I have been asked a fair number of times if there is a secret to my writing.
Any time I field a question like that, my immediate thought is, "Wow, I guess this person really likes my style."
What an awesome feeling!
Truthfully, though, I cannot tell you how I—or anyone else—can sit down with a word processor or a blank sheet of paper and craft a piece of sports reporting, analysis, or commentary. It’s not an easy thing.
What makes for a good story idea? How much research should I do? Will my opinion be a sound one? Will anyone else care about my subject matter, or my take on that subject?
These questions must be answered first.
However, I recently gave the idea of writing a good article serious thought, and some things occurred to me that might be enlightening to some of my fellow scribes.
I know I’m about to show my age here, but does anyone reading this remember “The Three R’s”?
Reading, (w)Riting and (a)Rithmetic—those were the three R’s. For decades, American educators stressed the importance of being able to read fluently, write coherently, and be proficient in manipulating numbers.
I propose that every contributor to B/R should focus on what I will dub the "Three E’s":
Educate. Engage. Entertain.
What does it mean to educate, and how can we do it?
Technically, education is a detailed, ongoing process, but I needed an “E” word, right? So we will use the term in the generic sense of “providing information.”
This means we have unlimited topics to choose from. It could be as simple as reporting that our favorite sports team won (or lost) last night, what the score was, and who starred in the game. This, typically, falls in the 500- to 900-word range.
On the other hand, it could be a more scholarly, historical piece, requiring extensive research and preparation. The word count is unlimited, but it’s best to try to keep it under 1,500.
In either case, the paramount issue is to get your facts straight. There is nothing more irritating to a reader than to be presented with inaccurate or downright false information. It impugns your credibility and deters people from reading your work any further.
So check your facts carefully. If you are composing a historical piece, or anything that contains statements of fact, no matter how well you think you know your subject, a quick trip to Google probably wouldn’t hurt.
You’d be amazed how much better your reception will be.
How do we engage readers?
For our purposes, to engage a reader is to draw him or her into the article, and keep their attention enough for them to continue reading all the way through the end. This is much trickier than merely educating the audience.
After all, an engagement is prelude to marriage. That’s how deeply you want your fans to be into your work; you are building a lasting relationship with them that will hopefully bring them back for more, whether it be from one paragraph or one article to the next.
It is impossible to publish something everyone will agree with, so don’t even try to go that route.
For example, if you declare Peyton Manning is the best quarterback in the NFL, but then throw in a sentence such as, “But Tom Brady and Drew Brees are pretty good, too,” then you’re obviously pandering to the audience.
No one will appreciate that.
It is much better to pick a topic that you feel strongly about, argue your point as persuasively as you can, and don’t worry about pleasing everyone. Get your message out in an accurate, tasteful manner, and the rest will take care of itself.
Also, keep a thesaurus handy, or use thesaurus.com when you are writing. If your first inclination is to praise a “good” play, use your reference material to come up with something that will impart the sentence with a little more “oomph.”
Brush up on your sentence structure too. Complex sentences, when properly executed, take your writing from boring to breathtaking in the blink of an eye.
For instance, consider the following sentence:
DeAngelo Williams made a great play, using a good move at the line to break free before running away from everyone for a touchdown.
Not bad, right? Simple, direct, descriptive.
Well, try this one on for size, and note the sentence structure and descriptive words:
DeAngelo Williams, seemingly stopped for no gain, whirled from the clutches of a sure tackle, nearly broke some ankles with a nifty juke move, and blew by the secondary for a scintillating 60-yard touchdown scamper.
The word count increased by 12—but the engagement factor jumped exponentially.
What about the third “E”—entertain?
For B/R writers, this is perhaps the most important factor to consider...and at once the most difficult to master.
After all, let’s not fool ourselves. As Jameson Fleming aptly pointed out to me a few weeks ago, the vast majority of the work published here is not “journalism.”
When Rob York writes a magnum opus titled, “Andy Roddick: A Man Out of Time?”, the goal is to get you to look at a recurrent subject—Andy Roddick and his place in modern tennis—in a new light.
Did he tell you anything new or salacious about Roddick? No, he did not, so there is little educational value, besides pointing out things that you might have overlooked.
Did he draw you into the subject, perhaps leaving you to crave more? Absolutely, he did.
Did he entertain you?
That’s for each individual to determine. If you do not like tennis, perhaps he didn’t.
But if you like good literature, regardless of subject, and you like to have the boundaries of your mind expanded, York entertained you as much as you will ever be here on B/R.
This consummates the engagement and takes you all the way as a writer. Followers of your work will want to read what you publish, because they know you will find a unique subject, or you will bring a fresh perspective to an old argument.
A truly good writer can take any subject, no matter how foreign it might be, and infuse it with his or her own personal touch, thereby transforming it into something that is desirable to the reader.
That, my friends, is entertainment in its purest form.
I hope I have answered some questions and perhaps stimulated you in our shared quest to polish our craft.
Mostly, though, I hope I educated, engaged, and entertained you. Cheers!