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May 18 / King Kaufman

Joe Posnanski on being a great writer: Stay humble

Joe Posnanski hard at work

Joe Posnanski hard at work

Joe Posnanski is one of my favorite writers, and it’s not an oversight that I don’t qualify and narrow that by saying he’s one of my favorite sportswriters. He’s one of my favorite writers, period, including all those great novelists out there, even Snooki.

I’m clearly not the only person who feels this way. Aside from being widely hailed as the best sportswriter going, Posnanski, who now writes for Sports Illustrated, has won many awards, including twice being named the best sports columnist by the Associated Press Sports Editors when he wrote for the Kansas City Star.

He’s the author of “The Soul of Baseball, about Buck O’Neil, and “The Machine,” about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds.

And if you’re not reading his personal blog, you might be missing the best writing by the best writer in the business. He even has an entertaining podcast,  “The Sports Poscast With Joe Posnanski.”

I asked him for the best advice for writers he’s ever heard or has to offer. Here’s his reply:

I’ve been thinking hard about the writers advice question. I fear I have so little to add to this.

I mean, you already have advice from my friends Dan Wetzel and Wright Thompson and Jeff Passan and other terrific writers I know pretty well, and they more or less have it nailed. Get it right. Show don’t tell. Make ‘em see. Read constantly. Write constantly. Use active verbs. I mean, if you get “The Elements of Style,” you’re off to a pretty good start.

One piece of advice does stick in my mind, though I’m not sure I can justify it or make it universal. I’m not even sure it has anything to do with writing. But it has meant something to me.

When I was just starting out in newspapers, an editor told me there was one thing I should never forget. He said “Look, you have a bright future in this business. But remember: If you get fired or stop writing, nobody will notice. If we leave Beetle Bailey out of the paper, thousands of people will cancel their subscription.”

Beetle Bailey

Beetle Bailey, the eternal competition

I’d bet there hasn’t been a month go by where I haven’t thought of that. It has meant different things to me through the years, but I think what it means to me now is this: Stay humble.

I don’t mean stay humble in how you act … that’s a whole other thing. I don’t think you have to stay humble as a person. Some of the best writers on the planet are some of the most egotistical, and that has nothing to do with it.

No, I mean: Stay humble in how you write. Don’t preconceive. Don’t hesitate to ask questions that might make you look dumb. Don’t linger too long in your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to look bad — DO worry about making yourself look too cool.

And, most of all, don’t ever act like you are too big for a story. Again, I’m not saying that because it’s unseemly and unappealing for a writer to act like he or she is too big for a story. I’m saying it for the writer’s benefit. Those stories that seem too small are usually the best ones.

The same editor who told me that bit about the comics also told me that if you find yourself in a large group of reporters, you’re probably in the wrong place. And I think, based on my own experience, that’s probably true. I’d say many of my favorite stories, maybe even most of my favorite stories, were ones that many people would have passed on as unworthy.

Meanwhile, I don’t see too much great writing from the Super Bowl.

The advice Joe got from his editor about being in a crowd of reporters reminds me of an experience I had early in my career that did a lot to shape my view of the writing game. I’ll share it soon.