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August 5, 2019 Beyond The Dash

The 5 Types of Pressure a Novice Obituary Writer Will Face (And How to Deal with Them)

Overcoming personal obstacles, and knowing when to call in a professional

The 5 Types of Pressure a Novice Obituary Writer Will Face (And How to Deal with Them)
Most obituary writers are actively grieving. This presents many complications in the writing process. Learn how to overcome the pressure with these 5 writing tips. (Getty Images)

At Beyond the Dash, we want to make writing the life stories of loved ones easy and accessible. 

While it's possible to submit an obituary online within minutes, the writing of the story often makes the process much longer.

We believe that every dash is a story that deserves to be told. In this article, we are facing the pressures of obituary head-on. Naming and understanding the obstacles that all novice obituary writers face can help you as you navigate this important task. 

1. Importance 

For most people, their obituary will be the final record of their life story. As a genre of writing, a traditional obituary is fairly simple and straightforward: A brief biography, list of predecessors and survivors and the funeral arrangements are standard. Even though the writing demands are fairly uncomplicated, both novice and professional writers can struggle with putting their thoughts to paper, when the subject of their writing is a recently deceased friend or relative. 

It's an important, weighty task. The knowledge of an obituary's importance can make the task seem insurmountable. Some obituary writers fear that nothing they write will do justice to their loved one. You may be afraid of letting your loved one down by not writing well enough. Or maybe, after looking at the factual details of their life, you worry that the final product will seem too ordinary. These are all natural anxieties when beginning an obituary, but don't let these stop you from writing a tribute to their life. 

Overcoming the importance of this task

The best way to put the story you are telling into context, is to read other obituaries. What you may find is that most obituaries do simply tell the life stories of ordinary folks. At life's end everyone gets a mention. As the writer, there's no need to inject more into a story than necessary. 

Reading other stories will give you ideas for the story you will write and help clarify in your mind the tone (somber, uplifting, etc.) of obituary that seems most appropriate to you. Getting more familiar with the conventions of the genre will give you a sense of what your final version could look like. Obituaries remind us of what's important in life, and that every one of us will ultimately die. 

Normalizing life stories in your own perspective can help alleviate the pressure of writing your loved one's obituary. When you see a story that makes you think 'Well, I could have written that', you are ready to begin. 

2. Urgency

Although an obituary can be published retrospectively, most families also use them to announce the funeral arrangements. When an obituary also acts as a death announcement, the task of writing becomes urgent. 

The notice should be published at least a couple of days before the funeral to give guests enough notice to attend. After an obit is submitted to a newspaper or online obituary provider, the attending editor will verify the death, usually by contacting the funeral home. These checks and balances take some administrative time, so check with the publication's submission policies to determine the deadline. 

Funerals are usually held within two weeks of death. The time crunch for writing the obituary is real, but there are ways to address the pressure of a looming deadline. 

Overcoming urgency 

The best way to write an obituary quickly is to manage your time wisely. Check the publication's deadline or time standard for submitting an obituary. Working back from the deadline, think about how much time you can set aside to write this story. 

Even without a strict deadline, the best way to draft a piece of writing is quickly. The faster you write your first draft, the better. Even if this version is rife with errors, getting the base of the story down in words is the hardest part. You can always edit for grammar, spelling, accuracy and form later on, and should set aside more time for revisions than you set aside for the first draft. If you can start on this task early enough, you should be able to write a detailed, accurate and touching tribute in time to submit to the publication of your choice.

3. Permanence 

The stakes are high when writing any life story; there's even more pressure when it's the story of someone you loved and knew well. In the past, printed newspaper obituaries were the standard for publishing a loved one's life story. These notices usually run in the local paper for a day, making most print obituaries a one-time task. The pressure associated with an obituary's permanence can deter some people from completing the life story.

One you submit the final obituary to a newspaper, this version of your loved one's story is how they will be remembered. Obituaries and death notices also form part of the public record, and often genealogists refer to them in the course of family history research.  

A print obituary one-time deal that most people feel motivated to do right. The enduring nature of this task adds to the overall pressure associated with writing. 

Overcoming permanance

Part of what makes an obituary meaningful is its permanence—not it's perfection. In fact, most obituaries are written by grieving people at a time when they were most vulnerable. It's unrealistic to demand a perfectly moving piece of writing from yourself considering the circumstances. 

Consider creating a digital memorial in addition to a print obituary. Online obituaries can be edited, added to and visited by family and friends. Though a print obituary is final once you hit the 'submit' button, the online version is the one that will last as a public record. You can have continuing control over the story as the years go by. 

4. Grief

One of the most unique aspects of obituary writing is that these stories are usually penned by amateur authors who are grieving. 

Even healthy grief can make a well adjusted adult feel like they are losing their marbles. The task at hand seems simple on the surface. But to someone who is dealing with the immediate aftermath of a death, setting time aside to dig into the life of the person who's just died can be extremely emotional.   

Overcoming grief

There's no one way to overcome grief; the journey looks different for everyone. In fact, grief is not something to overcome: You don't move on from grief, you move on with it. With time and processing, the sharp, painful symptoms of grief do eventually become more positive and easier to deal with. 

Grief is part and parcel when it comes to obituary writing. If you are unable to lean into this and use it in your writing, don't force it. Delegating is important. Ask if another friend or relative of the deceased is able to work with you or even take on the task completely.  

If no one is up to the task, consider hiring a professional obituary writer to get the job done. There's no shame in declining to write an obituary. What's important is ensuring that the funeral is announced, and that the life story is ultimately told. 

5. Writer's block

Even professional writers get writer's block. Writer's block is a common affliction that almost all writers will experience at least once. When it happens, all of your creative energy feels drained and all your good ideas feel meaningless. This is where procrastination comes into the writing process. 

Mounting pressure outside of the writing process is often to blame. Most obituaries found online or in the local paper were penned, not by professional writers, but by grieving friends and family of the deceased. Novice writers may experience more frequent and intense bouts of writer's block due to lack of experience and confidence. 

Overcoming writer's block

Beating writer's block often involves alleviating the pressures of writing, including many of those mentioned on this list. Restoring confidence as a writer, drafting quickly and overcoming personal obstacles that are taking up brain space. Creating physical, emotional and mental space to work uninterrupted is your best line of defense against procrastination caused by writer's block. 

It's also helpful to shed your own personal expectations for the end result during the writing process. Self-editing does not belong in the creative process of producing written material. This is partly why drafting quickly is important—it allows the writer to just write rather than self-critique. Rather than torture yourself over a painstaking draft, let go of your hopes for the finished product and enjoy the process of writing as much as you can. The editing can (and will) come later. 

Create an Obituary

When to hire a professional

When a loved one passes away, the most immediate funeral plans take precedent. The person responsible for planning the funeral must choose a funeral home, arrange for the body to be transported there, and then they must decide on the funeral program, music, caskets, and more. There are sometimes legal matters to attend to. Those who knew the deceased must also be notified of the death and funeral arrangements. 

Hiring a professional obituary writer can take one of these urgent tasks off your plate at a busy, emotional time. Delegating the writing of the life story does not mean you need to sacrifice the personal touches that are included. In fact, a good writer will be able to help you choose the most important life milestones, accomplishments and personal stories to share, so that the final product is polished, interesting and truthful. 

It may be difficult to know when to outsource this task. If you are worried about finishing the obituary in time to announce the funeral, it might be time to delegate the life story. 

If you need help, it's best to reach out to a writer sooner than later. The writer may have scheduling constraints of their own, and even a professional needs time to write.

If you can find a writer who lives nearby, they may interview you about your loved one to gather information for the story. A remote writer may do this via email or telephone. In the end, you have the final say on what is included in the story, and a professional writer should include at least one revision in the price of their service. 

The Society of Professional Obituary Writers is an international organization of editors, writers and obituary professionals. If you are considering hiring a professional obituary writer, their Member Directory has a list of many qualified writers who can help you with this important task. 

Sharing stories to heal 

Obituary can be daunting, especially with the pressures of grief and writing piling up. However, there are strategies you can employ to write your loved one's life story productively, and on time. 

Writing an obituary is more meaningful in the weeks, months and years following a death. You and your loved ones will appreciate the investment of time or money as they share memories of a special person. Writing a life story, sharing grief with others and reflecting on loss by commemorating can't heal grief. But a positive tribute to a life well lived is a good place to start.

Your loved one had a remarkable life. Tell their story, and we’ll publish it online for free.

After creating an online memorial, you can also publish in print in any of over 6,000 newspapers across North America.

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