Outstanding. Now the real question? Want to be a Footballguy?
That was the e-mail I received from David Dodds on June 6, 2002. The co-owner of Footballguys.com then and now, Dodds was replying to a freelance article I submitted to his site. Two days later, my article was posted, and I had become a paid writer.
Eleven years ago, there was no twitter, blogging wasn’t mainstream, and fantasy football was probably less cool and definitely less popular than Dungeons and Dragons. I hated writing: growing up, I was always a “math person.” I thought of writing proficiency as a soft skill, itself a euphemism for a useless skill, and had no desire to spend a moment of my time writing. My brother was and is a sports anchor/reporter, and he was the writer in the family.
I began playing fantasy sports in the late ’90s, which was a year-round hobby as fantasy basketball and fantasy football rose in popularity (I started off with fantasy baseball). I was quickly hooked on fantasy football, but it took a couple of years before Footballguys came across my radar. The articles were terrific and opened my eyes to the intricacies and strategies of the game. But the real treasure was the site’s message board. I could post on the board and minutes later someone would reply. That was my first introduction to the value of reader feedback. I didn’t think of “posting” on the message board as writing, but it was there that I learned the appropriate ways to craft an argument. The board also helped me develop a pretty thick skin for internet criticism, the sort of armor every blogger needs.
In the summer of 2002, Dodds announced that he was requesting freelance articles from fans of the site. At the time, Pro-Football-Reference was in its infancy, which still made it the best resource for the casual fan to access statistics on the NFL. I spent a few hours copying and pasting some of PFR’s data and used that to create my freelance article for Dodds.
Every bit of success I’ve had can be traced back to that response by Dodds, and the decision by Dodds and Joe Bryant (the other co-owner at Footballguys) to keep me on staff every year since. Once I became a staffer, I was able to graduate from incompetent writer to novice, but more importantly, I made some fantastic connections. I was able to convince Doug Drinen, then and now one of the most important people at Footballguys, to mentor me. That’s probably what happens when you e-mail a guy 1,000 times.
By 2004, I had been writing for a couple of years, and I e-mailed Doug for his thoughts on how I could become as good as he was at writing football articles. Here was his response, which is quintessential Doug for anyone who knows him:
With almost everything in life, the only way to get better at it is to do more of it. Practice, practice, practice, blah, blah, blah.
Writing is different. Yes, practice helps. But there is a “shortcut.” It is my opinion that reading helps your writing as much as writing does. Really, any kind of reading is good. For the kind of writing we do, you need look no further than the best that ever lived. I don’t even need to tell you who that is.
Go to amazon and pick up Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame, or the New Historical Baseball Abstract, or whatever. For the next month, take one hour a day that you used to spend reading the free-for-all or watching TV and spend it reading Bill James instead. You will notice results in your writing with zero effort on your part. It just happens.
Writing for the web is a bit different from writing on paper. Paragraphs should be shorter and bulletted lists and bold headers should be used more. People have a much shorter attention span when reading the web than they do when reading paper, so you have to break up the text a bit more.
The only other thing that pops to my mind is the old standard: use fewer words. Usually, I write a rough draft without thinking about style too much. Then, when the content is all organized, I go through and ask myself “do I really need that word?”, “Could I rewrite that 10-word sentence with 7 words?”, etc. You don’t want to get too choppy, but trying to cut out as many words as you possibly can is a good exercise. As far as I can remember off the top of my head, your stuff is pretty tight and well-organized as is. No need for an overhaul, just keep doing what you’re doing.
In terms of conveying high-tech stuff, I always like to walk the reader through my thought process. It usually goes something like this:
1. Here is a question, and the fantasy implications of the question
2a. Here is a way to use data to answer that question
2b. Here are the problems with what I’ve come up with in 2a.
3. Here is the data. (if the data set is large, this can come after the conclusion, as sort of an appendix.)
4. Here is a conclusion.
Now all the technical stuff is in 2a. People can skip it if they want and still follow the article. I also find it helpful to walk through a particular example with a particular player (e.g. “For example, last year the Jets ranked #10 against QBs, their YPA allowed as 17th, …., so they go down as a XXXXX”). That way, if people have trouble reading the table of data, they can go to the Jets line and get their bearings.
One last thing: I think the second best sportswriter in the world is Maurile Tremblay. Seriously. See what tips he has for you. Hell, forward them to me.
That e-mail rings as true today as it did in 2004. If an aspiring young football writer asked me for advice, I would copy and paste that e-mail but replace Bill James with Matt Hinton and Mike Tanier. And I’d have them read all of the old articles Maurile and Doug wrote, too.
My next big breakthrough came in 2006, when Doug told me that he was going to start blogging at his site, Pro-Football-Reference.com. He knew he would struggle to post every day, and lacking better options, offered me the opportunity to join him at the PFR Blog. I leaped at the opportunity, and made my first post on July 7, 2006.
What distinguished me from every other writer was good fortune. About a year later, Doug, Sean Forman and Justin Kubatko brought PFR, baseball-reference.com, and basketball-reference.com under one umbrella: Sports-Reference LLC. My paths rarely crossed with Justin, but I have been extremely lucky to become good friends with Sean, who is many times over The Man in the baseball community. Thanks to Sean and Doug (and later on, Neil Paine and Mike Kania), PFR acquired a ridiculous amount of data and allowed me to access those files in my writing. This is still the case, and even though I no longer write for the PFR Blog, Sean deputized me as the Chief Liason of Pro-Football-Reference. I am under no illusions that without the generous help of Doug, Sean, Neil, and Mike, I would be just another hack sportswriter (but I am under the illusion that with their help, I am not!).
Acknowledging my bias, I argue that we wrote some outstanding and thought-provoking articles at the PFR Blog, and we helped to debunk a lot of the bad arguments put forth by football analysts. My good luck continued when Doug asked commenter “JKL” to join the team, and Jason Lisk is now one of my closest friends in the industry. Doug soon moved to emeritus status, and has remained there despite my weekly e-mails asking him to write again. I’m very proud of the work Doug, Jason, Neil and I did, and I think we made that site join places like Advanced NFL Stats and Football Outsiders as the top destinations for readers who wanted more football analysis than what they received from mainstream sources. In October 2009, Toni Monkovic of the New York Times asked if the PFR Blog would like to contribute material to their football blog, The Fifth Down. Sean had been blogging about the baseball playoffs which gave us a nice “in” at the Times. Sean and Doug asked me if I would like to write there, and I’ve contributed weekly articles in-season for Toni (another superstar person I’ve been fortunate enough to work with) and the Times ever since.
I went about 9 years without bad news, which must be a record for a writer, but the other shoe dropped in 2011 when Sean told me that Sports-Reference was exiting the blogging business for all sports. I understood and supported Sean’s decision to focus S-R’s time and attention on improving the data on their sites over long-form writing, and Sean was one of the first to encourage me to start my own site. And Sean, Neil, and Mike have done an outstanding job adding a ton of new features to the S-R sites. I had become friendly with Chris Brown over the years, and he allowed me to continue writing at Smart Football for the rest of the 2011 season.
Last May, I spent a lot of time figuring out how to start a website. I’m very grateful to people like Chris, Matt Waldman, Jeff Williamson, Jene Bramel, Brian Burke, Aaron Schatz, and Jason Lisk, among many others, for giving me the encouragement and necessary advice to make starting my own site a successful endeavor. We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of Football Perspective, and I’m extremely proud of where it is today.
So, after eleven years, what have I learned?
- The more you write, the easier it becomes. Before I started Football Perspective, I had gone months without writing an article. I thought I would get writer’s block after about three weeks, but that hasn’t happened. The more I write, the more I get ideas for future posts. Writing frequently sounds like a daunting task, but you can be aided by momentum for most of the journey.
- If you’re serious about writing, you need to do three things. Write. Publish. Promote. Many people want to write, or think they would be good writers, and that’s about as far as they ever go. The barriers to entry are absurdly low when it comes to writing. Other people will write but delay to publish their work. I think reader feedback is incredibly important (hence the promote part), and you can’t be serious about this craft unless you solicit that feedback. If you’re doing something wrong, chances are someone on the internet will point it out to you. I think that’s a good thing.
- Read good writers. As often as you can.
- There is no money in writing. There are exceptions, of course, but readers of this blog don’t get blinded by exceptions. I wish there was money in writing, but that’s just not the case. If you go into writing to make money, you’re insane. Writing is like exercise: it’s just plain good for you in ways that, ironically, are difficult to articulate. If you happen to collect some loose change along the way, that’s great. But it shouldn’t be the goal.
- Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This applies in a couple of ways.
- Occasionally, my posts will have typos, or errors, or bad links. That stuff happens and it bothers me about 0.00001%. Maybe my attitude is wrong, but 100% accuracy should not be your goal in writing. I post something every day, and being 99% accurate every day of the week is much preferable to my readers than being 100% accurate three times a week.
- We all want to write that seminal piece that changes the way people think forever. That’s great, but it takes also takes forever to write that piece. And here’s a neat trick: if you publish Part 1 of your topic early on, you can use reader feedback to get to your destination much quicker than you can by brainstorming.
I don’t know how many of you made it this far, but from time to time people ask me how I got into football writing or how I’ve landed in the New York Times. I can now point them to this page, but the real reason I wrote this post was to thank the dozens of people who helped me write for the last eleven years. I’ve only named a fraction of the people who have been kind enough to donate their time to me, but I’ll always be grateful to those who helped me along the way.