By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – Forty years ago, I lost my amateur status.
My local newspaper hired me to write weekend sports stories. I drove around Indiana in a 1974 Ford Maverick, traveling from one high school football or basketball game to another. I arrived at the field or court early, set out some graph paper to keep stats, put a pad of paper beside it to make notes and lined up my pencils like soldiers ready to go into battle.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
I spent the games scribbling furiously, trying to create a record of the ebbs and flows I might recreate later for the story.
When the action ended, I’d rush to the locker rooms to grab quotes from the coaches, then sprint to my car for the drive back to the paper. In the days before computers, reporters either had to call their stories into a rewrite person or come back to the newsroom to file them.
My paper didn’t have a rewrite reporter on weekend nights – at least not one for kid reporters trying to learn the business.
So, I’d come back to the newsroom, find a typewriter and begin pounding out my story in my peculiar way of typing, which a teacher once dubbed “not so much hunt and peck as hunt and slaughter.”
After correcting the typewritten draft with editing symbols, I’d slip the story into the slot to be further edited and, finally, published.
When I headed home, the clock had moved into the early hours of the morning.
For this work, the paper paid me $15 per game.
My mother, who supported my ambitions while also being amused by them, pointed out that on some of the away games, I probably wasn’t even breaking even. There must be easier ways to make a living, she said once.
She was right, but it didn’t matter.
Someone was paying me to write.
I was a pro.
But not a very good one.
The first stories that appeared in the paper bore little resemblance to the ones I’d written. The paper’s editors had reworked them, tightening here, clarifying there, turning them into word packets more easily digested.
I took to reclaiming my drafts and comparing them to the published versions. When I didn’t understand why a change had been made, I’d find the editor who’d worked on the story and ask about it.
At first, the editors were gruff, dismissive, waving me away as if I were a gnat buzzing ’round the newsroom.
But, when they realized I wasn’t challenging their decisions – that I just wanted to know what I could do better – they started coaching me on the art of newspaper writing.
Sweat the verbs.
Write for the ear as well as the eye. Listen to how the piece sounds as you write it.
Most important, make every word do some work.
It was good counsel. They taught me lessons I still use, all these decades later.
But the best teacher was the work itself.
Each session covering a game and then rushing back to play hunt and slaughter at the typewriter was like a tutorial. Each one taught me to spend words as if they were money. I learned that if I looked clearly at an event or an issue, the language to describe it would come.
So long as I remembered that the story, not the writer, was the thing.
That was the mark of a true pro, one editor told me.
Years have passed since those days.
Now, I pound away at a computer keyboard rather than a typewriter. The only sports stories I’ve written in the past 30 years have been for the other parents on my children’s sports teams.
The paychecks have gotten bigger, but – yes, Mom – there still are easier ways to make a living.
Some things, though, haven’t changed.
Whenever I write, I try to keep the paragraphs tight.
I sweat the verbs.
I talk the pieces through, trying to hear the language’s dance as well as see the words.
I try to make each word do some work.
Most important, I try always to remember that the story, not the writer, is the thing.
That’s what makes a pro a pro.
That’s how I lost my amateur status.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.