For the last several years, I’ve worked an assignment that has stretched me as a writer as much as anything has in a long, long time.
I’ve never sat down with the intentions of putting a fictional story to paper, but some of the sports I’ve covered for NCAA.COM are just about as close as I will ever get. NASCAR, I know. I worked that circus full time for nearly ten years. I’ve loved baseball since I was a child. I played football in high school.
Technically, I didn’t exactly play high-school football. I was on the team. I had a uniform and everything, but to actually play, you have to see time on the field. I was such a stellar athlete, I rode the bench for a team that went 0-10.
I still loved football, and knew it well. But men’s gymnastics? Lacrosse? Track and field? Swimming and diving? My very first exposures to those sports were the days I sat down in the press box … or tent … or grandstands … to work their national championships.
I had a decision to make, and I had to make it quickly. I could treat these sports as some sort of quirky and obscure sideshow attractions, or I could handle them the way I eventually did. These coaches and student-athletes were absolutely as passionate about their respective endeavors as any involved in more well-known sports like football, basketball, and baseball.
How could I treat them with anything less than the utmost respect? I had to learn, and I had to do so fast. Admitting ignorance can be a wonderful thing sometimes, as I learned from the NCAA committee member who patiently explained the difference between a game, set, and match in tennis. I understood completely, I think.
As a result, I’ve come away with some of the most memorable stories of my career. There was Mo Imel, the women’s lacrosse star who gave up a Division I scholarship to move to a Division II school closer to her cancer-stricken sister. After her sister passed away, Mo and her parents attended the funeral in Maryland and then made the spur-of-the-moment decision to drive overnight to Mo’s lacrosse match the next afternoon in Florida.
Mo scored two goals that day, including the game winner.
So, Tip Number One is to broaden your horizons as a writer. What’s that one subject you’ve always considered writing about, but haven’t gotten around to actually sitting down and tackling just yet? Go for it, and you might be surprised at how it turns out.
Then there’s the sheer volume of copy I’ve been called upon to file for NCAA.COM. My personal record for churning out stories — and I’m talking career-wise, not just for NCAA.COM — is thirty-seven 800-word stories in sixteen days. Producing such a massive amount of work in that short a timeframe was one of my toughest challenges in nearly a quarter of a century as a full-time writer.
Again, I had a decision to make. When filing that much copy, it would have been easy to “phone it in” on a story or two. In other words, I could’ve simply slapped a bunch of words up on my laptop screen and sent them in without really caring about the result.
Aside from the theological implications of not making the best use of your God-given abilities, there are a few problems with this approach. Turn in too many “clunker” stories, and the assignment may go to somebody else the next time around. And for a freelancer like me, that’s a bad thing. A very, very bad thing.
Also, that story might very well be the only one ever written about a given coach or student-athlete. It’ll probably be posted on their Facebook page, or maybe even printed out and placed in a scrapbook or on the family refrigerator. If it’s under your byline, you want it to be the best story it can be, regardless of how many came before or after it.
Tip Number Two is to give yourself plenty of time when writing, if at all possible. If your deadline is tight, don’t just pound the story out and file it. Do your best work, always.
Believe it or not, I’m actually headed to Louisville, Kentucky this week to cover an NCAA Division II championship sports festival. Six different sports in three days, and filing what I’m assuming will be multiple stories for each. Say a prayer for me!