I’ll never forget the moment that I received the most oh-so precious advice of my career—the moment, really, when everything changed for me. I was a young reporter at Sports Illustrated (SI), less than a year removed from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York City. I was walking down the hallway of the 18th floor in the old Time & Life Building in midtown Manhattan, the SI headquarters. That’s when I started talking to Alexander Wolff, an SI senior writer and a writing legend who is literally enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for his work covering college hoops.
I asked Alex several questions about writing and reporting. Smiling, he waved me into an office and then the two of us talked for an hour—or, more accurately, I peppered Alex with questions and he answered every last one, revealing his inner-most reporting secrets.
I took notes that day—and I still read those yellowed pieces of paper at least once a year. “The key to writing is reporting, Lars,” Alex said. “I guarantee you one thing: If you use only 10 percent of your notebook on any story you’re working on—no matter what the subject—it will be a special piece. The key is to report, report, report. And then when you are tired of reporting, do some more reporting. And if you ever feel like you are struggling with your writing, then it probably means you haven’t done enough reporting. Quit writing at that point, pick up the phone, and do more reporting. That will solve writer’s block faster than anything.”
I’ve now written nine books, probably more than 1,000 magazine stories, a Showtime documentary, and dozens and dozens of speeches, which I’ve delivered to audiences across the country. Through the millions of words I’ve penned and the thousands of people I’ve interviewed, I’ve never forgotten Alex’s advice he offered on that winter afternoon in 1995 in the heart of New York City.
All writers need mentors, and I’ve tried to become just that for my students at Alabama. I’ve developed some of my own writing and reporting philosophies over the years, and I always open up my playbook to my students.
Here are five writing and reporting tips that have helped me immensely over the years—tips that I dig deep into with everyone who walks into my classroom at Alabama.
1. Read other writers with a critical eye.
This is essential to developing your own writing “voice.” Find writers you admire and think to yourself, ‘Why did they begin the story the way they did? Why did they end the piece this particular way?’ Pay attention to the rhythm, the cadence, and the pacing of their sentence structure. This is what I did, and as you grow as a writer you can take bits and pieces from the style of other writers and eventually incorporate what you like most into your own style. The goal is to one day have readers recognize your own voice without ever looking at the byline.
2. Read your stories aloud.
Back when I was at Sports Illustrated, where I spent 20 years and eventually became a senior writer, I remember walking down the hallway in the Time & Life Building late on Sunday nights and hearing a writer reading his story aloud in his office. It was Jack McCallum, then a senior writer at SI and who has won more awards than to enumerate here, and he always wanted to know what his stories sounded like before he filed to his editor. You’ll be surprised at how many mistakes you catch—and how much you can improve your writing—by simply voicing them to yourself. If you want poetry in your writing, this is the best way to instill it.
3. Be open to criticism.
Let’s be honest: Many writers can be stubborn—even young ones. But when you are just beginning your career, feedback from people you trust is vital. Don’t be afraid to give a draft of a piece to a colleague or a mentor and have them rip it to shreds. I always did this with my books and magazine stories. I never could get enough advice—even as painful to my pride as it could be at times. But to get better, you must be open and willing to really listen to what others have to say about your writing.
I still practice what I preach. I’m now 47 and am working on my tenth book. One of my colleagues at The University of Alabama is editing the manuscript. My only instruction to her: Be positively ruthless in your editing and tell me what I can do better.
4. Empathy is a critical journalistic virtue.
Over the years I’ve written numerous stories that could be classified as “tragedy pieces,” ranging from my book “The Storm and The Tide” on the Tuscaloosa tornado in 2011 to a piece that was included in “The Best American Sportswriting 2018” on the death of Evan Murray, a high school quarterback in New Jersey who died after taking several hard hits in a game in 2015. In reporting these emotional narratives, I’ve always attempted to plant myself in the shoes of the people I’m interviewing, to talk to them with respect, sensitivity, and empathy. Along with possessing the ability to listen, I think displaying empathy at all times is essential to being a successful, respected reporter.
5. Know the value of your editor.
Too many reporters, in my view, have combative relationships with their editors. A good editor will do three things for you: Make your stories better; make you a better reporter and writer; and certainly will make your life easier if you can foster a good working relationship with him or her. Consider your editor a part of your extended family—and do everything in your power to make that a highly functional, honest, and back-and-forth partnership.
Yet none of these five tips is as important as the one that Alex Wolff shared with me all those years ago. “Report, report, report,” he said. If you do that, no matter your writing skill, I can virtually guarantee you one thing:
You’ll have a wonderful, enriching career.