How to create a writing sample that will get you the gig
UPDATE: While this post contains excellent general advice for writers who hope to succeed with any publication, it is no longer an accurate reflection of “how to create a writing sample that will get you the gig” at Bleacher Report. This more recent post explains exactly what B/R’s Writer Admissions Team looks at in a writing sample and why. If you’re thinking about applying to the Writer Program, please read that post.
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For obvious reasons, submitting your prose for strangers to sift through and pass judgment on is an anxious exercise. After all, it’s your hard-earned words that you spent hours putting one in front of the other to craft that perfect phrase.
So when what you thought would be your opus is met with rejection, your natural response is: “What the f*** are these guys thinking?” And that’s fine. That’s the attitude you should have. It should motivate you to keep getting better.
As someone who has been intimately involved in screening new writer and Featured Columnist (FC) applications, I’ve seen it all. Everything.
The one thing we want you to understand is that our Content Team wants all you would-be scribes to flourish.
There are plenty of helpful resources on Bleacher Report to aid you in your quest to become an approved writer and/or join the FC ranks. Here are a few of the obvious ones: Bleacher Report’s Content Standards, Style Guide and, of course, the “Writer’s Tips” section here on the B/R Blog.
In addition to highlighting these important resources, the aim here is to provide you with some informal tips to help you put your best foot forward when submitting your new writer or FC application.
If you follow these tips, perhaps perception might meet reality when you submit your “Death of a Racehorse.” Or, at least, you’ll be met with a more favorable response after submitting your application.
Present Your Work Professionally
A text message or an email is one thing. An article that could potentially be featured on Bleacher Report’s front page or the top of a Google News search is quite another.
Online media has grown up, so don’t treat your submission like a message board post. Your readers will expect to see something credible, so don’t let them down with a wave of emoticons and acronyms.
If your goal is to break into the publishing world, Bleacher Report is a great start. That said, even if casually writing for B/R isn’t considered a “job” per se, you should treat your application just as seriously. Your ability to turn a phrase doesn’t mean that a hiring editor won’t immediately toss your résumé in a trash can—OK, move it into their desktop trash—if you fail to catch an obvious typo.
In other words, if you don’t take your application seriously, why should the editors who review it?
There’s a popular saying among grammar geeks:
“Let’s eat, Grandma!” “Let’s eat Grandma!”
For those who think that being clever trumps being correct, keep in mind that the comma in the first phrase saved Grandma’s life. It matters.
Every punctuation mark, every capital letter, pretty much everything you put in your writing has a specific purpose.
In other words, if you’re putting an ellipsis … between every train of thought or every sentence … it doesn’t look aesthetic … and it doesn’t look hip …
It just looks wrong.
Along that same vein, capitalization should be taken very seriously. Two of the biggest automatic rejection triggers are lowercased team and player names.
Similarly, don’t capitalize random letters. Just because something is Important in your mind doesn’t mean it Deserves to be Capitalized.
Two of the most common mistakes are when writers capitalize specific sports and positions. “National Basketball Association” is capitalized, but “basketball” is not. It’s a game, not a formal title. Neither is “quarterback” or “striker.”
It seems obvious to most, but you’d be surprised how many writers ignore the rules of capitalization.
Names Matter Too
You’re claiming to be an expert on the Miami Heat. So who the hell is Dwayne Wade? I’ve heard of Dwyane Wade, but not this Dwayne chap.
If you’re a world football junkie but refer to a certain North London side as the “Tottenham Hotspurs,” you’re not cut out (yet) to be writing about world football for a broad audience. Also: see, “Cardinals,” Stanford.
There’s no faster way to undermine your own credibility than by botching the spelling of a name that takes five seconds or less to verify. Google is a powerful tool, and probably faster than a spell-checker. Simply throw that tough-to-spell name into a Google search and Google will return the correct spelling for you.
Likewise, you should be just as meticulous with any factual claims.
Any of the aforementioned common mishaps result in an automatic rejection.
Seduce Your Readers, Don’t Dance Around Them
The web is littered with content—and there isn’t about to be a shortage of it. If you don’t arrive at your point immediately, you risk losing readers right off the bat.
Online sportswriting gives you a bit more creativity with your leads than your run-of-the- mill Metro section crime story. I’ve always considered it an extension of creative non-fiction. Still, you want your work, and especially your lead, to be as clear and concise as
Writer Program Manager King Kaufman wrote a guide to help writers craft leads.
There’s a time and a place for flowery language. Like poetry. With few exceptions, online sportswriting is not one of them. Big words are all good and fun, but you don’t want your argument or opinion to get lost in a sea of superfluous language.
And With That, You’re Off
Or off, at least, while being aware of a few of the most common pitfalls that result in rejected writer applications.
The biggest takeaway is this: Send your submission exactly how you would expect it to appear published on Bleacher Report—beautifully crafted, free of easily avoidable mistakes, factually accurate and, of course, really freakin’ interesting.
Sean Swaby is Bleacher Report’s Featured Columnist Coordinator.
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Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, public domain