Sportswriters are some of the best writers around.
Period, end of sentence.
Especially the sports columnists.
Go into any newsroom anywhere, and read samples of the best work from each writer, and the sports columnists will have some of the best writing in the entire room.
That’s because they’re some of the best storytellers around. They can tell a story about any person, pulling on a tiny thread in a person’s life, and discover some of the most interesting, little-known revelations about a person that lives such a public-but-unknown life.
They’re the ones who ask an NFL running back about his mom and write about how she worked three jobs but never missed a game. They write about a pitcher’s relationship with his dad, and how they still talk on the phone after every game. They tell you about how a basketball player missed her senior year of high school with a knee injury and spent nine months in painful rehab just to be able to walk again, let alone get drafted in the first round.
Anyone who’s a fan of sports, a fan of good writing, or both, knows the sports columnists who have a mastery of the language, can tell a great story, and pull something interesting out of tiny details. These are a few of my favorites:
- Tom Junod, the guy who wrote the Mr. Rogers story, Can You Say Hero?, that made me cry three times as I read it. (It’s the story that got turned into the Tom Hanks movie.)
- Tom Verducci, baseball writer extraordinaire. When Hank Aaron died this past January, there was only one person Sports Illustrated could ask to write his obituary. If you only like baseball a little bit, read Tom Verducci; he’ll make you love it.
- Pat Jordan. I’m reading his Tom Seaver And Me book right now. I picked it up with the intention of reading two pages on a quick break from work today and ended up reading for 30 minutes.
- Roger Angell, the centenarian baseball writer for the New Yorker, and the guy who made me believe in long sentences again. I have five of Roger’s books and am always on the lookout for more. His story, “Three for the Tigers is my favorite Angell story, and his line “Everything you do in life, you do so that your son will go to ball games with you, and then he doesn’t want to,” broke my heart.
- Jemele Hill takes shit from no one. She called Donald Trump a white supremacist in 2017 and would not apologize. She even worked here in Orlando as a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel for two years. She writes about social justice issues in sports and makes me understand how the two are related.
- Sally Jenkins’ stories on the NCAA, tennis, golf, and women’s sports has earned her numerous Sports Columnist of the Year awards. Her February 5th column on Patrick Mahomes made me question whether he could outthink Peyton Manning, and whether I wanted to become a Patrick Mahomes fan.
- You can hear interviews with many of these writers on Jeff Pearlman’s Two Writers Slinging Yang podcast. If you want to be any kind of writer, every episode of this podcast has a nugget of great writing advice. And his book on the USFL (Football For A Buck is the definitive history on the renegade league of the early 1980s.
There are dozens — hundreds, even — of writers I could name, but I don’t have the room. These are just a few of my favorites, but I’ve got a few dozen sports books from a variety of writers, some on topics I know nothing about. Even if I’m not a fan of the sport or the athlete, I’m a fan of the writer.
(My one non-sportswriter recommendation would be Dave Thompson’s book, Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell: The Dangerous Glitter of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.)
Why Should Content Marketers Study Sportswriters?
I’ve often said that content marketers need to read daily
I’ve also said they need to stop reading blogs.
Bad writing breeds bad writing, and reading bad writing will infect you with bad habits and sloppy tendencies. Most blogs tend to be poorly written — read my post “Half of All Written Content Online is Sh*t” — and you’re not going to improve by reading someone worse than you.
Instead, I usually recommend that content marketing writers read fiction books by established writers. Find your favorite writers and genres and devour several of them. Pay attention to their writing style and voice, and figure out how you can
steal emulate parts of their style.
But you can also find some of the best creative non-fiction writing among the sportswriters and sports columnists. Pick a few and learn their style, then expand to their colleagues and see what it is that they do so well. Pick up one of The Best American Sportswriting annual books (or get The Best American Sportswriting of the Century) and read what some of the finest sportswriters in the country have done.
Then, once you have your favorites, find out who their idols and favorite writers were, and read their work. And if you can, find out those writers’ idols and inspirations, and read their stuff. I’m now reading works by Ring Lardner from the 1910s and 1920s, and Red Smith from the 1930s – 1970s, as I follow the sportswriting family tree to its roots.
Who are your favorite sportswriters? What’s one sportswriter you want to read more of or learn more about? Do you have a favorite or one you don’t like at all? Share your comments.