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May 12 / King Kaufman

3 good reads: Sportswriting tips; a great editor; “How to Write”

I want to share three pieces about writing that I’m hoping will be some combination of useful and entertaining. I’ll list them in order of their place on the utility-to-fun spectrum.

Not that it’s not fun, but 10 Content Tips from Sports Journalists on Contently is the most obviously useful. The piece, by Grace Bello, is about a month old. It rounds up advice from a New York panel hosted by the Online News Association.

The panel was moderated by New York Times social media staff editor Daniel Victor and featured Sports Illustrated NFL writer Jenny Vrentas, FiveThirtyEight social media coordinator Carla Correa, New York Times sports graphics editor Joe Ward and SB Nation video host Dan Rubenstein, a Bleacher Report veteran.

Because of Rubenstein’s presence, there’s kind of a lot of SB Nation talk, but that’s OK. We’ll even let Contently get away with repeating the ridiculous Vox Media claim that SB Nation is “the fastest-growing online sports media brand.” Knock yourselves out with that one, SB Nation.

Among the 10 tips:

Gather inspiration from the past: Pivot from, borrow from, and build upon past work in order to create something that seems brand new.

Add something new to the conversation [We talk about this one a lot around here.]

Don’t copy what everyone else is doing: “The people that I see succeeding across various platforms are the people that are figuring out how to do something new,” [Rubenstein] added. “Figuring out what isn’t served, figuring out how to do things on their own instead of relying on more traditional structures.”

At the New York Times Opinionator blog, John Kaag, a philosophy professor, wrote an exquisite essay last week headlined, well, “The Perfect Essay.” It’s about that one “truly impossible teacher,” the person who wouldn’t let him get away with anything in his writing, which all his other teachers praised.

She was his mother. It’s a Mother’s Day piece, but it’s also a piece about good editing:

Her red pen had made something painfully clear. To become a better writer, I first had to become a better person … She chided me as a pseudo-sophisticate when I included obscure references and professional jargon. She had no patience for brilliant but useless extended metaphors. “Writers can’t bluff their way through ignorance.” That was news to me — I’d need to find another way to structure my daily existence. She trimmed back my flowery language, drew lines through my exclamation marks and argued for the value of understatement. “John,” she almost whispered. I leaned in to hear her: “I can’t hear you when you shout at me.” So I stopped shouting and bluffing, and slowly my writing improved.

Finally, and least usefully except that it’s always useful to laugh and to appreciate well-spun profanity, my former Salon co-worker Heather Havrilesky, who teaches a Popular Criticism class to MFA students, published a piece in the Awl titled How to Write.

You won’t learn anything about writing, but you’ll find out how Havrilesky, who reminds you she is a “professional, full-time writer … the real deal”—she writes that for laughs but in fact she is the real deal—gets through her day.

If you’re like me, then sometime around 4 p.m., when she has an epiphany about Candy Crush, you’ll start to recognize yourself.