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National Sports Journalism Center

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How one sports columnist approaches the sports column

A note to all who enter here: This goes on for almost 2,000 words and it’s about how one guy writes a sports column. You might rather rotate your tires.

But I will not take all the blame. Every spring, the estimable Roy Peter Clark runs a sports journalism seminar at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. He made me stop and think about How I Achieve Voice and Authority in the Sports Column.

So here’s what I wrote for the taskmaster . . .

Wait. One more thing: Part Three here is printed in defiance of Elmore Leonard’s famous rule #10 of writing, which is, "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." You can skip Part Three, but I’ll hate you for it.

Now . . .

Well, I should also say that while the narrow focus here is on columns, this is the way I think about all kinds of writing.

So . . .

***

There are four steps in the process …



ONE: PREPARATION

1. Decide which of the six kinds of column you want to do.

a) Pure opinion, as in, "This is what I think and this is why I think it." The Royko Rule is your guide: "When there’s a public controversy, take a side – worry later whether you’re right or wrong." The exaggeration makes his point: a columnist’s first obligation is to be topical.

b) Commentary, as in exposition of a news event.

c) Color, as in descriptive narrative of a spectacle.

d) Character study, as in a thumbnail sketch.

e) Feature, as in reporting an event, issue, or personality.

f) My ideal column examines an issue framed inside a real-life story. I would show a young boy’s courage by telling the story of how the brain-damaged child came to bat at an important point in a kids’ game. I would tell where I stand on NFL racism in the hiring of black coaches by telling a black coach’s experience with racism in America.

2. Whatever the column, the first rule is the same: Be intellectually ready.

Know as much about the subject as you can before beginning. Read everything. Go to the water cooler and find out what people want to know. Talk to editors, writers, your newsroom buddies. Call your favorite writing rabbi. Think hard about the dynamics in the controversy at hand, the tensions in the characters, the significance of the spectacle. The more you know, the more you know how much more you need to know.

3. Be psyched.

Bernard Levin, the British essayist, did a book called "Enthusiasms." His enthusiasms are not mine, but he wrote about his with such mastery and such pleasure that I wanted to leave home and try them all. Columnists come off as curmudgeons when we criticize what other people adore. OK, goes with the territory. But most of the time, we entertain. After all, we’re being paid to go to a ball game. Or meet an extraordinary person. Or, even better, we get to satisfy the innate curiosity that got us into this business. Readers are eager to share our enthusiasm. My hero, Red Smith, said, "People go to ball games to have fun, and they pick up the paper the next morning to have that fun again."



TWO: REPORTING

1. All voice and all authority have one foundation: the gathering of information.

The best columnists are the best reporters. The best reporters are those who listen the best and talk the least, who see the most and are seen the least.

The most important work a columnist does is put himself in position to report. Red said, "Be there." It’s a slippery slope to think the column can be done without reporting; next thing you know, you’re writing off the top of your airy head. John Kenneth Galbraith said, "As one’s feet give out, one seeks to have the mind take their place." Don’t let that happen. Be there. Television sells sensations of sight and sound; print rises and falls on reporting.

"You use your eyes, your ears, and, as Jimmy Breslin has always preached, your legs," Dick Schaap wrote. "You go to the scene. You talk to the people involved. You ask questions. You look for the small details that illuminate the larger story and reinforce credibility…."

2. Before doing an interview, know specifically what you want to know. At the same time, go in with a loosely structured plan as to how you’ll get there. Make the interview a conversation, not an interrogation.

3. Reporting includes observation of non-verbal things. It’s important to know what you’re feeling during a conversation, what the subject’s body language is telling you. Everything your senses tell you is important. What you see, hear, smell, write it down.

4. Extract the extraordinary from the ordinary. Here’s Gustave Flaubert . . .

"We have fallen into the habit of remembering, whenever we use our eyes, what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the slightest thing contains a little that is unknown. We must find it. To describe a blazing fire or a tree in a plain, we must remain before that fire or tree until they no longer resemble for us any other tree or any other fire. That is the way to become original.

"When you pass a grocer sitting in his doorway, or a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab-stand, show me that grocer and that concierge, the way they are sitting or standing, their entire physical appearance, making it by the skillfulness of your portrayal, embody all their moral nature as well, so that I cannot confuse them with any other grocer or any other concierge. And make me see, by means of a single word, wherein one cab-horse does not resemble the 50 others ahead of it or behind it."

Frank O’Connor believes the work of all good writers contains an element of journalism. In Chekov, he said, that element was 95 percent. That is praise we journalists should remember.



THREE: ORGANIZING NOTES

1. Devise a system of annotation that you can depend on in a deadline crunch.

Mine is simple and I’ve used it for virtually every column and feature (and book) that I’ve written, whether I had a year to write, a week, 30 minutes. The system is built on numbering notes and indexing them.

When I’m done with interviews, reporting, and other research, I go through my notes and number each one. I then make an index of those numbered notes, using a key word or phrase from the note to identify it.

The value of this procedure becomes obvious. First, as I number the notes, I am re-reading them and so refreshing my memory.

Second, as I create the index by writing down the note’s number and a key word or phrase from it, I am thinking of the note again.

Third, the numbers as indexed are a guide to finding the note in your cluttered notebook. (Almost nothing is more frustrating than knowing you have a note and not being able to find it. This method makes sure that never happens.)

Fourth, when I’m done, or about done, I review the notes to be sure I’ve used all the important ones. (NOTHING is more frustrating than waking up at 3 a.m. to the realization that you forgot to use the best note of all.)

2. Occasionally, I subdivide the notes into "Scenes," "Thoughts," "Characters," and whatever topics may apply to the work.

3. Less occasionally, I use the notes as a basis for an outline.

(Actually, the note-index system helps, if indirectly, in a fifth way. By going through that note-index procedure, the structure of the piece often becomes so clear in my mind that I have no need to write an outline). I most often do an outline when I know the ending/kicker but am not sure how I’m going to get there. The important thing in any outline is to think of it as a suggestion, not the final word. Be prepared to deviate from the route; be eager to do it, in fact, because the unexpected thought/insight is what we as writers dream of and must treasure as reward for the grunt work that brought us there. The most thrilling evidence of life in any column is the presence of a line that you had no idea you were about to write. "Did I write THAT? Where’d THAT come from?" The happy and rare appearance of such lines relieves the pain of writing. (Some, anyway.)



FOUR: WRITING

1. Be bold. Write as if you’re a Wallenda. Step out on the high wire and strut to the other side. The first three steps – preparation, reporting, organization of the material – guarantee that you’ll have something good to say. Then comes the part you’ve delayed, and delayed for good reason. Writing is hard. It is scary. And it’s great fun. Remember what the patriarch Karl Wallenda said: "To be on the wire is life."

In his wonderful little book, "Spunk & Bite," Arthur Plotnik says writers must overcome the fears of embarrassment, humiliation, and derision that they feel are certain to come should they so much as wobble in their high-wire dance. He insists they be brave and exhorts them by asking and answering a question about the courage necessary to write: "Where does it come from? From the nobility of the mission: To refresh readers from the fug of the ordinary, the numbing, and the nurturing. Writer, it is your DUTY to do so!"

2. Be honest. Be true to who you are. Readers learn your likes and dislikes, your flaws and strengths, capabilities and spirits and prejudices. In time, these pieces of the puzzle come together in a portrait of the writer. Writing reveals you. Better, I think, for readers to think of you as rock-headed in your opinions than to consider you as a cynical opportunist trading yesterday’s beliefs for new ones that better fit today’s argument.

3. Be clear. Choose the five-cent word ahead of the five-dollar word. What Faulkner said, Hemingway said in fewer syllables. Favor nouns and verbs over adjectives and adverbs.

4. Hear the sounds your words make. Hearing them is a small step toward achieving "voice." To speak of "voice" is to move from craft to art, and it is a move I make only with this apology: I can no more define "voice" than I can tell you why I prefer one blonde actress, Charlize Theron, over another blonde actress, Scarlett Johansson. There’s just something in Charlize. "Voice" is that something in good writing. Read good writing aloud. There’s poetry in it, music, whisperings and laughter, intimations of anger. Some writers, you hear them cracking wise out of the side of their mouths. Others, you hear them roaring. Some speak so softly you lean toward them. Read your own stuff aloud if that is the only way you can hear it; or have it read aloud to you. "Voice" is achieved by choosing this word instead of that, by the varying structure of sentences, by rhythms, even by syllable counts. All those choices establish the tone of your writing.

5. Read, study, and press to your bosom four books on the craft. They are: "Elements of Style," by William Strunk and E.B. White; "Spunk and Bite," by Arthur Plotnik; "Writing to Deadline," by Don Murray, and "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer," by Roy Peter Clark (unsolicited plug!).

***

If you read Part Three, thanks, that makes two of us.

If you have a question, comment, or wickedly clever observation that furthers our education, send it along. From time to time, I hope to get back to these topics.
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