Vacationing on Deadline: How NSNC’s Columnists Do It

By Lisa Smith Molinari
NSNC President

As columnists who must meet strict deadlines, we know that one of the best ways to combat burnout is to take a vacation. It’s good for us to release ourselves from the looming pressures of our next writing assignments for a week or two. But let’s be honest – do we?

According to a recent study by US Travel Association’s Project Time Off , 54 percent of American employees had unused vacation time at the end of 2016 – a total of 662 million days. Even if we do manage to get away, many of us take our work along with us. According to a July 2015 Poynter.com article by Melody Kramer , most journalists interviewed admitted they had trouble tearing themselves away from social media, email, deadlines, and the 24/7 news cycle while on vacation.

So, in order to encourage NSNC’s columnists to recharge their batteries, I’ve asked several of our members to give us their tips on how they take a vacation from their vocation.

Syndicated humor columnist Ned Hickson offered, “I have tried different ways of handling my submissions while on vacation. And while I was able to get away with announcing my tragic death in group email, that was kind of a one-shot deal which I attributed to ‘fake news.’ Ultimately, I have resorted to the unthinkable, which is writing two extra columns in the preceding months – or hours – before leaving on vacation, and sending them in advance. Sometimes I even remember to send them before I actually get on a beach somewhere and have a panic attack.”

Freelance writer and former health columnist LJ Anderson said that the key to being able to take a real break was to have a few columns in her back pocket, or fanny pack as it were:

“I find exercise to be the best thought-generator. When I walk in silence – then something always comes into my mind. I have pen and moleskin book in my walking fanny pack or record into my phone.”

When asked if he procrastinated prior to going on vacation, comedy writer Paul Lander boasted, “I’ve been known to stay on the phone with telemarketers until THEY hang up on me. That way, I get to procrastinate and ruin a telemarketer’s day. Win. Win.”

Conversely, humor columnist Dorothy Rosby said that she will never procrastinate: “I fear deadlines. So I have an obsessive, compulsive system for capturing ideas and a writing habit that borders on fanaticism to make sure I never let myself get too close to one without having something. So, yes, I try to send my column before I go away if possible. Fear is my great motivator.”

Other columnists, like travel writer Susan Young , freely admit their weaknesses: “I’d usually submit an old column that was still relevant. I never seemed to be organized enough to get one out early or have extras lying around.”

Similarly, NSNC Education Foundation President Eric Heyl confessed,

“When I went on vacation at my former paper, there was no such thing as a small box running with my column sig that said, “Eric is spending some well-deserved time with his family this week.” Nor was there a more interesting explanation offered, such as “Hey, Eric just had an emergency transfusion and doesn’t want to disclose the reason for it. He’ll be back next week…maybe.” Columnists at my paper had to write in advance before vacationing, which resulted in annually revisiting evergreen column topics that weren’t compelling. One year, I’d write that war is bad, the next year I’d reveal that fire is hot. Once I revealed the reason why no hometown statue ever was commissioned to commemorate the accomplishments of John Wilkes Booth. As you might imagine, reader reaction was tepid.”

At-Large Board Member Rick Horowitz opined that

“Panic can be a wonderful motivator.

“Panic at the prospect of leaving my various editors in the lurch two whole weeks out of 52. Panic at the chance they might notice their pages had somehow survived those 14 days without me, and decide to make the arrangement permanent.

“More nightmares: What if I decided to be simultaneously creative and…”vacative,” writing and filing while I was away, only to find that the one Internet café on the island had gone out of business? (Yes, boys and girls – there was a time before Wi-Fi, and even before Internet cafés. Hell, there was a time before the Internet!)

“Thus was born the Pre-Departure Write-o-Rama – a sudden, concentrated, full-tilt increase in columnar output, with – or so I told myself – minimal decrease in quality.

“This went on for years: absolutely the most productive weeks on my calendar. Until the time I finally decided to try…not writing. Or more precisely, sending along some carefully chosen (and properly labeled) Treasures from the Oldies Vault.

“Evergreens. Reruns.

“S ome editors ran them. Others chose not to. The world did not end. Draw your own conclusions.”

And slice-of-life columnist Ginger Claremohr gave her own frank account: ” For fifteen years, my goal has been to ‘write ahead.’ That has happened exactly once. When on vacation, I usually wake up on the morning my article is due andsay, ‘Oh crap! I have an article due!’ And then either submit a reprint, or quickly turn one of my lengthier Facebook posts into an article.”

Magazine columnist Christy Heitger-Ewing submitted her column prior to her vacation this summer, but confessed that she “had a handful of other projects that I wasn’t able to finish prior to my vacation, and additional assignments rolled in while I was on vacation so I always take my laptop so I can work while I’m gone.”

NSNC Vice President Mike Morin says he makes good use of his vacations by turning them into columns: “I always ask myself, ‘What have I learned about (insert vacation location) that my readers might appreciate?’ Well, I just returned from Minneapolis, and as we left Midway Airport in Chicago, we were informed the toilet was broken but we could use it once the plane gets to 30,000 feet. Whaaat? I was feeling bad for the people below in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where we would get to that altitude. I never learned why that was, but I did learn to not eat spicy food during a layover. Knowledge is power.”

The most intriguing vacation tip came from former NSNC President Bill Tammeus :

“When I go on summer vacation trips, I tell my editors that I will mail them a series of postcards, each containing a sentence or two of the column I have due when I’m gone. Their job is to paste them together in the right order.

“I like to send these postcards out of order to challenge them a little. They deserve it. Sometimes the last to arrive is the lede. Sometimes the sentence containing the whole point of the column gets lost in the mail. It’s a crapshoot for sure, but it makes quotidian, tedious lives of editors ever so much more interesting.

“Or it would if I actually did what I just described. Instead, I write the damn things early, turn them in, and give myself an imaginary raise. A few more such raises and I won’t be able to afford myself.”

And finally, Immediate Past President Jerry Zezima put a lid on the subject with this undeniable truth: “When I went into journalism, I had to take a vow of poverty, so I can’t afford to go on vacation. Problem solved.”

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