Feinstein: Details Matter, Not Hot Takes And Web Hits

John Feinstein has a writing and reporting style – and he's sticking to it

John Feinstein
November 15, 2018 - 9:45 am

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Several years ago, Michael Pietsch, my editor at Little-Brown, was promoted—becoming the publisher for the entire Little-Brown imprint. It was well-deserved, but, naturally, my first thought was: how does this affect me?

“Won’t affect you at all,” Michael said when we talked on the phone. “You and I will still talk through your book ideas, and I’m assigning a really brilliant editor who I know you’ll like to do your line-editing.”

Line-editing means going through a manuscript, making sure it’s written in English and making suggestions: give me more about Alex Smith and less about Joe Flacco—to use a potential example from my new book, “Quarterback.”

Sometimes an editor will tell you he thinks a book is too long or that it needs to be fleshed out more. I’m not sure I’ve ever had an editor complain that one of my books was too short. I’ve had some wonder if they were too long. Truth is, it probably should have happened more often.

The book I was working on when Pietsch got promoted was called, “Open,” it was about the 2002 U.S. Open, which was held at Bethpage Black—the first time the Open had been played at a true public golf course. Pebble Beach is technically public as long as you can afford to stay in the hyper-expensive Del Monte Lodge and pay a $500 greens fee.

This was different. The greens fee for locals at the time was $35 and the USGA had put $5 million in much-needed renovations and improvements into what had once been a great golf course to get it ready for the Open.

My books rarely make news. As much as Bob Knight made an issue of it, was it news that he uses profanity? My books succeed, I think, because they take readers to places they don’t normally get to go and give people an understanding of who the people are who make news.

Clearly, “Open,” wasn’t going to make news. By the time it came out a year after the championship had been played, everyone would know if it had been considered a success or failure (it was a huge success) and who won—Tiger Woods.

My job was to explain HOW it all came about and how the people in charge dealt with all the issues that took place before the week began and during the week.

So, I did what I always do: I got to know people like the police officer in charge of security—this was 35 miles from ground zero, nine months after 9-11. I got stories from firefighters who had friends die on 9-11. I described the night USGA executive director David Fay sneaked onto the golf course to walk it alone to see if it might be a potential U.S. Open golf course.

And so on.

I wrote the book and sent it to the new editor. Honestly, I can’t remember his name now. We didn’t work together very long.

Here’s why.

When the manuscript came back, it had the usual notes you’d expect, but there was a long note about the fact that the book had far too much detail. In fact, throughout, he had written in the margins, “too much detail,” repeatedly.

I called him and asked if he had ever read any of my previous books. He said he had.

“Then you should know that detail is WHAT I DO,” I said. “For better or worse, that’s who I am as a reporter and as a writer.”

“What you don’t understand,” he said, “is you don’t want too much detail when you’re writing about people who the reader’s never heard of.”

I had told myself before picking up the phone to not lose my temper. The guy was trying to make the book better. We just disagreed on HOW to make it better.

Now, I got a little angry. “You ever hear of 'A Good Walk Spoiled?’ I asked.

“Of course I’ve heard of it,” he said, getting a little angry himself.

“Who was the star of that book?” I asked.

When he didn’t answer, I pushed on. “Paul Goydos,” I said. “Who, the first thing I ever heard him say was, ‘I’m sure none of you have ever heard of me. There’s a reason for that. I’ve never done anything.'"

“What’s your point?” he asked.

“If you had edited that book, you’d have been writing ‘too much detail,’ in the margins every time I wrote about Goydos.”

“I guess we’ll agree to disagree,” he said, the implication being he was the editor and had final say.

“I guess we will,” I said.

I hung up and called Pietsch and told him I couldn’t continue to work with this editor and told him why. He unhappily agreed to take over line-editing the book. The detail stayed in. I never spoke to the editor again.

I thought about all this on Sunday, driving home after watching Army play Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. I’d gone to the game as part of my research for a book I’m doing this season on players, teams and coaches who are NOT on ESPN all the time; who don’t have 20 NBA scouts at all their games; who don’t have any one-and-dones on their teams.

It’s possible that some will emerge as stars in March the way UMBC and Loyola-Chicago did last season. But, for the most part, they will be kids you’ve almost certainly never heard of and coaches you might know vaguely.

I was tired on the drive home, I’d been on the road for four days, but I was euphoric. I’d had a great day with Army. I’d watched them walk through in their hotel in the morning with gospel music echoing from across the hall. It turned out that a local church group, which is in the process of building a church, holds its Sunday services in the hotel.

I’d watched the cadets walk through an inbounds play designed to get a quick three-point shot for Jordan Fox, their best shooter. Four hours later, inside the packed gym, I watched them run the play perfectly.

I stood outside the Army locker room with the coaches at halftime and listened to Army coach Jimmy Allen (heard of him?) say, “When we went up 2-0, I almost called timeout. I swear to God I almost did. Then I decided not to because I didn’t want to piss him (Mike Krzyzewski) off.”

As it turned out, the only timeout of the half was called by a very pissed off Krzyzewski after Army point guard Tommy Funk twice stole the ball from two of his future one-and-dones.

I also got to hear an Army fan yelling at the officials every time a call went against Army that, “It’s not fair to make these guys play seven-against-five!” I wondered which of the three officials wasn’t working AGAINST Army.
 
I even got to see the officials get wanded before they were allowed to enter their locker room and wondered, “And Duke STILL gets all the calls?”

Details. There’s not a bit of news in any of what you’ve just read. But I loved having the chance to see it, hear it, witness it. And, eventually, to write about it.

Nowadays, websites have what are called "content editors." Their job is to figure out what stories will get the most hits on the website. Big names get the most hits—I know that. A controversial topic—something I don’t think I’ve ever shied away from— also gets lots of hits.

Last year I was told by a producer at Comcast Sports Net here in Washington that my suggestion to do a video essay on the Army-Navy game "didn’t fit" with what they do now—Wizards, Caps, the NFL football team—and it just wouldn’t get enough "hits" to be worth their while.

No one famous plays in that game unless they go on to be president—or something like that. They rarely end up being famous as football players. That’s why Roger Staubach, THE notable exception to that rule, is ALWAYS interviewed at Army-Navy. He’s in the NFL Hall of Fame. So, he’s famous. And, thus, important.

I’ve written about famous athletes and coaches. But when I wrote, “A Season on the Brink,” it wasn’t Bob Knight’s profanity or even his famous tantrums that made the book a bestseller: it was him bringing a fishing pole to practice one day; it was his empathy for Delray Brooks when Brooks, who was supposed to be a star at Indiana, decided to transfer because he couldn’t play man-to-man defense well enough to see the floor regularly.

Details.

I still believe in them. I still believe Army-Navy is a story worth telling every year, regardless of their records. I love all the details I walked away from Cameron Indoor Stadium with on Sunday.

I have no interest in "hot takes" or in how many hits my next Washington Post column gets. I still think good reporting matters.

As the T-shirt says, the genius is in the details. No one will ever convince me that’s not true.
 
 
John Feinstein’s new book, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in The National Football League,” (full of details) was published on Tuesday, November 13th. His most recent work of fiction, “The Prodigy,”—about a teen-age phenom trying to win The Masters, was published earlier this fall. His website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com