This is a re-post from 2011, slightly updated. Still incredibly relevant.
I just re-read an old thread at SportsJournalists.com, a forum where I spend a little time now and then. Stumbled back across this. Remembered two, three years ago when I first found SJ.com. This was one of the first threads I read. There is just heaps of good advice within. I printed out probably 10, 15 pages’ worth of it, especially the stuff from Chris Jones (Esquire, ESPN The Magazine) and Jeff MacGregor (ESPN.com). Here’s the link to the whole thing: Writing for mags like The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, etc …
This particular post (after the jump) by an anonymous poster called Double Down jumped back out at me. Reminds me to keep striving, keep trying, keep just trying to get a little better. Because who knows what could happen. This is about writing, specifically sports journalism, but it can apply to all writers. And, for that matter, anybody, really
Try to remember this: It’s all relative.
Right now, somewhere, maybe even lurking on SJ.com, there is a college kid who is bummed because he or she doesn’t think they’re a very good writer. They’re realizing they’re not going to land a coveted intership at a major metro, get praised as an ‘effing stud, and will have to settle for something smaller, like a 50,000 cirq paper in Texas.
At that same major metro I just mentioned, there is a young, aspring preps reporter who is bummed out because, at 24, he thinks he’s not a very good writer. He’s done some quality stuff, but there is already a kid at the paper who is covering the NFL beat at 25, and getting praised every day on SJ.com.
The NFL beat reporter works hard, writes good features, even wins a few awards, but he’s convinced his writing isn’t as good as a friend of his. She is a takeout writer who breezed through a year as a beat writer before she was promoted to do big picture, award-winning, long-form narrative stuff. When he reads her artful sentences, it makes him want to pull his hair out.
The takeout writer can turn a phrase, construct a tearjerker, but privately she’s devastated because she really wants to write for a magazine, and when she reads the stuff in Esquire or Sports Illustrated or the New Yorker, it breaks her heart because she knows she’s just not that good. She’s done some stuff people tell her is excellent, but it’s never made it into BASW, and now she wonders if she ever will. She’s sent her clips to a few magazines, but she never hears back, and that only confirms her worst fears.
Over at SI, there is a young staffer who is churning out stories and doing some major take-outs. But he’s not Rick Reilly or Gary Smith or Frank Deford, and everyone knows it. No one has to tell him either; he understands it in his heart. And so every time he looks at his copy, he feels like a failure. Why can’t he write like THAT!!?? How in the world do they do that? I grew up reading Reilly and now I feel like a phony, he thinks.
Higher up on the masthead and the payscale at SI, there is a senior staffer who has been there for years and years, has won some major awards, and while he’ not quite Reilly or Gary Smith, he’s one of the best in the country, universally respected, and has been in BASW multiple times. But when he picks up books by Tim O’Brien, or Philip Roth, or Cormac McCarthy, or some of the best writers of his generation, he feels like a fraud. What happened, he thinks to himself. In college, I always dreamed of writing like that, and all I do is write about men who swing sticks at baseballs. There’s no poetry in that, no transcendence.
Down in Texas, bottle in his hand, Tim O’Brien sits around, depressed, quietly devastated by the fact that he never quite became Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or even, arguably, Philip Roth.
Across the street from O’Brien, there is a kid who is passionate about writing, wants to write about sports for a living, but worries he’s not quite good enough. It’s a long shot, but he applied for a job covering preps at a 50,000 cirq paper. Instead, some guy who went to a better college and had a previous internship got it after he was turned down by a major metro. The kid who lives across the street from O’Brien is pretty certain he’s not as good as the guy who was hired at the 50,000 cirq paper, but he’ll get that good someday. He hopes.
For now, he’ll take a job at an 18,000 cirq. weekly. He beat out 40 other applicants for the job.
Because, his new boss tells him, he was the best writer who applied.
You can beat yourself up pretty easily when you agonize over the words on your screen. But one of the best writers I know told me not that long ago, “I’m always 10 years away from being the writer I want to be. I’ll feel that way 10 years from now.”
I read his stuff, and I want to weep, it’s so good. It makes me, in some ways, want to give up writing for a living. He reads his own stuff and thinks, “It’s not that good, not as good as I want it to be. A.J. Leibling would have done it better.”
If you feel like your stuff sucks, don’t worry. Most people do. Don’t beat yourself up too much, just critique it, or ask someone else to critique it, and vow to get a little bit better each story.