Editor’s note: We occasionally take a look at the standard bits of advice given to writers. This week, guest blogger Andy Thomason takes on the notion of research first, then write.
When I told one of the editors at my office that I was writing a book, he offered what I thought was a strange piece of advice to give right off the bat: Mix up the reporting and writing. Don’t try to cordon off each task by, for instance, spending the first six months reporting and latter six months writing.
This goes a little against my experience. When I edit long stories, the reporter has usually done the vast majority of the reporting before they sit and write. The processes are somewhat distinct. It’s only when they’re armed with pages of notes and transcripts that the reporter enters Writing Quarantine (only to come out days later with a draft, shell-shocked, regretting they ever entered this line of work).
I didn’t ask my editor to elaborate on his advice, but I didn’t need to. After a few months of reporting, the paralysis I felt made his point for him. I had contacted a wide swath of people for interviews, talked to the fraction who were willing, followed some of their leads, and dutifully pestered the people who still weren’t answering my calls or emails.
As I’ve detailed previously in my real-time newsletter in the course of writing this book, my reporting yielded promising material. But the more information I had, the more directions this book could go. It could be about the process of admitting athletes into colleges like UNC. It could be about academic support offices. It could be about the NCAA. It could be about the athletes themselves. Each focus would require a different structure, different reporting, a different process. The number of potential paths I could carve up the mountain seemed exponential.
It was around this time that I remembered another piece of advice that some of the editors in my office often dispense. When writing an article (or anything, I guess, including a book), ask yourself, what is this about? Not what happens, or who’s in it, but what’s the concept at the heart of it? Doing this exercise well can often get you down to one word. Power. Corruption. Money.
This exercise has a focusing power. For instance, if you were writing a book about college sports that you decided was mostly about money, then you would naturally want to dig into conferences’ revenue sharing agreements and media deals. But if you were writing another book about that same topic, but this time decided it was about exploitation, you might want to focus more on the stories of the athletes themselves.
Answering this question can help you set your sights on what you really need. There are no longer a thousand routes up the mountain, but just a few.
So one day between Christmas and New Year’s I took my laptop to the Caledonia conference room and opened a blank Google doc, with the goal of free writing my way to the heart of the book. One word seemed ambitious, so I decided to aim for one page, double-spaced. And if it was good, a version of what I came up with here would likely appear in the book itself, probably in the introduction.
Real book writing. This was going to be a big step forward.
I wrote a bad sentence.
I wrote another bad sentence.
Enough with sentences. Let’s try a scene. I wrote a bad scene.
Back to sentences. Here was an OK sentence, but not really on topic.
I wrote a paragraph. It was a fine paragraph, but it didn’t answer the question.
This was not going well. I got in the elevator and headed to the sandwich place around the corner. On the way I took more stabs at the question, chattering topic sentences entering the Untitled Document of my brain. Bad. Bad. Maybe. Meh. Somewhere between the CVS and the Zapp’s chips I began to make inroads on an answer. I walked quickly back to the office, storing sentences in my head as I went. I sat down at my computer, gobbled up my sandwich, and started typing. Forty-five minutes later, I had a page-long answer. This was not great writing. But the argument made sense, and that’s what mattered.
This was the mini book, and I could use it as a roadmap for the big one. I went sentence by sentence and asked a question of each of them: What information would I need to prove each claim? Who would I need to talk to? What would I need to ask them about? I made a bulleted list, and deposited the results into the “tasks” pop-out in my Gmail.
Only by writing could I figure out what I needed to do next. My editor was right.
Rather than hail this as a breakthrough, I kicked myself instead. This is the kind of thing I should’ve been doing with one year left, not nine months. What was I even doing for those three months? As the days until my October 1 deadline tick away I’ve become more anxious about time I spend not writing and not on the phone. I’ve even started to lose a little sleep out of fear that I’m too far behind. And with no book writing experience, my only logical response is low-grade anxiety and fear.
When I mentioned this to a friend this weekend he said, “Well that’s the point of the first book, isn’t it?” I’m learning a lot. Hopefully I’ll come away with a book, too.
Andy Thomason is a Charlotte native and senior editor at “The Chronicle of Higher Education.” He’s a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, where he was editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. Andy is writing a book about the relationship between colleges and the big-time sports programs they house, using the recent UNC academic-fraud scandal as a narrative lens. This is his first book, and he’s chronicling his reporting and writing process in a real-time newsletter. You can sign up here: tinyletter.com/arthomason