Rany Jazayerli’s 7 rules for writers
I’ve been going pretty heavy on the Writers Advice series lately, but the advice I’m getting from the first batch of writers I approached has been so great I can’t resist rushing them up instead of spacing them out.
Today’s entry is not just the best piece of writing advice Rany Jazayerli’s ever heard, which is what I ask for. It’s a whole philosophy of writing from the self-described “dermatologist by day, baseball writer by night, pathetic Royals fan all the time.”
Jazayerli is a Chicago-area dermatologist who was one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus. He invented the sabermetric stat Pitcher Abuse Points, which tracks the effects of high pitch counts on pitchers’ health. He co-wrote the blog “Rob and Rany on the Royals” with Rob Neyer for many years. Today’s version of the blog is simply “Rany on the Royals.”
I’m turning the rest of this post over to him. Read, learn from him, and always remember: Use sunblock.
Rany Jazayerli: One of the unavoidable consequences of being a professional sportswriter—and I use the word “professional” in the loosest, yes-I-have-occasionally-received-a-small-check definition of the word—is that people will occasionally ask you for advice on how they, too, can be a professional sportswriter.
I don’t know what to tell these people. I suppose I can tell the truth. “First off, you need to go to medical school.” I don’t think that’s what they want to hear.
What makes the internet so great is that it is a meritocracy; if you have talent, people will find you. Just look at the first two people in this series. Jeff Passan is classically trained, a journalism graduate of Syracuse University who then cut his teeth at the Kansas City Star. Kevin Goldstein? He didn’t even attend college.
There are many ways to learn how to write well, and I can’t speak to all of them. I can only speak to what’s worked for me. Here are Rany’s Seven Rules of Writing, seven rules that have served me well for the last two decades, even if I just categorized them as such this morning:
1) Before you write, read. Copiously.
By the time I gave thought to writing about baseball as a vocation for the first time, in 1995, I had been reading about baseball essentially non-stop for seven years. I had pretty much everything Bill James had ever published; five different volumes from Thomas Boswell; classics of the genre like The Boys of Summer, and everything in between. There wasn’t a baseball book on the shelf at Borders that I hadn’t either read or at least contemplated reading.
2) Before you write for others, write for yourself.
I started keeping a baseball journal on Opening Day, 1991, when I was just 15 years old. I think my first entry was a reflection on all the youngsters on the Houston Astros’ roster, and while a highly touted rookie named Darryl Kile made his debut that day, I was more taken with another rookie who seemed completely over-matched—Luis Gonzalez.
I wrote periodically, but regularly, about baseball for the next two years, and the only audience was myself. Only then did I feel comfortable sharing my thoughts with others online, first at the rec.sport.baseball bulletin board, and later at Baseball Prospectus.
No, don’t plagiarize other writers’ words. That is bad, and you don’t want to be bad. But if you read enough, eventually you will be able to copy other writers’ styles. Pay attention when a writer you admire turns a phrase particularly well, or study how he interlaces humor into his prose with great subtlety, or take notes when she crafts a perfectly argued opinion piece.
Every writer is different. All writers have their own idiosyncrasies. The key is to copy what you think are the best attributes of every writer, until you …
4) Develop your own style.
I write a certain way. I write long sentences, with a lot of commas, and with way too many semicolons; it’s not a style I came to consciously, but once I recognized it for what it was, I embraced it. One of the aphorisms of pitching coach Tom House is, “the wrong pitch thrown with conviction is better than the right pitch thrown without it.” It’s the same with writing. If your writing isn’t true to yourself, it’s going to suck.
5) Use an economy of words.
Thomas Jefferson said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” Take that to heart.
6) Show, don’t tell.
The simplest way to discern between the writing of an amateur and that of a professional is this: Professionals don’t talk down to their audience. Professionals assume some degree of competence from their readership, and take for granted that if they lead their audience to water, they don’t have to show them how to take a drink.
If you’ve just penned a particularly witty line, the easiest way to kill the mood is to start the next sentence with, “But seriously.” Don’t draw attention to your writing, and don’t try to connect the dots for your audience—have faith they can do that on their own. You’re not writing an instruction manual; you don’t have to explain every detail.
7) Similes are silver, but metaphors are gold.
Just trust me on this one.