I’m not very skilled at basketball. I can’t shoot. I can barely dribble. And being short enough to order off a kids’ menu doesn’t help.
But I’m great at defense. Because, at least in pickup basketball, defense isn’t a measure of how talented you are. It’s a measure of how hard you’re willing to try.
Being a journalist is like playing defense. Innate talent plays an insignificant role.
That’s something I’ve learned in two and a half years of working for alligatorSports. There are some great writers and reporters who have worked in this cramped office space — Ethan Bauer, Ian Cohen, Jordan McPherson, Graham Hall and Dylan Dixon are a few. But none of them, myself included, have any talent. Don’t believe me? Look at their first stories on the website. Cringeworthy clunkiness all around.
But all of them were so bothered by those stories that they were driven to make up for them. Now, they write moving articles with artful execution. Reading their stories makes me feel like a kid on Christmas morning, not just because they’re gripping and well-worded and informative and everything a story should be. But because they’re a testament to an undeterred will to improve. “Relentless effort,” as Florida football coach Dan Mullen would say.
For example, in my first interview as a sports writer, I had no idea what to ask. I sat down across from then-UF golfer Sam Horsfield and stuttered and rambled and hoped he understood what I was asking — he didn’t. I don’t blame him. Why would anything I say make sense? Knowing what to ask isn’t something you’re born with like strength, size or speed. It can only be learned. So I tried to learn. My second interview wasn’t much better. Neither was my fifth. By now, I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews. Am I “good” at them? No. Have I failed enough to know what not to do? For the most part.
At some level, it’s not a surprise. People get better at what they do over time. But that’s not my point. You can spend 10 years as a writer and never improve if you’re just looking forward to typing that last word and emphatically shutting your laptop. You can’t rely on experience to win you that Pulitzer. You’ve got to be active and aggressive in your approach. It doesn’t take skill to call 100 sources or rewrite a story that misses the mark. It takes effort, patience, and a willingness to be awkward — annoying interviewees by asking the same question if you don’t like their answer, holding your phone a foot from their face to shoot a good video, calling your editor to admit a mistake.
To me, it’s not disheartening to accept that talent plays a small role in journalism. I find it encouraging.
The kid who flunked English can be the next Bill Simmons. The star student can be a failure.
So after writing hundreds of stories about what’s wrong with UF, sports and the world, I want to go out with some good news: While a 10-foot rim may be out of your reach, success in storytelling isn’t — it’s just waiting for you to work for it.
Matt Brannon was the Alligator's sports editor. Follow him on Twitter @MattB_727.