The Yang Slinger: Vol. XIX
A self-loathing examination into how journalists organize and prepare before finally starting to write. Also, the worst column of my life and a college journalist who covers (gasp!) cannabis.
So yesterday afternoon I texted Mirin Fader, the Ringer’s excellent (if not a tad dog-obsessed) features writer, and asked her to break down her approach to story organization. As in—you’ve done the reporting, you’ve done the research, you’ve done all there is to done, eh, do. And finally, at this moment, you’re steeling yourself to write.
“So,” I asked Mirin, “now what?”
This was her reply …
I write a list: What are my best images? (Anecdotes), what is this story REALLY about? (Like LaMelo wasn’t just a story about a boy who is gonna become the no 1 pick, its a story about fathers and sons, and fame, and exploitation, I have to understand what the story is really about before I write it). So, those two things take hours and hours. Writing down my best images requires me to pore through the material (which is usually 40-50 pages of reporting/quotes), and really familiarize myself with the material. I have to know those things before I do any writing. Then I try to organize the piece around that list of images, and come up with a potential structure. It’s not an outline but it is just a beginning framework, and then I start writing but not in the way others do. I never start at the beginning—too much pressure. If your lede doesn’t hook someone in the first few sentences, you’re dead. So I start in the middle and work my way down, or up.
The other thing I do is free write, to help me understand what the story is really about (That second Q I mentioned). I’ll just write in my journal whatever comes to mind and usually, I end up finding it. Because free writing allows me to get grounded in the story in a space where I don’t feel I have to be perfect, or write the story. It’s just free wheeling thoughts, and my instincts come out.
That whole first graf of Gigi Bryant story came out of my diary from doing that.
And it’s fascinating. Because if someone asked me, Jeffrey Robert Pearlman II1, “What are some of the things you do?” … I’d stare. Blankly. I’d stare and stare and stare. Maybe blink a few times. Drool a dollop. Then stare some more. Then blink once again.
Because, if I’m being honest, my post-research writing preparation involves a whole lot of nothing. I have never (not once) outlined a potential story. I also have never come up with much of a plan. Yes, I like transcribing my interviews and printing them out. But mainly, I fix some sort of warm drink, plop down in a chair and—write it out. Or try and write it out before pacing around, watching some Vince Ferragamo videos, eating shit I shouldn’t eat and trying again. Some words stick. Some words are deleted. Some stuff is OK. Some stuff is garbage.
But a plan?
A real, honest-to-goodness plan?
The idea for this week’s substack comes from Alec Lewis, the Athletic’s Kansas City Royals beat writer and one helluva scribe. Its genesis dates back a few months, to this text exchange …
And, as you can probably tell, I was reluctant to tackle a subject that eludes me. I am not now, and never have been, a planner. Most of my ideas come to me either in the shower or while taking a long walk. I’m sort of like a leaf in the wind, blowing this way and that way until something dramatic happens. Sometimes it works out. Other times it doesn’t. But it’s who I am, warts and all. Structure? That’d be an enormous no.
Most of the writers I know, however, don’t just write. It’s like Mirin says— “I try to organize the piece around that list of images, and come up with a potential structure.” That’s how it’s probably supposed to be. A planned attack on a project. So I’ve reached out to a bunch of quality scribes to find out how one should go about this.
Alec, no charge …
POINTER ONE: MAP YO SHIT OUT
The Ringer’s Kevin Clark is one of modern sports journalism’s top guns, and if you need some proof check out this Valentine’s Day mini-opus, MATTHEW STAFFORD WAS THE MISSING PIECE IN THE RAMS’ MASTER PLAN. The guy simply has some beautiful flow to his writing. It all clicks together, without the reader consciously thinking, “Wow, this all clicks together.” See, that’s the trick—pulling off high-level stunts and having no one the wiser.
Hence, when I asked Kevin for his approach, I half expected some Einsteinian breakdown. Which, of course, is dumb, because there’s nothing Einsteinian in this genre of writing. It’s gut, feel, texture. As scientific as a toenail. But what Kevin offered was far more tangible.
“Before I start transcribing, I write down all of the scenes and moments that stood out to me,” he said. “I find this to be helpful since, it stands to reason, if it sticks out to me, it will probably stick out to the reader. After I transcribe, I take all of the scenes and quotes I know will be in the piece and put them in a separate word doc and start building a shell.”
This obviously makes a ton of sense. Let’s say, as a writer, you have 30 transcribed pages of interviews. Combing through that amount of material is … what’s the phrase? Fucking awful. So why not then set aside the good stuff and have it ready for war? Charlie Goldsmith, the Cincinnati Enquirer Reds and Bengals beat writer, boldfaces and color codes before actual writing. “Differentiate between topics,” he says. And I’ve gotta think young Charlie is correct. Truth be told, I’ve probably overlooked far too many quality scenes because of laziness/unwillingness to plan better.
Chris Palmer, veteran NBA writer and scribbler of a million (or so) words, always starts with what he calls a “loose outline.”
“I’ll literally scribble it on a piece of paper,” he said. “It’s loose because the reporting will change it. Every time. Don’t report to match your outline or angle. The story goes where it goes. But usually it has plot points and themes I want to hit.”
In other words: Map yo shit out.
POINTER TWO: TRANSCRIBE EVERY WORD
Sooooooooo … this blows. And if you’ve never transcribed, you should try it just to understand the unique hellscape of sitting before your laptop and devoting 2 1/2 hours to type out what was a 30-minute interview. Or, put differently: If someone told me they could remove all of my fingernails, and as a result I’d never have to transcribe another word, well …
But, the thing is, transcribing matters for an endless number of reasons. First, it embeds the material inside your head. Second, it reminds you of stuff you almost certainly forgot/overlooked. Third, it adds emphasis to words. Like, reading, “I farted. My butt giggled. And then I farted again” is a lot different than hearing these sentiments emerge from one’s mouth …
“I still transcribe every last word of every interview — mostly out of fear I’ll miss something good if I were to take the shortcut of fast-forwarding the tape recorder,” said Sam McDowell, Kansas City Star sports columnist. “I've also long believed that even a bad quote could pop a good idea into your head. For that mere possibility, the payoff is worth it. But I try to multi-task as I transcribe. Often an idea — even if it’s as small as a turn of phrase — comes to me, and I’ll pause the recorder and make a note.”
Added Garrett Kroeger, Laredo Morning Times sports reporter: “I typically transcribe all my interviews and then I see how I can flow from quote to another in the order I think they are the most impactful. It’s a good way to get the writing going. Sometimes my original placement works, sometimes I get rid of my first build. But it just helps me get the ball rolling.
“It’s a weird process but so I have a good idea of what story I want to tell after transcribing. So I’ll take my quotes and basically line them up in the best order I think they’ll be useful. . And then I try to follow my story by connecting one quote to another with details, stats, phrase quotes I might not have used. Or if I think I can phrase some of the quotes that I plan to use to make that more impactful, I’ll do that.
“It’s a weird process to explain.”
POINTER THREE: STAND IN THE SHOWER AND SPEAK ALOUD
This is my own take, and I’m sticking to it. Because my mother and father taught me the value of decent hygiene, I shower at least once every three weeks. And as I linger beneath the water, head and body absorbing the liquid love, I talk out my stories.
Yes, I sound like a psycho serial killer. Yes, it’s quirky. But let’s say I’m working on a profile of, oh, Manny Machado. And maybe I had lunch with Machado at a San Diego fish joint. And maybe Machado ordered the shrimp, but didn’t like it and complained to the waiter. Hours/days later I’ll find myself standing in the shower, wet as can be, auditioning (aloud) stuff like …
Manny Machado didn’t like the shrimp. He thought he would, because the last time he sat down at the Freight House Cafe his scrod was scrumptious …
There is seafood, and then there is seafood.
What type of seafood does a Major League third baseman eat?
I’ll just go on and on, sounding it all out, looking for something. And if lightning strikes, I leap from the shower, grab a pen (or my phone) and get it down.
Off I go.
POINTER FOUR: ORGANIZATION! ORGANIZATION! ORGANIZATION!
I’ve known Yaron Weitzman for more than a decade, and what pisses me off about the author and Fox Sports NBA writer is his meticulousness. Really, I guess what pisses me off about Yaron is his meticulous makes my lack of meticulous look pathetic.
Yaron keeps all his notes in a Google Doc—“interview notes, transcriptions, links to other stories, random notes,” he said. He then prints everything out, goes through all X number of pages and clears the weeds. Meaning, he divides the notes into different sections, usually based upon certain sub-categories ("high school years” or “competitiveness”).
“After that, I'll outline the outline, meaning think through what the story is actually about, what order I want to write in, what my lede is, what scenes I want to highlight,” he said. “I think about narrative arcs, tension points. I actually have a Google doc I've put together off of advice that I've seen from writers I admire where they outline the sorts of questions they think about before writing, and sometimes I'll refer back to this and answer them for the specific piece. I probably spend too much time over-thinking that stuff sometimes, but so it goes. I'll then write it all down and print out that entire document. That becomes the thing I refer back to until I'm done with the piece.”
God, it’s so fucking obnoxious. Hi, I’m Yaron. And look at the smart ways I prepare to write a story. I’m soooo special, aren’t I?2
Molly Yanity, the chair of the journalism program at Quinnipiac University, stresses organization to her students. “[They need to] think of the story they want to tell and to break it into sections,” she said. “Start putting quotes, facts, statistics under each section. Maybe the outline is chronological. Maybe it is thematic. Maybe they change their mind a few times, too. But, they need to make sure the sections flow, that what they want to be the point of the story is clear and that it almost becomes visual to them.”
POINTER FIVE: WRITE THE ENDING FIRST
Confession—I’ve never done this, and likely never will do this. It strikes me as bonkers. But I’ve known a good number of peers who swear by the idea, including the outstanding Mac Engle of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Because if you just get into the car and drive with no final destination in mind,” he said, “you may just drive forever and never arrive to your desired finish.”
Palmer, too, is an ending-first guy. “For some reason if I start with the ending,” he said, “I feel like I have a destination.”
Hey, whatever works.
POINTER SIX: THE MARTINI GLASS APPROACH
Sitting here at 49-years old, with nearly three decades in the business, there aren’t a ton of surprises left. But when I reached out to Eric Kolenich, who covers higher education and health systems for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, I was caught off guard by this phrasing …
“The martini glass approach.”
The … what?
It turns out there’s this approach to the way one thinks about storytelling, first featured three years ago on Simpson College multimedia communication website, that goes as such …
POINTER SEVEN: FIND INSPIRATION
Like standing beneath the shower, this is actually something I do all the time.
Before I write, I read really great stuff. For me, that involves turning approximately six inches to my right, opening a drawer beneath a futon and pulling out one of the hundreds of old, tattered, yellowed, random issues of Sports Illustrated that I’ve saved over the decades.
Something about the words of others just—BAM!—gets me going. And it’s not always merely a search for inspiration. Like Jamal Wallace lifting part of grumpy Forrester’s essay, I’ve borrowed words, structures, approaches. I’ve copied tones, patterns, feel. I won’t directly rip someone off, but I’ll gladly steal all the mojo I can stuff in my backpack.
It turns out I’m not alone.
Said Clark: “Once I have all the material on the page, and know, generally, what the theme of the piece is going to be, I find as many books or articles or essays and I can that I think hits on the theme of what I want to do to glean some inspiration. Typically, this work is outside of sports. I remember writing a longer piece a few years ago on what I called the ‘scheme wars’—the clash of offensive styles between college and pro football and I randomly stumbled upon some Michael Lewis essays from the ‘90s on tech that I thought was hitting on the themes I wanted to: what happens when the old guard's methods start to fail? So it's a lot of Lewis, or David Halberstam on that sort of stuff, or Ralph Wiley or A.J. Liebling on boxing. Just something to get my brain into the mode I want it to be in. Let's be clear: I am doing a very, very poor impression of these folks when I do it, and these guys write circles around me, but I'm trying to get five percent of it. But the more I see geniuses approach what I'm generally trying to approach, the better. Then, once I think enough about it, I write. Thinking about writing is much easier than actually writing.”
I might borrow that.
POINTER EIGHT: JESUS CHRIST, ALEC, JUST IGNORE ALL THE BULLSHIT AND WRITE YOUR FUCKING STORY BECAUSE YOU HAVE A DEADLINE AND A NEW EPISODE OF ‘TEEN MOM’ IS ON AND CHEYENNE AND HER FIANCE ZACH SEEM ABSOLUTELY PERFECT TOGETHER AND THERE’S NO WAY YOU’RE GONNA MISS IT.
I still maintain the simplest way is the best way.
Have your notes by your side.
Pour a beverage.
Maybe grab some grapes out of the fridge.
Shut off the Internet.
And just do what we all do.
The Quaz Five with … Kyle Bandujo
Kyle Bandujo is the host of one of the sphere’s greatest/most-overlooked podcasts, the must-listen-to Big Screen Sports. He’s also the host of “From Phenom to the Farm,” a pod brought to you via Baseball America that features interviews with former and current ballplayers who made the jump from high school directly to pro ball. One can follow Kyle on Twitter here.
1. Kyle, you're the host of the Big Screen Sports podcast—which is one of my favorites. So what, in your world, makes a truly, truly horrific sports movie?: Getting the sports wrong is the unforgivable sin—the actors being horrible athletes, or the plot points being so far-fetched that it takes you out of the movie. You might be able to survive one, but you certainly can’t survive both.
“Trouble With The Curve” is the ultimate offender and perfect example. They cast an actor who obviously hadn’t played much baseball in his life, which the movie could’ve gotten past, but unfortunately everything in the movie having to do with baseball was ludicrous.
2. And what makes a truly great one?: A film that gets the sports right, and makes you care about its characters. The sports movies of Ron Shelton and Gavin O’Connor are perfect examples. They both usually cast a lot of great athletes (Costner might be our greatest athlete-actor, and O’Connor casted almost all real hockey players in “Miracle”), and even when they don’t (looking at you Tim Robbins and Wesley Snipes) they always have enough charisma and good script behind them to overcome any sports shortcomings.
Most sports movies have a “Big Chill” moment that the film sets up for at the end—if the film itself has gotten you to buy into its characters and what they’re working toward, that moment will almost always hit.
3. I think a lot of people who could have podcasts are intimidated by the process of starting one, putting it together, etc. You and I both do the dirty work. So how big of a pain is it? Do you think more folks should podcast?: It’s definitely harder than just plug-in, talk, and post an episode. Usually the editing process takes 1.5 times the length of the episode itself, at least. Factor in recording time, notes & prep, scheduling guests, and the general anxiety that comes with putting any sort of work out on the internet, a lot more goes into podcasting than you’d think.
All that being said, I love doing it. It’s served as a really fun creative outlet for nearly four years now. I tell people that if the reason you want to start podcasting is you have an idea you’re passionate about and would like to discuss on a weekly basis—absolutely go for it. If your first reason is because you want to make money or be popular, than you’re likely going to end up disappointed.
4. You have a background as a ballplayer. Do you think that makes any sort of difference when it comes to how you understand, digest sports? Does it actually help you?: There aren’t many perks to spending five years as one of the worst NCAA Division II baseball players in the nation. I’m not sure it’s made any difference in how I understand them, especially considering there are folks who cover baseball who didn’t play past Little League who have a far better understanding than I do. Possibly it’s given me a better insight than others of how a guy feels after giving up a grand slam.
I will say that it’s helped when interviewing a baseball player. Something I’ve learned from you Jeff is to always try to find something in common, or just an area to bond over with an interviewee. While I don’t know what it’s like to throw 95 or hit a towering home run, I can relate with the struggle of a 13 hour bus ride, or trying to fit in with players 4-5 years older than you.
5. Rank in order (favorite to least): Gary Coleman, Brad Paramapoonya, "Rocky III," Geno Smith, Diet Pepsi, modern European history, Dane Cook, Brian Kemp, Tyler the Creator: Let’s go with 1. “Rocky III” (best villain of the series, not the best movie of the series) 2. Brad Paramapoonya (Good pitcher, great teammate) 3. Gary Coleman (hat tip to you, I didn’t realize just how great an actor he was until we covered “The Kid From Left Field”) 4. Dane Cook (the funniest person on Earth for me from age 13-15) 5. Geno Smith (wouldn’t wish having to QB the Jets on my worst enemy) 6. Tyler, the Creator (congrats to him on all his success) 7. Modern European history (I’m sure at some point I’ll do a Wikipedia deep-dive on it) 8. Diet Pepsi (not sure I’ve ever had it) 9. Brian Kemp (a truly terrible person).
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Lindsay Barker, Colorado State undergrad and cannabis reporter for the Rocky Mountain Collegian.
OK, so this is amazing. And I don’t even smoke weed. But Lindsay is the student newspaper’s pot beat writer. Again—amazing. She covers pot. And she doesn’t just cover it. She covers it extraordinarily well. The industry. The intricacies. Here’s Lindsay on dispensaries and advertising limitations. Here’s Lindsay’s holiday gift guide for your stoner pals. Here’s Lindsay on local artisans and their contributions to toe cannabis scene.
Here’s Lindsay reviewing a strain …
My big college beat was the University of Delaware men’s lacrosse team.
One can follow Barker on Twitter here. Bravo, kid …
Yet another story of one of my myriad career fuckups …
The summer of 1993 was absolutely amazing.
I was a 21-year-old intern at The Tennessean in Nashville. I roomed inside the Tennessee State University dorms with an Oakland-based rapped named Sexy Sweat. I drank a lot, partied a lot, played a ton of pickup hoops, compiled a solid 50 bylines in the features section.
It was a perfect run.
Well … almost perfect.
As one of my final assignments, the paper allowed me to write a column about my experiences in the south. So I penned this …
Eh, it wasn’t received well. The hate mail was (rightly) voluminous, including a postcard with a heart stamp that read simply, FUCK YOU YANKEE JEW BOY FAGGOT.
I’m not saying anyone deserves to take such fire.
But I sort of did.
Random journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: I don’t care whether you think Aaron Donald deserved the Super Bowl MVP over Cooper Kupp. The game was several days ago. It was fun and dandy and really lovely. But if you’re still arguing the point, it’s time to move on. And if you’re a sports journalist who finds himself/herself genuinely angry over matters like this—do something different with your career. Journalism requires us all to be in on the joke.
Musing 2: On Tuesday the Associated Press announced that it would be ramping up its climate change coverage. It plans on hiring roughly two dozen more scribes to boost attention to the matter. “This is a substantial investment to ramp up and dramatically expand the outstanding work AP has been doing on climate and environment for years,” said AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Julie Pace. “This far-reaching initiative will transform how we cover the climate story -- helping people understand the implications and impacts of climate change on all aspects of their lives. We will do that both through our journalism and by sharing our capabilities with local newsrooms so they too can tell impactful climate stories for their audiences.” Sounds good to me.
Musing 3: There are many people I’m willing to take journalism advice from. People I dislike. People I disagree with. People I have little respect for.
But not this clown. Sorry.
Musing 4: So The Guardian runs these amazing pieces, “Experience columns,” where folks write about unusual things they’ve done at some point in life. For example, a man recently wrote a piece about finding a frog in his salad, then keeping him as a pet. Another article concerns the amazing saga of a woman impaled on a shoe rack. And the dandy that caught my eye, written by the beautifully named Kimberly Featherstone, digs into the post-Covid phenomenon of having everything taste like rotting flesh. Wrote Featherstone: “Imagine an animal had crawled into your greenhouse in the height of summer, died, and you discovered it two weeks later. That’s what, day in and day out, filled my nose and mouth.” The link is here.
Musing 5: A small thing, but big ups to Sean O’Shea of Global News for Tweeting this out about his cameraman, Pat Capati. It is extremely (and sadly) rare to hear television reporters offer up public respect to the folks holding cameras, speaking into their ear pieces, making sure shit runs smoothly.
Musing 6: Lord knows I’m a fan of people willing to open up to reporters. But it’s hard to respect Terry Collins, the former Mets skipper telling Mike Puma of the New York Post that Matt Harvey, long-ago New York ace, once told him he was considering suicide. “Certainly, that was addressed,” Collins said. “Again, it’s Matt, and one time he talked about, ‘I should just kill myself.’ … You try to deal with it the best you can. We certainly tried to get him help, get him some assistance.” Some things need not be shared. Ever.
Musing 7: The newest Two Writers Slinging Yang podcast stars Rita Williams-Garcia, author of a book, “One Crazy Summer,” that’s A. Phenomenal; B. The target of moron banners in my home turf of Putnam County, N.Y. Rita is elegant and classy and a gifted scribe. Take a listen here.
Quote of the week …
My dad’s name is Stan. But being Jeffrey Robert Pearlman II sounds sorta sweet.
To be clear, I’m joking. Yaron is one of my favorite people in the business.