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So What Do You Do, Jeff O'Connell, Award-Winning Writer and Editor-in-Chief of Bodybuilding.com?
'I'm much more of a listener than a talker, so it's served me well in certain respects.'- June 18, 2014
If, like me, you think spending two days in LL Cool J's den co-writing a book or collaborating at 500 mph in an airplane with 50 Cent is the stuff dreams are made of, you'll be aptly impressed with Jeff O'Connell, accomplished author and editor-in chief-of Bodybuilding.com. His main piece of industry wisdom is as unconventional as it is true: What you perceive as your weaknesses may actually be your greatest strengths. O'Connell's strength is his preference to listen rather than speak, as evidenced by his confident yet soft-spoken voice. His laid-back nature as a reporter allows his story subjects to let down their guard and speak candidly during interviews. Here, O'Connell shares how he got his start, discusses his writing process, and offers advice on interviewing celebrities and honing your craft.
Name: Jeff O'Connell
Position: Editor-in-chief of Bodybuilding.com
Resume: Previously served as executive writer at Men's Health and editor-in-chief at Muscle & Fitness; earned honorable mention in both The Best American Sports Writing and The Best American Science & Nature Writing anthologies; co-wrote The New York Times best seller LL Cool J's Platinum Workout, Formula 50 with 50 Cent, Knockout Body with Mario Lopez, Jump-Off with Mark Jenkins, and Spartan Up! with Joe DeSena; released his book, Sugar Nation, in July 2011.
Birthdate: March 6
Hometown: Born in Baltimore, Maryland, and lives in Boise, Idaho
Education: University of California at Los Angeles (BS, MS)
Marital status: Single
Media mentors: The late Joe Weider, founder of Muscle & Fitness, Shape and many other magazines; Marc Gerald, who heads the literary division at The Agency Group ("We've done six books in 12 years on one handshake, and it's been a great adventure"); and Bodybuilding.com CEO Ryan DeLuca ("for exemplifying inspiring and benevolent leadership").
Best career advice received: "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."
Last book read: The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World, by William D. Nordhaus, Ph.D.
Twitter handle: @sugar_nation
How did you get started as a fitness editor?
My career in publishing pretty much had an inauspicious start. I finished graduate school and was actually interviewing with the DEA and the FBI for a job, and I just decided at that point that I would be better suited to be a writer and an editor. I started applying for [these jobs], which was actually very difficult at the time -- a lot of disappointments and close calls, in terms of finding a full-time position. So I did freelance gigs for a while. Then I got my training at a trade pub out of Santa Monica, and nine months after that I saw an ad for a copy editor at Muscle & Fitness, and that called to me because I [was already buying] that magazine off the newsstand. So, I applied for that. I actually didn't get that job, but their sister title Flex needed a copy editor, and shortly thereafter they came back and offered that to me. Another year or two later, Muscle & Fitness brought me over to their title as a staff writer and I basically began building my career from there.
Tell us about the stories that earned you recognition in literary anthologies.
I've been honorably mentioned twice in the Best American Sports Writing. The first was the story of a man with the highest IQ on earth, and he was living in a shack on Long Island, living on $6,000 a year, lifting weights, bartending and writing a book on an alternative to the big bang theory. His theory was that the universe is contracting, not expanding, so that piece is called "Mr. Universe," and it was in Muscle & Fitness. The other story was about a former Mr. America who was living as a caveman on Indian lands and in the mountains off Palm Springs. And that was called "Benny's Nuts" and ran in Flex. So, I'm mostly interested in these characters who live off the grid, and of course for these magazines, you have to have some kind of connection to physical culture as well.
|"It's really important to find a niche that's well calibrated to your interests, but also to your talent."|
I got honorable mention in the Best American Science and Nature Writing [anthology] for a piece I wrote called "Into Dark Waters" for Men's Health when I was executive writer there, and that was an exploration of suicide among males. It was 2009, the height of the financial crisis and we were in the midst of two wars at the time. So I was really intrigued at that point by how some of those things were playing out in the psyches of a lot of men who were struggling. It was definitely an eye-opening piece. I'm glad that I wrote that. At the same time that I'd written the suicide piece, I'd also written a piece called "The Thin Man's Diabetes" for Men's Health, which then [evolved into] my book, Sugar Nation.
What's your process for finding such fascinating human-interest stories?
The cool thing about Muscle & Fitness, you think of it as a niche fitness publication, but it's great because [you can write about] any person who is involved in fitness, whether it's an actor bulking up for a role, or an athlete, or just some interesting person who got fit. I found it tremendously liberating, and also it's a great opportunity if you're willing to dig around and listen to people for great stories. So a lot of it is just having a lot of contacts, listening well, just talking to people and oftentimes these ideas just come from conversations about something completely different [than the interview topic]. Maybe at the end of it they would just mention somebody; I'd prod a bit to find out more. The next thing you know, that's a really interesting story. It's not what we've talked about for the prior 15 minutes. So I'm a very inquisitive and curious person by nature. I'm much more of a listener than a talker, so it's served me well in certain respects.
How did you become a New York Times best-selling author?
I like to thank LL Cool J because I made it as his co-author in 2006. It was the second workout book that I'd collaborated on. It was called Platinum Workout. And the first workout book I had done was, I think, one of the worst-selling fitness books of all time. It did terribly. My magazine career got off to a very rocky start. But I hooked up with LL Cool J on the book and it was a really good workout plan. I think we made it a fun read for people, and he just promoted it relentlessly when it launched. It was great to turn on the TV and see him on Rachael Ray and Ellen DeGeneres, you know, talking about our book.
What's the process that goes into co-writing with a celebrity?
You know, I've done a book with 50 Cent, too. I do spend a lot of time with my co-author up front, rolling a lot of tape on them in different situations. I'll travel around with them. I interviewed 50 Cent at length on a plane ride with Floyd Mayweather from the East Coast to the West Coast, just hanging out with them, [capturing] their voice and learning what they want to say in the book.
At that point, it's me taking the transcriptions of those interviews and doing a lot of the work in terms of the draft. And then once the initial draft is done, I spend a lot of time with the subject, crafting it, really honing it, making sure it does reflect what they've said on tape. So, it is very much their voice. And they'll be coming in, after the draft is done, and extensively working on it. But that book was very much LL Cool J's book. We spent two days in his den going through the final version line by line. Not surprisingly, he had amazing instincts when it came to language and turns of phrase.
|"Active listening is more than just hearing the words that are spoken. It's about developing trust with your subject, guiding the conversation [and] holding eye contact."|
What advice would you give to newbie writers and editors?
To me, writing is mostly about re-writing. I wish I was somebody that could sit down and bang out 1,000 or 2,000 perfect words, but I'm not. A lot times I can be a perfectionist, and that can be really paralyzing, so I think that it's important to just get something down on the screen or the page and realize that you're going to work it over multiple times anyway, so you might as well get started. I admire writers who can just crank out something incredible right off the bat, but for me, I really do have to shape something that I've done initially.
And then it's important to find a niche that's well calibrated to your interests, but also to your talent. I think health and fitness is really well aligned with both of those things for me. I think I was able to reach the top of the field in health and fitness, whereas maybe in some other fields it may have been more difficult. I don't think I would have ever reached the top of the masthead at The Economist, for example.
Do you think that's because you happen to know and care a lot about your subject?
Yeah, it's helpful if it's your passion and if you're a practitioner of the field. You know, I'm probably never going to write a novel, but I write well enough to write really good service journalism, and that's what you need in health and fitness. Making sure your interests are very well aligned with what you're actually pursuing; I think that's important. If you want to write fiction, but you're limited chops-wise, there's no shame in treating that as a hobby. But I think some people are really delusional in thinking that will become a career.
What interviewing or reporting tips do you have?
Reporting for me is about listening, first and foremost: listening to sources, listening to colleagues and listening to anyone with something relevant about the subject at hand. Active listening is more than just hearing the words that are spoken. It's about developing trust with your subject, guiding the conversation [and] holding eye contact. That's why I tape a lot and have it transcribed. I want to really be in the moment with the subject when I'm interviewing that person. I don't want to be scrambling, scribbling notes down frantically the whole time.
So much of it is making the other person comfortable, especially if you do a celebrity interview. They're so on guard, they're so wary to begin with. You basically have 45 minutes or maybe an hour in certain situations, to get to the real stuff and release very intimate details. I'm a very laid-back person, so I think that helps me, because sometimes people relax when they're with me… whereas if you're kind of intense and aggressive, they tend to recoil from that.
Something I thought would be a liability when I got into this business, which was being kind of shy and quiet and a listener, has actually helped me along the way. Don't assume what you think are your weaknesses won't help you at some point. It just depends on what you're doing.
Amanda Layman Low is a freelance writer and artist. Contact her on Twitter @AmandaLaymanLow.
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