Pearlman’s podcast rich in lessons about narrative writing

Podcasts are my new obsession.

I have always been an avid radio listener. But a lot of the talk radio anymore has deteriorated because there is so much of it. Podcasts, however, are mostly done for niche audiences, which makes their content focused and rich.

I subscribe to half a dozen of various kinds. One of my can’t-misses is “Two Writers Slinging Yang,” hosted by Jeff Pearlman, a former Sports Illustrated writer and an author of several books. I heard Jeff speak several years ago at the yearly College Media Association convention in New York. I was impressed then with his insights on writing and reporting.

In one of his recent podcasts, Pearlman interviewed J.A. Adande, another accomplished sports writer. Both of them also teach. Pearlman talked about how difficult it is to teach narrative and to teach someone how to guide a story. The question writers often have about narrative is how to do it without putting yourself in the story. Adande said he was never taught that either. He figured it out be reading great writers, which is really the first great piece of advice here.

Pearlman cited an example of a story that Adande wrote in 1990 as an intern for the L.A. Times about basketball player Leon Wood.

Here’s the opening of the story:

Leon Wood sat high in the bleachers at Gersten Pavilion at Loyola Marymount University. He had to wait an hour before he could do his favorite thing, play basketball.

Wood is playing in the Summer Pro League, as he has every summer since he finished his first NBA season in 1985.

But this time Wood is not merely honing his skills.

“I’m trying to make a team, trying to get a job,” he said.

“My first three or four years (as a pro), I was on a team already,” Wood said. “I was pretty much trying to work on certain things. Now it’s kind of hard to just work on certain things when you don’t have a job. You have to do everything and showcase yourself. I’m trying to go out here and play an overall game.”

It’s a strange situation in which to find a player with Wood’s credentials.

It’s that last line that Pearlman wanted to talk about. Adande called it observation without opinion. That’s exactly what it is. The observant reporter can pull this off. The entire story is about why is Wood in this situation. What Adande did was first describe the situation, then tell you what it is. It is a judgment in a sense of the situation, but the thorough reporting gives the writer the authority to say it. When you read the story, you know Adande is right. You can’t argue the point. As we say now, it is what it is.

I know that in my career I have done something similar a few times, but I couldn’t put words to it of why and how like Adande did when he said observation without opinion. The most recent piece I could recall was about a high school tournament soccer match. Here’s the excerpt:

After four years, it’s hard to walk away. Especially after that final loss and hugs and tears with longtime teammates and coaches.

So there was Greeneview boys soccer captain and leading scorer Jaden Baise walking along the bench at Lebanon Junior High picking up empty cups off the turf and throwing them away. Most of his teammates were already across the field heading for the bus.

“Well, it looks like the freshmen didn’t want to pick it up,” he said. “So I said, ‘Hey, I’ll pick it up. That’s all right.’ ”

The freshmen and their older teammates will have a lot to pick up next season. They just said goodbye to 10 seniors who played in four district finals and finally a regional semifinal Wednesday night. The result, while somewhat predictable, wasn’t what they wanted.

The observation without opinion part was: The freshmen and their older teammates will have a lot to pick up next season.

That’s not the greatest example, but it does show that if you are paying enough attention and thinking about the big picture of a story it’s possible to do on a deadline game story.

In another episode, Pearlman interviewed Jack McCallum, a longtime and accomplished NBA writer for Sports Illustrated. McCallum had lots of good things to say and fun stories about his days on the NBA beat. But on the subject of how do you start a narrative when you don’t know where to start, he said he thinks “Once upon a time ….” and the answer comes. I tried this recently with a sports story I was trying to write, and it worked.

So use these two great ideas when writing narrative.  And subscribe to Pearlman’s podcast.


The new tech tools are cool, but I still get more excited about great writing

I created a list on Tweetdeck for journalism industry news a couple of years ago. It is not complete, but there a lot of good sources there for what is happening in the industry. I rarely have the time I want to scroll through it and read everything I want. But I did this afternoon.

The first Tweet to get my attention was this one:

I read Clark’s blog post on with great interest. His book about writing short is on my short list of books to get. His “Writing Tools” book has been helpful.

I was telling students the other day that the goal isn’t to write something short as much as it is to write all the parts of it short. If the sum of the parts is long, maybe it deserves to be. But if each part is concise, then that 2,000-word story will read like a much shorter story. And the story that should be 300 words won’t be 500.

As I scrolled through my Twitter list I was struck that over a six-hour period and hundreds of tweets only two were specifically about writing. Others were about reporting, which is great, technology, the business side of journalism, etc. Those things are of interest, but if I am a geek about anything other than sports trivia it is about writing.

I have always cared about writing, but now that I teach writing it is on my brain almost too much. Still, I fear that the art of writing is a casualty of digital progress. Writing is a part of all journalism platforms, so I must be serious about teaching it as well as I am able. The new stuff like drones and VR matter. We have a drone coming soon for use to figure out journalism applications for and to have a little fun with. And VR applications like this tweet promises are exciting.

But writing in all its forms will always be what matters most. That’s why I love tweets like this one.

Sometimes three words are worth more than a picture.

Putting skills to work outside the box a good thing for Cedarville students

We have this saying in the Cedarville University Department of Communication: “What Can’t We Do?”

We put it on T-shirts, hashtag it, say it, etc.

The more students apply that to co- and extra-curricular activities while on campus, the better it prepares them to find work.

In addition to my journalism teaching responsibilities in the department, I also teach a writing class to communication majors. My sense is that what we discuss and learn in that class helps them think about writing in new ways. They are, after all, comm majors and want to know the best ways to communicate in whatever job they find.

There are obvious limits on what they can do. They can’t use their degree to be a nurse, an engineer, a school teacher or an astronaut. But they can work at hospitals, innovative companies, schools and even for NASA. All those places, and just about any other place open for business, needs people to do the work comm majors do. “Where Can’t We Work?” is another way to think about it.

I could say just about the same thing for journalism majors. We train them to be reporters and to do other aspects of journalism. But they are employable beyond those areas at businesses and non-profits. Same goes for broadcasting and digital media students. We just did a survey of recent journalism graduates, and most are working either as reporters, content marketers or public relations specialists.

Similarly, students choose to work for Cedars, our campus newspaper and website, and Resound, our campus raido station, from outside of the comm department. We are inclusive, not exclusive, in both directions.

I just saw this article about a graduate from a program outside of our department. He got a good job at a web design firm and was once a part of our design team for Cedars. Andrew Spencer did some great work for us and helped us win a design award in the annual Ohio Newspaper Association contest. He looked for ways to grow his skills outside of the classroom.

Students are wise for taking advantage of opportunities outside of their specific discipline. It grows their knowledge and understanding of the world.