Writing Mentor: David McHam
One of my luckiest breaks in life was attending Baylor University when I did because I was able to get a journalism education under David McHam, who provided the foundation for my writing career and got me my first professional job in journalism.
McHam, as everyone called him at Baylor, announced this month that he is retiring from the University of Houston at the end of the spring semester. His retirement comes after 54 years of teaching Texas college journalism at Baylor, SMU, UT-Arlington and UofH. Though well deserved, his retirement is a loss to the profession.
McHam taught at Baylor from 1961-74, leaving for SMU two years after I graduated. I began in journalism thinking I would go into sportswriting. When McHam found that out and got a call one Friday afternoon from the Waco News-Tribune asking if he knew anyone who could cover a game on short notice, he called this freshman and offered me the opportunity. I was excited but had two problems: 1) I’d never covered a game before; and 2) I didn’t have transportation to get to the game. He gave me a five-minute lesson on keeping a running play-by-play and compiling a stat sheet, then loaned me his pickup.
Off I went and the next morning I had my first byline in a daily newspaper. As a result of his faith in me, I worked Friday night football at the Waco paper all four years in college. When I was a senior, I was hired full-time by the News-Tribune in sports and had the opportunity to work under legendary sports writer/editor Dave Campbell.
I had always desired to write, but by the time I was a Baylor sophomore I was questioning why I had to take the required editing courses. I know, it sounds dumb in retrospect, but I was young and wanted to be a writer, not an editor. So, I went to McHam and asked if I really had to take the editing courses. He nodded and smiled. “Preston,” he said, “I think you will find that good writing is good editing.”
That’s the only verbatim quote I remember from any of my teachers over the years, probably because it was such a good mantra for writing of any kind. Today when I write, whether a book-length piece or a blog, I always go through three drafts. The first is just to get the words down. The second two drafts are to edit and polish the language. The first draft is tedium. The editing drafts are fun.
It’s not just me that thinks highly of McHam, either. He is respected by his peers, both in academic and professional journalism nationally. He was named the country’s outstanding journalism teacher by the Society of Professional Journalists in 1994 and earned a president’s award from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications in 2001.
So, thank you, David McHam, for your influence on me and so many other aspiring writers and journalists.