Do you have a high DQ?

Media | A determination quotient measures a journalist’s productivity and persistence
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 6/03/17, 10:43 am

Let’s talk about the talents needed to be a successful reporter. Baseball scouts talk about five-tool players: those who can run, field, throw, hit, and hit with power. Our goal at WORLD is to develop five-tool reporters who can discern, report, analyze, write, and write courageously.

It all starts with discernment: approaching a topic within a Biblically objective framework, then making calls and hitting the pavement. Tool two, report: Move from abstractions to observation of reality. Tool three, analyze: See what all the details add up to. Tool four, write: Smoothly, accurately, and compellingly tell the story. Tool five, write courageously: Don’t fear controversy.

A journalist’s IQ and SQ (spiritual quotient) are important, but so is his DQ—and by that I mean not Dairy Queen but determination quotient. Tom Clancy isn’t the greatest stylist around, but like the Apostle Paul he presses toward his goal, so his advice is worth remembering: “Writing is most of all an exercise in determination.”

In this lesson we’ll see why you need a high DQ—and you should ask yourself the question, “How do I stack up?”

LET’S START WITH TWO CRAFTSMAN-AUTHORS, Michael Crichton (“Books aren’t written. They are rewritten”) and James Michener (“I’m not a very good writer, but an excellent rewriter”). One of America’s top stylists, E.B. White, noted, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.”

Tom Wolfe is one of America’s top two non-fiction writers, in my opinion, but another good writer, Richard Ben Cramer, said he once read Tom Wolfe and thought, “God touched you and made you a genius, and that’s the end of it.” Then he saw Wolfe toiling at a desk writing: “I looked in his eyes and saw the haunted, hunted animal look.”

The New New Journalism has America’s other top non-fiction writer, Michael Lewis, saying, “The most common pleasant thing people say to me about my writing is that it looks ‘effortless.’” Then he confessed, “It is the opposite of effortless. … I probably do twenty drafts of each chapter. I write something over and over. It’s like Groundhog Day. My writing process is sweaty and inelegant.”

Lewis also noted, in response to a question about whether he needs to write in one particular place, “I’ve written in awful enough situations that I know the quality of the prose doesn’t depend on the circumstances in which it is composed. I don’t believe the muse visits you. I believe that you visit the muse. If you wait for that ‘perfect moment’ you’re not going to be very productive.”

DQ means getting to the site of an interview 10 minutes ahead of time, and then redeeming the minutes by observing. DQ, when covering a meeting, generally means staying afterward and eliciting reactions. (The most important hours for a baseball reporter are not those during a game but those before and after, when he talks with players in the clubhouse.)

DQ means constant collecting, with reporters having more in their notebooks than they can use. Writers who do not have adequate material often try to make up for that lack by adding rhetoric; they end up with heat but no light. Writers need to understand a story so they can find a “face” with which to personify it. (Reader interest is highly correlated with the human interest of stories: More people like to read about people than issues.)

DQ means resolving to be the eyes, ears, and nose of each reader, and sometimes it means weeping alongside others. Lynn Vincent, who frequently covered gunman-in-church incidents for WORLD Magazine before becoming a co-author of best-selling non-fiction books, noted once, “This job is fun, but it also sometimes hurts. It hurts to pry open the stinking corpse of a heinous act and recount it so that others can see it in all its ugliness. But if it didn’t hurt, I would be worried. If I ever stop hurting when others hurt, it will be time to quit.”

DQ means resolving to be the eyes, ears, and nose of each reader, and sometimes it means weeping alongside others.

So it goes with other excellent writers. William Finnegan acknowledged that he’ll produce “fifteen or twenty drafts.”

Susan Orlean, in Telling True Stories, recalled, “Once I had a fight with an editor because I wanted to describe a basketball player’s feet as ‘banana-shaped.’ My editor argued that feet can’t really be banana-shaped. And, further, thinking about bananas takes the reader away from the subject: a person playing basketball. ‘You’re giving the reader a ticket to the tropics,’ he said.”

Then she really had to go to work: “I spent hours trying to find the right image to replace banana. Suddenly, it came to me: pontoon. His feet were pontoon-shaped; he floated over the basketball court. Analogies like these don’t usually come as I am reporting. I have to sit at my desk and really work at finding the strongest image possible.”

Another fine writer, Anne Hull, also displayed her DQ in a segment of Telling True Stories titled “Revising—Over and Over Again.” She wrote, “Only editors know the awful truth: how bad even the best narrative stories look in the beginning. Successful rewriting requires a fierce sense of competition with yourself, not anyone else. You must be dogged in reaching for your personal best. When you begin a story’s first draft, you must ask yourself hard questions.”

Hull asks herself this tough one: “Am I getting to the heart of my subject matter? When we begin redrafting—and, unfortunately, sometimes right through to the printed version—we’re at the story’s fringes. Finding the story’s center is crucial; we usually write our way there. It takes many drafts, and there are no shortcuts.”

A HIGH DQ OFTEN KICKS IN even before the writing begins. Lawrence Wright takes issue with journalists who say “they don’t want to start a story knowing too much for fear that all this information will dull their own impressions.” He said such impressions “might be brilliant and insightful … but I believe they’d be even more brilliant and insightful if you really worked at understanding your subject by doing a lot of research.”

High-DQ writers find ways to take a vacation from one project not by lying on the beach, but by gaining the stimulation of another project. Michael Lewis said, “At any given moment, I have at least four projects under way. I write short columns. … I’m usually working on a book. … I’m usually at some stage of one of the long articles I write. … I don’t know whether it is a character flaw, or just comes with the life of a freelance writer.” No, it comes with a high DQ, in writing—or in any other area of life.

Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski recently noted that in the past two decades 46 quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the National Football League draft. Most of those were Top 10 picks, and 12 were No. 1 overall picks, so teams had invested huge amounts of time and money in an attempt to find great quarterbacks—and almost all of them had failed. Of those 46 quarterbacks taken in the first round, only one was ever named first-team All-Pro: Peyton Manning.

Posnanski noted that all 46 of those quarterbacks had strong arms and great records of success. They received tutoring from excellent coaches and trainers. Yet, most fail at the top level—so what’s the secret of success for probably the best quarterback from that period, Super Bowl–winning Aaron Rodgers of the Green Back Packers? Posnanski: “What seems to have separated Rodgers is that he never stopped wanting to improve, never stopped trying to pick up any hint he could find wherever he could find it, never stopped searching for ways to make himself better as a leader or as a passer as a teammate. … He wanted to know everything. He worked and worked and worked.”

That’s the DQ journalists need as well—but for the best it’s not a burden, because they relish the process itself. Alex Kotlowitz in The New New Journalism said he tends to “rewrite, scene by scene, detail by detail. It’s the part I love the most. It’s all I think about. I’ll awake in the middle of the night with a perfect sentence. Or during a game of basketball will find a word I’d been looking for. I’m sure, to some, I must seem like an unholy, scatterbrained mess.” Susan Orlean told editor Robert Boynton, “I hate going out to lunch because that is exactly when I am usually getting up a head of steam. So I usually just grab a sandwich and eat at my desk. … It is hard for me to stop for dinner and then go back to work, so I often stop writing around 8 p.m.”

We’ve also found over the years that the best reporters have an adventurous streak—a desire to see and learn new things—along with a thick skin, since they inevitably make some people mad. They don’t have to be extroverted naturally, but if they’re introverted they have to push themselves to ask persistent questions and, when reporting, focus on others. Charm—the ability to get other people to talk and help—comes in all different packages, but reporters need some of it. And they of course need intelligence, an ability to see connections and go beneath the surface, and integrity, the grace to withstand enticements.

We’ve also found over the years that the best reporters have an adventurous streak—a desire to see and learn new things—along with a thick skin, since they inevitably make some people mad.

Here’s a note illustrating what we like to see in a young reporter—in this case Jamie Dean, who is now WORLD Magazine’s national editor. Here’s a letter I got from one veteran missionary whom Jamie accompanied on a rough trip to Sudan: “We traveled together down to the Borongole … where our mission compound is based. For a week in the wildness of the South Sudan, with no phone or internet access, she executed her plan, interviewed the people she needed to talk to, and was courageous and a prayer warrior. She ate what we ate and stayed where we stayed and worshiped with us. Each time I asked her about an unexpected experience, she reminded me that we are all in God’s hands.”

Going to the Sudan is an extreme game for a reporter, but so is open-heart surgery. Our oldest reporter, Ed Plowman, once emailed me about the heart surgery he was scheduled to have in six days: “This surgery requires deflation of and folding aside the right lung, burning and scarring of heart wall tissue while avoiding all blood vessels around and in the heart, cutting open the pericardium, and extracting a structure in the heart known as the left atrial appendage, where most emboli [clots] in the heart form, all while the heart is beating.”

He then added this apology, a classic: “I’m afraid my time for WORLD monitoring and reporting from today on is going to be very squeezed. So much to do, so many preps, and this Monday will be spent in pre-ops at the hospital. But let me know if you need something in the next few days. I hope I can be back at the computer within two weeks or less following surgery, though they told me to expect ‘discomfort’ for eight weeks.”

I told Ed that he was now in my top two all-time of ways to react elegantly to the problems of aging. My other exemplar was Carl F.H. Henry, the distinguished intellectual and founding editor of Christianity Today who wrote occasionally for WORLD in the 1990s, when he was in his 80s. Carl mailed me typewritten columns in an envelope with a self-addressed, stamped postcard inserted. On the postcard he drew little boxes for checkmarks: “accept” or “reject.”

You can imagine that it was with considerable trepidation that I rejected pieces by Carl Henry, but I appreciated his humility. He was never high maintenance, although if anyone was entitled to be, he was. Carl knew, and young writers need to learn, what novelist Isaac Asimov advised in relation to rejection notes: “Don’t stay mad and decide you are the victim of incompetence and stupidity. If you do, you’ll learn nothing and you’ll never become a writer.” Or, as a classic editor’s statement put it, “We don’t reject writers; we reject pieces of paper with typing on them.”

Mark Twain suggested this way of discerning a calling: “Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years the candidate may look upon his circumstances with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.”

The way not to learn is to assume that friends who say “You’re great” have good judgment. Young writers need true friends who are willing to make them cry. They need teachers and editors willing to tell the truth, even if it hurts. All are hard to find in this age of inflating grades and emphasizing self-esteem rather than offering tough honesty.

Young writers need true friends who are willing to make them cry.

Journalists who add temperament to talent don’t sit and fret; they report, write, and edit. I treasure an early-morning note from our then–managing editor and now editor of WORLD Magazine, Tim Lamer, as he and his wife were expecting their first child, who was slightly overdue. Tim noted that he had already that day processed for publication seven pages of the magazine and planned to do four more before he and his wife left for a sonogram appointment. He would then do more work in the afternoon.

If you’re female and have borne a child you might be muttering at this point about the cluelessness of husbands, and suppressing shouts of, “Why don’t you give your wife your undivided attention?” (My wife—fondly, of course—remembers my grading papers as labor for our third child slowly proceeded.) But Tim knows, as he wrote, “It’s a waiting game, and work makes the wait go faster.”

And isn’t that like all of life as we slowly slip heavenward? DQ means a drive to be productive and a willingness to be persistent. For example, if a feature writer needs to call a person regarding a story, editors are generally not amused to hear from the reporter just before deadline that person X is unavailable, traveling, or whatever. Sources frequently have mobile phones, and tomorrow is another day. When stories have a long lead time, it’s important to start interviewing or arranging interviews early in the process—and then to be persistent.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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  • Fani's picture
    Posted: Sat, 06/03/2017 03:59 pm

    First word: Let us = Let's

    And put a period after "courageously."

    Excellent points, all the way through. I'm bookmarking this article, as sloth is a besetting sin for me. Thank you!

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Sat, 06/03/2017 04:04 pm

    Thank you for pointing out the errors. We’ve corrected them.

  • frankenya's picture
    Posted: Tue, 06/06/2017 03:25 am

    God richly bless you Marvin for the insights - and for leading by example.