And it was torture.

I did not know where to begin or end. I left over 10,000 words of interviews in my binder. I wrote eight pieces and made half-a-dozen follow-up phone calls for details as small as the color of the original binders used by Susan Swain, Co-Chief Operating Officer, to track the daily shows. How does one write about a network whose job is to record the political process and individual personalities attached to it? Did I mention I wrote a “Ten Noteworthy Moments in C-SPAN’s History” piece? I won’t detail how long it took, but it has enough bullet points to satisfy the most ardent PowerPointer.

I began researching the network eight months before my internship, when I met the CEO and immediately scoured the Harvard COOP for his books. Then I began watching C-SPAN actively. Then I started tracking videos on the website.

Then I wrote and I wrote and I wrote—until my editor said, “You have to cut.”

In the end, that phrase is the moral of the story for an ADHD journalist. I have a hundred stories similar to this, varying in length and degree, with equal parts failure and success. No matter how much I research, how many interviews I record, how many yellow legal pads I have on my shelf, I will have to cut.

I will have to focus. I will have to revise. I will have to edit. As one of the few individuals who can give an accurate description of what each specific medication does to affect my ADHD, this all means one thing:

I have to ignore the voice inside my head and listen to the voices of my audience.

And this means you have to read and shout.

Editor’s Note: Only about a hundred words were cut from the original version of this piece. Yay, Bill!

The go-to media expert for his peers, William Gray is an aspiring media guru and social responsibility consultant. He currently writes and consults for JForward, a new quarterly journal for the social sciences with an inaugural issue planned before Summer 2010. He also enjoys his role as Media and PR Director for WECAN and loves using personal projects for writing and radio speaking opportunities. He will also tell you more about C-SPAN than you ever wanted to know.


  1. Seems to me an ADHD journalist is just what we need. In your case, William, it sounds like a "dynamite match." We need people who will take a story to the nth degree. Much better to have to cut a story than to pad one.

    And I'd go with whichever career is going to give you the longest leash. As someone who has worked on a very short leash, for a very long time, I can tell you that it can be both a creativity and motivation killer.

    Sounds to me like you have interest, curiousity, and motivation to spare (and I already knew this from taking a class with you).

    What can say that you don't already know -- let your passions help you blaze a trail.

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