In our last post, the Editors’ Roundtable looked at a Seattle Times column about a record-setting Girl Scout cookie-seller who got to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game. Today, we hear from the Times’ Jerry Brewer about how he wrote the column. Brewer has been at the Times since 2006, with previous stints at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., The Orlando Sentinel and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has received awards for his work from numerous journalism organizations, including the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors, Associated Press Sports Editors, Society of Professional Journalists and National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. In 2009, he turned the lessons he learned while reporting his newspaper series “A prayer for Gloria” into his first book, “Gloria’s Miracle.”
When did you find out that Kaila would be throwing out the first pitch?
She threw out Saturday, and I didn’t know about it until maybe Tuesday. I was working on a big crew story – on rowing – and so I didn’t get to really sink my teeth into it until maybe Thursday. It was a quick turnaround.
At what point did you find out about her medical backstory? Did you know that before you talked to the family?
Yeah, that was there on the front end, figuring out what her illnesses were and looking them up to get some idea of what they meant. The issue with her was that she lives out in Bellingham, which is a couple hours away from Seattle, and just getting to the story on Thursday, I didn’t have time to go up to Bellingham. So we actually had to do the interview a few hours before she threw out the first pitch. That kind of complicated things – not having a tremendous amount of time to think it out after doing the reporting.
When did it run?
It ran in the Sunday newspaper. The game was at 7 o’clock. She threw out the first pitch at 6:55, and it got filed at like 8 o’clock.
How long did you have to talk with her in that interview up front?
We did about an hour and a half, and there had been maybe 25 minutes of phone stuff done ahead of time.
You get a lot of medical information and character into less than 1,000 words. Do you have a strategy for how to weave it all together?
That was tough. Normally if I were doing something like that I would probably spend a couple of days getting to know the person. I’m a big believer in having a sort of intrinsic understanding in writing about people that simply comes through being able to be around them and study them.
In this case, it was such a quick hitter. With everything I was doing, I had to speed up. It felt like it was going 10 times as fast. I thought this was a beautiful story, and normally, if we would have had the time to really do it, the story could have been just as intriguing at twice the length. The challenge to do it in an 800-word column was interesting.
Do you have suggestions for how to build in the medical details while keeping the reader in the moment?
I think that the one thing that I always try to do in situations like that is that I don’t want the illness to define the person. I approach it asking, “Is this person interesting enough for me to tell as story about them that has nothing to do with their illness?” If so, and you have an understanding of their personality, when you add in the extraordinary circumstances that they’re facing medically, that just rounds out the story. I never look at it as “I want to do a story on a sick person and tell you how courageous they are.”
There are a lot of stories out there about how courageous someone is in the face of something. I’m way more focused on telling you about who this person really is, and what makes them click, what makes them special. Then when I bring in the medical problem, you’ll be hooked on who they are, and you’ll see them as a round character instead of a flat one.
What do you think a good column should do?
Everybody does it so differently, and there are so many different ways to do it well. Most of the time, I want it to educate, inform, provoke or persuade. And then the other thing that’s really key is to inspire. With Kaila’s story, I’m hoping that it shows people what an inspiration she is – her story is about finding something in life that is her passion, something that separates her and makes her special. That’s what I’m really hoping people got from that column.
If that’s what a good column should do, what’s the quickest way to ruin a column?
Well, definitely, even now, there’s probably once a month, where I say, “I wish I could get that one back.” Or, “I wish I’d thought that out a little bit longer.” That goes with the turf. You wind up learning a lot more about writing columns through something that doesn’t come out right than celebrating the successes of something you did correctly.
When things go wrong for me, normally, it’s a problem on the reporting end. You didn’t get that one extra source who could have illuminated the viewpoint or taken your thinking to another level. That can be an issue. And then sometimes I think you can get so caught up in how you want to structure a story that you focus so much on the writing and trying to be sharp that your opinion doesn’t come out well. It comes out nicely written, but in terms of being a true opinion piece, it’s flat.
I think column writing is the hardest form of writing in journalism, just because it’s a three-pronged thing: You have to be sharp on your reporting, your reporting has to be as good as your writing, and the writing has to be as good as your level of thought. Those three things really have to come together in a special way in order to have a great column.
We all know that the daily grind can influence all of those things. When you’re talking about having to write three or four columns a week, one of those probably isn’t going to come out the way that you hoped. And it bothers you a lot, in some ways more than if you’re reporting a story on something – a meeting or an issue – where you can fall back on the fact that at least you informed people as well as you possibly could, even if you didn’t write it as well you had hoped.
What tips should people keep in mind?
The first thing is don’t write simple opinions. The biggest mistake that we can make is to always want to be right. You want as many people as possible to email you and say, “You nailed that” – but that’s not the point of what we do. Don’t write simple opinions with the idea “Oh, this is foolproof. No one will ever second-guess me on this.” That’s not what we do. You want to take on different things that are more complicated, more controversial.
More than anything, your style has to equal your content when you’re writing columns. I don’t think a lot of people get that. They just want to write everything in the same style. But you have to mix it up, depending on if you’re writing about something very serious or something very funny, or something where you suppress your writing style a little because it’s a more informative thing.
The other thing is to really challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone. That Kaila story, those are the kinds of columns I absolutely love to write, because I love writing about people. But for me the challenge is that I need to write something that’s different, that pushes me, because that’s just going to help with being able to mix it up.
Column writing is this long conversation with readers that goes on for years and years. It’s a very delicate thing, because you’re going to tick them off a good portion of the time. You’re going to have them praising you a good portion of the time. But what I don’t want is for them to ever know exactly where I’m coming from.
That’s just a huge thing when you’re writing columns. You can’t be the screamer exclusively, you can’t just be the guy who tells the touching stories exclusively, you can’t just be the deep thinker exclusively. One of those things can be your trademark, but you have to have more pitches. You have to learn to do other things.
Anything else you want to say about the Kaila story?
You know when I was sitting down and writing the column in the pressbox at Safeco Field, I put a lot of pressure on myself after that interview, because I knew that I had to file right away and didn’t have long to get it right. I was still processing the story. I had just met the girl.
I went back to the old basics: Keep it simple. Tell the story with your heart as much as with your mind. And just let it go. I was happy with the way that turned out, knowing that ordinarily I would have done the interviewing a week out, let it marinate, written it a little longer, maybe even written it more melodramatically. Staying in the moment was good; it taught me a lesson. Sometimes you’ve just got to let the story go and let it take you where it’s supposed to take you, instead of being so heavy-handed on how you want to guide it.