For love of research

When people gauge authors, they tend to discuss writing skills. “That guy is a great writer,” “That guy is a crappy writer.” So on and so on.

Truth is, when it comes to books—and certainly when it comes to biography—pure writing ability ranks about fourth on the importance list.

No. 1, without any question: Research skills.

In the course of completing Sweetness, I probably spent two years just digging and digging and digging into Walter Payton’s life—and six months writing. This isn’t just a matter of traveling to Mississippi and Chicago and talking to people. It’s the grind behind the grind: Standing alongside a copy machine for five … six … seven … eight days. Thumbing through yellowed, mildewed archives in the basement of some nowhere library in some nowhere town. Tracking down phone numbers that haven’t been called for years; researching people who, post-sports, vanished into the abyss. It’s a grind. An absolute grind.

And yet, it’s what I love most about writing books. When I was a young punk, coming up at The Tennessean, I knew nothing of reporting. I was sloppy and arrogant, and thought smooth sentences were enough. Well, they’re not.

I’ve been working on my new project for about two months—and I have yet to conduct an interview. It’s been all clip digging, day after day after day. Come midnight, I’m exhausted, and my hands are coated in newsprint.

I love it.

2 thoughts on “For love of research”

  1. I feel your pain, if on a smaller scale. For most of my career in journalism, I worked as a sportswriter at smaller papers where we didn’t have time or resources to zealously dive into research. Recently I became a feature writer, and even though it’s at a modestly sized paper, I’ve had to do more research. For my latest project, I have to pull myself out of the library because I simply can’t give that much time to research, even though that’s all I want to do for this story.

    I used to look forward to the writing process, thinking I could make my stories stand out simply by putting all my effort into writing. Now, I find myself never feeling I have enough information to write as well as I’d like.

    I’m not yet half way through reading Sweetness, but your dedication to research is definitely showing. Great work.

  2. Love your article and it is so true. Very few writers today do what you do and what Pat Jordan did. YOu are in a class by yourself. Many thanks for your efforts helping me write. Your article should be sent to every journalism school and english department to every high school and college in the Nation. I had people getting there MBA ask me to help them find 3! articles that their instructor asked them to find at a library and not on the internet and they had no idea where to look. Amazing of the lack of research skills so many generations lack. I have had older engineers ask for 1 article on a subject and that is what they used for their entire research. One time there was 3 articles for tire burning for a power plant and 78 articles against and the same guy wrote the 3 articles for the power plant. What they were left with was a stinking, sticky, multimillion dollar mess. It didn’t work and if they had just had the research skill or ask a librarian to help them, think of how many millions could have been saved. Then I have seen the younger generations find a couple of articles on the internet and that was it, no looking at databases and multiple databases and the bibliography of all the articles they found to e through. I did research for an instructor that was on the US Olympic Committee on anabolic steroids in 1983, long before the internet and databases and a single computer was in the library and I cound 500 articles and he said that it was the best research job that any undergrad or grad student he ever had and I spoke to him the other day about the interview when I wanted to confirm VO2 Max information and he still remembered me because I gave him a photocopy box of articles on Anabolic Steroids when the press just started investigating them. I have learning disabilities and traumatic brain injury but I got through college by taking one idea I liked the instructor mentioned and did an incredible through research job on articles for and against whatever the subject was and then I came up with my own conclusions and then I didn’t have to take tests because I always failed them. My brain just didn’t work well that way. I used the tools I had to become a researcher. I loved every moment of every subject I searched because it was a new challenge every single day. For fun I have researched the history of the knuckleball and I found information that no one else has ever written about the origin of the knuckleball in 1908. I am good at research but I still find stones in the field that I have not overturned and it is amazing what I find. I have to at least write an article on what I found baseball historians take for granted what one person said and then the continue to pass false information for 100 years. It is amazing what you can find if you really try. Best of luck to you in your future writing and thank you for all that you have done for me. Nike Sharp

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