Eli Saslow, a Washington Post staff writer and ESPN The Magazine contributor as well as the author of Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President, was recently a Pulitzer Prize finalist for feature writing for his story about a struggling swimming pool salesman. Nieman Storyboard interviewed him for one of their latest Annotation Tuesday posts, which is excellent and which you should probably go read right now. They had him annotate his story in ESPN The Magazine about an athlete who conned his mom out of her house. It was a great look at how one of the best journalists working does his thing. I definitely learned from it.
The whole thing is really good, so if you have the time, seriously, try to go read it. Below are a few highlights, which cover how Saslow approaches sports writing versus writing about politics and the economy and such, when he thinks it's right to use quotation marks, the best advice he's ever been given, and more such goodies:
[NS]: You’ve been writing about politics and the economy a good bit lately. What is it like to switch over to sports? Is a narrative a narrative?
[ES]: I started as a sports writer at The Washington Post, and then I switched to politics/economy/etc., so it is fun to occasionally write about sports again. The truth is, I think it is all pretty much the same. Good narratives are mostly about people, and what they do is pretty secondary. Athletes, politicians, anonymous people—if you can get to a level of intimacy, they are all equally good, worthy topics. I was terrified when I first switched from writing about sports to politics in 2007, but about a year in, I realized the two topics were much of the same: people who were hard to access, and who cared a lot about winning.
[NS]: What’s the best narrative advice anyone ever gave you?
[ES]: Stay until you have the story. Good narratives are all about reporting—about observation and detail, and reporting long enough to watch a story play out.
I feel pretty strongly that you can’t manufacture scene in a narrative story and pass it off as genuine observation. That’s a lie. It’s a little like narrative plagiarism.
I think sometimes holding back on information for a few beats can help build tension, especially by foreshadowing that “one of those children turned into a star.” Now, I hope, a reader is wondering: Who? Why? What happened? And they are making an investment in reading the next paragraph, and then the next.
I only use quotation marks if I have double-sourced the content. Usually, I’m lucky, and I’m writing observed narratives where I am only quoting things that I heard. But in this story I had to use some recruited dialogue. In this case, the dialogue from Rumeal was double-sourced with newspaper stories from earlier in his life, and with Helen.
Sometimes [...] a subject can be confused as to why you want so much detail, so I tell them: I’m trying to do justice to your story by writing it exactly as it was, and it is the details that make it real to people. Explaining why you want to know something gives you a little more latitude to press again and again for specifics. It can also make a subject feel like a collaborator in a small way in the reporting, and they work hard to remember and recall details.
I tend to prefer subtlety in my writing, sometimes to a fault.
I love short, punchy sentences and paragraphs [...] they can be so good for the pacing of the story.
Always in reporting, I [have] to understand it fully to know which parts to include and leave out.
You hope for a transcendent quality in every story.