AJR  Books
From AJR,   September 2010

Writers' Trade Secrets   

Making Words Dance: Reflections on Red Smith, Journalism, and Writing
Edited by Robert Schmuhl
296 pages; $19.99

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Probably because they live on deadline, writers spend more time doing their work than talking about it. But when they do get around to discussing what drives them, the conversations can be fascinating and impassioned.

So it is with this book. On the surface it is simply an anthology of talks delivered at Notre Dame's Red Smith Lecture in Journalism series, plus the accompanying questions and answers and a sampling of Smith's famous sports columns.

Taken together, though, it all creates the feel of an intimate salon where notable writers and editors feel released and free to dwell on what their work means to them and to us.

Here, for example, is Pulitzer winner Frank McCourt ("Angela's Ashes") as he recalls growing up so poor that he sometimes had no writing materials:

"Paper in our house was as scarce as ham...If I found a piece of paper on the street I'd take it home and scribble on it until my mother needed it to start the fire in the morning, and up the chimney went my early writings...But I never stopped writing. Language was all we had, and it was free."

When the legendary sports columnist Smith died in 1982, Notre Dame began the lecture series in his honor, and this book collects more than a dozen talks from 1983 to 2008.

Some seem a bit corny or dated. Most of the presenters could be considered old-timers. But, from James Reston to Jim Lehrer, these are respected lions who came of age during the Roosevelt-to-Reagan half century that constituted journalism's greatest era. Their words are heartfelt, their insights hard-won, and most seize the moment to share deep professional joys, concerns and lessons.

Veteran reporter and columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, for instance, ponders "who killed the foreign correspondent?" and laments the resulting loss for citizens.

"Just think about it," she says. "Nearly all of the information we get about the world comes from these crazy, creative, obsessed, diligent, fun-loving people. They are our couriers between cultures...I would actually dare to suggest to you that in no other profession is responsibility for what we know centered in such a small and fragile group."

Here you will also find Murray Kempton's thoughts on "finding an authentic voice," Gene Roberts on "writing for the reader" and "making your readers see," and Judy Woodruff on whether professional journalists are "obsolete." They're not, Woodruff believes. "What good journalists provide is good content, not just information..content where there has been thought, consideration, research."

The Q-and-A sessions following each lecture prove interesting, too, often leading the journalists to talk more personally. And a communal sense that we're in this together pervades the questions ("It seems to me that people are not taught the value of information itself. Who should do that? Should journalists be in charge of doing that?").

Red Smith, of course, was known for his lovely prose, so the speakers often share trade secrets and anxieties about writing.

Columnist and author Dave Kindred quotes the master himself. "Red always told me, when I asked the secret, 'Be there,'" Kindred recalls. "Be there. Reporters go to where the stories are. No story ever came to my front door and demanded to be written."

The late Charles Kuralt, who pioneered "on the road" reporting for CBS, delivered a plea for "better writing, smaller egos, broader knowledge, deeper understanding."

"I don't think a journalist can be a very good writer unless he is first a pretty good thinker," Kuralt said.

And McCourt, a teacher and author who died last year, said in his 2003 lecture, "When I was a high school English teacher trying to help my students write, I told them, 'When in doubt, tell a story.' It's not a bad piece of advice."

Lots of fine stories turn up here. Sportswriter and author Jane Leavy tells a good one, about her experience as a graduate student in 1976 shadowing Red Smith for a master's essay. In those days it could be hard for women, not to mention graduate students, to get press credentials, so at one NFL championship game Smith gallantly loaned his credentials to Leavy.

She used them to get past a guard at one team's locker room door ("'You're Red Smith?' I nodded..") and encountered coach John Madden, who demanded, "Who the bleep is she?"

"Don't worry about her," the guard reassured him. "She's Red Smith."

Well, nobody was Red Smith but Red Smith. But, as this book makes therapeutically clear, on some level at least, writers do share a common identity.