Not to name drop, but I spent some time today with Robert Moresco, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for “Crash” – and who co-produced “Million Dollar Baby.” We were hanging out at the Brown Hotel, overlooking Louisville from the top floor. Bobby had some great advice on ways to improve writing, something that captivated many of those attending this session sponsored by Spalding University's MFA program. No matter what you write, you’ll probably want to consider some of his suggestions – many of which are also applicable to those interesting in covering sports.
Commit to your idea. “Don’t capitulate to others’ ideas,” Moresco said. That means thinking about new angles and story ideas for writing profile stories, for packaging sports sections, and for even using agate. Look at as many other sports sections and writing examples as possible – not to emulate these fine works but, rather, to find ways to develop them further. Be an innovator. As Bobby said: “Don’t write what they (studios) want because, by the time they get around to your script, they may be on to something else.”
“The scene you don’t want to write is the one you have to write.” Do things that make you feel uncomfortable, whether that is interviewing someone’s mom, asking tough questions of an athlete charged with a crime, or reporting in a new media. “You have to write out of your problem,” Bobby says. “If you make everything easier, you’re ruining your story. … You know when it’s easy: (it's) when you’re going, ‘Why is this so easy?’” Take on new challenges and new approaches to writing stories and producing sports sections.
“It’s all about human behavior.” This is what draws in readers. Determine what drives the people we write about, what they want most in life. Then, pinpoint what might prevent them from obtaining this. This might mean a catcher needs to learn to improve on throws to second or that a quarterback needs to play better against blitzes – or it could mean that a player is facing some personal challenge off the field. Tell these stories. Spend time interviewing, observing and researching so you can hang your story on this real-life drama. “If nothing is in the way (for a character to succeed),” Bobby said, “then there’s no drama. Conflict is drama, drama is conflict.” Find this, especially for columns, features and profiles.
“We are all driven by the things that own us.” In other words, learn what drives athletes and coaches. Obviously, their respective sports own them to a degree. But so do the people in their lives, their experiences, and their desires. Look deeply into their actions on and off the field by speaking with friends, by attending practices, and by doing some research. In addition, see if these people are acting logically. Too often, sports journalists try to paint a player or coach as good, bad, noble or mean. (Like most journalists, I have been guilty of this as well.) But people are more complex than this. Sometimes, people act irrationally. If we do our homework, we’ll realize these actions are not always inconsistent. Instead, perhaps we just failed to see the entire picture. For example, Officer Ryan in "Crash" acts like a jerk when he fondles the female passenger early in the film. Yet, Ryan (Matt Dillon) risks his life to save this very same woman later in the movie. Can someone be both a saint and sinner? Are you always nice or mean? Nobody is, not even the worst villain or the nicest person. People are not one-dimensional, so do not write flat, one- or two-source profiles that fail to explore these lives. Make them more complex, more real, like Officer Ryan, a police officer who is supposed to protect everyone, but who cannot protect the person he loves the most (his father). So he reacts to this frustration during the traffic stop. Lesson: don’t create villains and heroes. Instead, reveal people fully for who they are.
“Did I give 98 percent instead of 100 percent?” Journalism is hard – like anything worth doing. Give the best effort you can. Sometimes, you have one day to knock out a story, other times you have a week or so. Do the best job you can within these time constraints. “Writers are courageous,” Bobby said. “We know what we have is not enough, yet we write anyway.” We are always facing deadlines, so make the most of the time you have.
Learn to act. This is how Moresco responded when a student asked for advice on how to become an actor. “I’m serious,” he said after some laughter. “Learn the craft of acting.” Take classes, work in local theater, and be committed to acting. In the same way, you do not need to go to the New York Times or Sports Illustrated to become a terrific sports journalist either. You can become a top-notch writer in Robinson, Ill.; Palatka, Fla., or Little Compton, R.I., if you are willing to listen to experienced editors, to study other writers, and to commit yourself to reporting. Learn (and practice) the basics frequently, and apply this knowledge often. Write, edit, and design sports pages as often as possible, wherever you are. Learn to be the best sports journalist you can.
Writing is difficult. So is reporting and interviewing - much more difficult than some imagine. “The only writers who think writing is easy,” Bobby said, “are bad writers.” But if you work hard each day, you will improve. Compare your work through time – to three months ago, six months ago, a year ago. If you have worked hard, you will see some progress. You cannot write like Mitch Albom, Rick Reilly or Gary Smith overnight. But if you commit yourself to the craft, in time you might eventually surpass them.
Test characters. Moresco likes to test his fictional characters, putting them in uncomfortable situations where we learn more about their lives. We learn, for example, that Officer Graham (Don Cheadle) cares more for his career than for his brother and mother by following the choices he made. Find the moments that have tested the people you cover. Pinpoint the moments that test people on the field, if you are writing a game story. Explore the moments where a linebacker or forward were tested on the field or court. Then, put them in your game story, sidebar or column.
Love it or leave it. You must have the desire to commit your life to your work, whether that is as a screenwriter, as a nurse, or as a sports journalist. Success takes hard work. “If something else makes you happy,” Bobby says, “then go do that. Sure, that sounds easy for Mr. Hotshot director/screenwriter/producer. But not if you consider that Bobby Moresco worked as a bartender and in construction for more than 20 years before hitting it big. He kept working and writing and learning. So keep at it. There’s no substitute for persistence. Even if you do succeed early, don’t trick yourself into thinking you know it all. Said Bobby: “The moment you think you’re as good as they say you are, you’re dead.”
I’m guessing, if you read this far, you love sports journalism. You can't change everything overnight. Instead, work to improve on one (even small) thing in your next story assignment. Then, work on another, and so on. Be committed to this thing you love. Good luck.