This week, I’m flying to Seattle for my favorite week of the whole year. You might be thinking: Hey, it’s not Christmas yet. Is it AWP? (That’s February and is, coincidentally, also in Seattle). Perhaps it’s my birthday week? Wrong again.
I played volleyball in high school and college but never in a match anything like the ones I’ll be watching at the University of Washington, which is hosting the Seattle event. The stakes are so high for the young women competing, and all the fans are super knowledgeable and passionate, making for an excellent atmosphere.
And I get to write about it. For work. What a thrill.
But here’s the challenge: How do you separate yourself from the fangirl (or boy) inside who just wants to sit back and squeal at every star player she sees in the halls or settle into her courtside media seat and marvel at the epic displays of athleticism? And this goes for many writers, not only sports journalists. How do you transform a trip to Tahiti into a compelling travel piece instead of a diary of your vacation? How do you write a profile of a famous person for whom you’ve been a lifelong fan?
Here are three tips I’ll be implementing while watching volleyball and chatting with some of the best players and coaches in the game:
1. This is your job.
Even if you’re writing about something or someone you love and enjoy watching, talking about or thinking about, make sure to always approach the assignment like any other. Do the same amount of research, conduct your interviews thoroughly and put in the appropriate hours. You are a professional. Act like one. Getting lost in the moment is not an option.
2. The right details count the most.
For me, that means simply resisting the urge to watch the ball bounce back and forth across the net. Sometimes I have to pull myself away from the action to notice the coach’s facial expression or scanning the crowd to find adoring parents watching their kids play in the biggest game of their collegiate careers. In a celebrity interview, it might mean looking past your subject’s lunch order (“Jennifer Lawrence proceeded to dig into her juicy cheeseburger before answering my next question.”) to how he or she treats the wait staff. In the travel-writing scenario, make a point to jot down notes on the mannerisms and customs of the people working at the five-star resort, instead of merely gushing about your Swedish massage and four-course room service meal. Thoughtful, unexpected and nuanced details bring to life the experience for your readers.
3. Not everyone is a fangirl like you.
You, as the chronicler of the moment, must make sure all readers have enough information to understand what’s going on, even if, for example, they’ve never played a game of volleyball in their life and certainly haven’t been following the tournament bracket throughout the competition. You can also use this opportunity to show the world why you love volleyball, Jennifer Lawrence or Tahiti so much. As journalists, there should be no shameful plugs or personal opinions. Use your talent with words to help the reader see the story through your eyes, even if only for the brief moment that it takes to read the article. It might change readers’ outlooks and make them pay closer attention next time the topic crosses their path.
Of course, you should enjoy yourself when you have the good fortune to receive such a dream assignment, as I fully plan on doing in Seattle. Take it all in, stay professional, keep that fangirl in check and you’ll be on your way to some excellent prose. The reward: Your editor might ask you to cover your favorite topic or event again someday. Score!