S.I. offers great lessons for writers

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You learn how to write by reading. How else can you learn to craft a great lead, to develop a compelling anecdote, and to write fluidly and precisely? Read, take notes, analyze, repeat the process endlessly. All writers need to keep a journal. In mine, I take notes from books and articles, citing phrases and words that I try to infuse into my own writing. I learned that areas can be scalloped with natural harbors, that a light fog can make people appear wraithlike, and that an insecure man may offer a maladroit joke. Without such diligence, your own writing may also become clumsy. Always push your writing to the next level. That means reading good writers. There are few better than those writing for Sports Illustrated, still the premiere sports magazine anywhere in the world. S.I. offers some requisite smaller features like news to note, Q&A and a Who’s Hot list, but these are really filler for the main course — in-depth, compelling features that offer insights into athletes, society, and sports themselves. Stories that are told by talented writers, whose finely polished, precise language reads more like a short story than a clumsy news dispatch.

L. Jon Wertheim supplies this week’s gem in the April 14 edition in “Breaking the Bank,” a story that recalls a bank heist by a former Ultimate Fighting Championship brawler. This story also has an important lesson for sports editors and page designers — sell your stories. Here’s the headline and the preamble:

Breaking the Bank
Four years ago, ‘Lightening’ Lee Murray made his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut in Las Vegas. Today he sits in a prison cell in Morocco, the alleged mastermind in the largest cash heist in history. So tell us: Is that something you might find interesting?”

Wertheim, who has written several books on sports, breaks this story into four parts. He leads with a compelling scene, one that includes a kidnap, a robbery, an inside man, and high-powered weapons. He goes into the minds of both the man kidnapped, the bank’s manager, and the mastermind, the former UFC fighter. Wertheim shows how the manager was blindfolded and told his family, also nabbed, would die if he did not comply. Right away, Wertheim has established story, character and plot. After doing this, Wertheim breaks into a second section where he profiles the mastermind, former UFC fighter Lee Murray. Too many writers reverse this structure, offering background on someone first before telling the main story. Keep background information in the background — and do not cite such details as if it were a chore. Don’t cite facts about a person’s life. Instead, learn stories and details that help define a person’s life. Speak to as many people as possible and read as much as you can in order to better understand this person’s life. That’s what Wertheim does in this second section. Lee Murray was not born in 1977. Instead, Wertheim writes: “Lee Murray came into the world in 1977 with his fists balled, and he never quite seemed to unclench them.”

In the next section, Wertheim returns to the aftermath of the heist, showing how the robbers got caught. Then, he shows how the gang was rounded up in the final section. Notice how well Wertheim understands the situation in the passage below (and consider the research needed to gain such an authoritative voice):

The suspects, though, also did plenty to hasten their demise. Mirroring Murray’s fighting career — disciplined and methodical in MMA; arrogant and unthinking in street brawls — the same thieves who had been smooth and poised in actual pilferage could scarcely have been sloppier in the aftermath. Some gang members boasted to friends about the heist. One of the vehicles used in the crime was set afire in the middle of a field, attracting attention. The money was poorly hidden. Oceans 11 quickly devolved into a comedy of errors that recalled the Al Pacino classic Dog Day Afternoon.

Wertheim relies on interviews, documents and testimony for much of his information. At times, he writes “It was revealed” or “He would later testify.” There is nothing wrong with stepping aside for a moment to clarify a point to the reader. That happens in all kinds of storytelling.

There are many lessons to be learned from reading pieces like this. Take note of several things when you read others. Language is the first to jump out. List and define words in a notebook. Make sure you also take note of other elements in stories — how a writer learned key details, how a story is structured, and how frequently quotes are used. Wertheim’s story reads more like a narrative that included few quotes. Too many writers rely on quotes to tell the story, instead of working to understand the story themselves. Try applying some of these lessons during your next assignment. That’s how you become a better writer.

Happy readings.

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4 Responses to “S.I. offers great lessons for writers”

  1. The Writing / Editing Job Roll » 04/16/2008 Writing Jobs and Links Says:

    […] S.I. offers great lessons for writers […]

  2. 34 Sunday Link Love Articles | Writer's Resource Center Says:

    […] S.I. offers great lessons for writers […]

  3. Daniel Says:

    Thanks for the advice! I am an avid reader of SI, and aspire to be able to write as well as some of those guys. Guys like Gary Smith and L. Jon Wertheim are great, but my favorite is newcomer David Epstein. He writes some of the more science based stuff, but he manages to do it in a way that makes it understandable to the average reader and INCREDIBLY COMPELLING to readers with broad interests. He did a piece called “Following the Trail of Broken Hearts” that was the best thing I’ve read in recent memory. If you haven’t read it, please do. I’m astounded that Epstein was able to make such a technical issue to understandable and compelling. In any case, thanks again for the advice. Keep it up!

  4. Lee Murray heist article in Sports Illustrated 4/14/08 - Sherdog Mixed Martial Arts Forums Says:

    […] been posted before. I couldn’t find a link to the direct article, but a synopsis of it is here: S.I. offers great lessons for writers ON SPORTS It’s in the 4/14/08 issue of SI, with Kansas beating Memphis for the NCAA basketball title on the […]

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