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Eleven Years And Counting

by Chase Stuart on June 6, 2013

in Uncategorized

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.

D

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.

  • Remember the golden rule: it may sound hokey, but treating others the way you would like to be treated is good advice for someone in any field. I’ve found and maintained a lot of great friends by following this advice. It is also an enormous waste of time and energy to get into fights with people on the internet.

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.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Gallo June 6, 2013 at 12:28 am

Well done Chase, and congrats on 11 years.

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 8:36 am

Thanks Steve. Appreciate it.

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James June 6, 2013 at 12:55 am

You, Burke, Lisk, Brown, and the PFR Blog were and are awesome. I still link people to old PFR blog articles all the time, especially the QB consistency articles (convincing people Sack rate >>> Int rate one person at a time). Throw in Tangotiger, Phil, and a Cowboys blog and that’s my entire RSS feed.

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 8:29 am

Thanks, James. I’m glad you’ve stuck around for so long.

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Shattenjager June 6, 2013 at 2:08 am

You are my blogging hero, Chase.

It took about six years of friends, family, and one girlfriend badgering me daily to convince me to start a blog (which is about movies, not football) in spite of my Woody Allen-esque list of worries, and what I did immediately was to go study what you did. I couldn’t really follow your example terribly closely because of the difference in subjects and the very different way I write, but I feel much better about the blog knowing that a blog that’s really quite technical but also highly playful can survive and even foster good discussion with little of the usual internet rancor. Without this blog, I would still be posting my movie reviews on Facebook instead.

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 8:32 am

You’re too kind, Shattenjager.

I’d love to see your movie blog. I’m glad you finally got the encouragement to do it, and it’s pretty cool knowing that I played a part in it.

I’m very, very fortunate to have a much more sophisticated audience than the average internet blog.

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Shattenjager June 6, 2013 at 1:58 pm

It will feel less cool to have played a part in it when you see it :), but here it is: http://crowdoffullpockets.wordpress.com/

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Sunrise089 June 6, 2013 at 2:23 am

Great post Chase, congrats on the FootballGuys aniversery.

To your credit you have a lot of nice things to say about a lot of other writers, and not just in this post. One thing that would be useful for me is some sort of annotated link list. I check you and Brian Burke every day, but I have no idea who Matt Hinton is. I suspect there are a number of worthwhile writers between the NFL stats niche and the ESPN homepage ‘analysts’ I’d love to be clued in on.

PS – I side with Doug on the value of Bill James :)

PPS – If you’re writing Doug weekly anyways you might remind him doing a monthly or so podcast might be fun…

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 8:34 am

Thanks Sunrise089. It’s great seeing the commenters from the old PFR blog reappear over here.

Matt’s a college football writer. He moves around a bit (he was on Yahoo, had his own site, and now it looks like he’s at CBS) and quiet in the off-season, but I’ll link to him often (as I did last year) during the season. I do have a Friends of FP over on the right side of the page. I should thrown Bill Barnwell at Grantland and Tanier on that list, too. Scott Kacsmar is another person who has produced some great articles at a variety of places, and many of the Pro Football Focus guys are doing a great job.

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ryan June 6, 2013 at 7:48 am

Glad you are humbled by the great fortune and team you have worked with/for, but you provide outstanding analysis , insight, and your articles are crisp and never dull…keep up the good work, if i ever get free time, i would love to blog on this or another site…thanks for the knowledge…do u plan to construct a personal hall of fame at some point during 2013?

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 8:36 am

Thanks ryan. I do accept freelances articles, but so far, no one has ever submitted anything. Happy to look at anything you or anyone else writers.

A personal HOF? That’s a bit too daunting, I think. But I’ll have some HOF posts up at some point this year.

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Brian Burke June 6, 2013 at 9:19 am

Chase-Congrats. Along with Jason’s and Doug’s, your work at the PFR blog inspired me to delve deeply into stat research. The PFR articles set the standard for tone, presentation, and most importantly depth of evidence.

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 10:38 am

Thanks, Brian. I know Jason and Doug would be honored to hear that as well.

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Thad June 6, 2013 at 9:39 am

I really enjoy the articles here, keep up the good work!

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 10:39 am

Thanks, Thad.

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Jene Bramel June 6, 2013 at 9:40 am

Congratulations, Chase.

Doug gave me the same advice years ago. It’s immensely valuable. Incredibly difficult to follow for those of us who grew up stretching sentences for term papers and now cramming ten thoughts into 140 characters, but very critically important.

Thanks for sharing. Always looking forward to your next post.

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 10:39 am

Thanks, Jene. For folks who don’t know, Jene is the resident expert when it comes to defenses. His guide to defenses from ’09 remains one of my favorite football articles ever written: http://subscribers.footballguys.com/2009/09bramel_idpguide.php

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Richie June 6, 2013 at 4:27 pm

“You need to be a 3-technique.”

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C M Sweet June 6, 2013 at 9:52 am

Chase,

Congratulations on the website and your years of writing. You’ve created a fine thing here, a site that I check every weekday (and the occasional weekend when I have time) for great content. I look forward to the next ‘N’ years of your writing.

Thanks!

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James Brimacombe June 6, 2013 at 10:26 am

As one of the new guys at FootballGuys, I found this article slapping me right in the face at where I am today with my writing. I am a numbers guy myself as I have my degree in Accounting and work in that field but I love football and music so I starting writing on two different blogs (Fake Plastic Tunes and 365 Fantasy Football) a few years back just as a hobby and for fun and now I am amazed at how things can turn out with just writing and putting content out there on a daily basis.

I am always looking for a mentor when it comes to my writing as I often still feel very much like a rookie. Keep up the good work on the site – strong content will always bring people back.

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 10:51 am

Thanks, James. Writing gets easier with time. Glad you are enjoying the site and happy to have you on staff at FBG.

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Matt Waldman June 6, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Congrats young man, you’ve been writing longer than this old one. Keep up the good work.

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Thanks, Matt. You too!

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Brad Medaris June 6, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Fantastic article Chase. I’ve studied how to be a better writer for most of my professional career (lawyer by trade). I just recently jumped into fantasy football writing and am approaching how to write from a different perspective. I found this article a few minutes ago and I think is excellent advice.

Be proud of this article. It says more than you know.

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Thanks, Brad. Glad to hear it resonated with you.

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coach tj June 6, 2013 at 2:14 pm

well done chase. continued success. film is a teacher.

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Thanks TJ.

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Eric W June 6, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Chase, amazing article on the craft, science, and joy of writing, it is GREATLY appreciated. I am currently writing a book and my partner, co-author, and expert editor forwarded this post on to me. It is fitting as we are finishing chapter 10 of 14 and are living some of your lessons real-time. Thank you so much!

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 4:05 pm

I can only imagine the pain and effort involved in writing a book. Good luck!

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Tim Truemper June 6, 2013 at 5:02 pm

I have to put my two bits in. It was great to read the above post on the evolution of your blogging on Pro Football- how it started, the connections with other blogs, etc. It seems to be a real labor of love for you. Finding PRF years ago and now following Football Perspective has been a real joy for this person who enjoys football history and objective analysis both past and present. I think back when you included me on a web panel regarding the HOF. Not sure I remember all the particulars except that several of us were solicited to offer our thoughts on different candidates. Tthe blog is great, professional work. Your math/analytical skills really show; but also, you are a good writer too. Way to work on those “soft” skills. Plus, for a long time you have tolerated my Cowboy bias.

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Chase Stuart June 6, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Very kind, Tim. I was afraid I’d lose a lot folks during the switch, but I’m glad you found your way back.

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Tim Truemper June 6, 2013 at 5:12 pm

I was reading, just went dormant on commenting.

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Collin June 7, 2013 at 12:28 am

So many things to applaud here, I don’t even know where to begin. I would have shared this for this sentiment alone:

” I’ve found and maintained a lot of great friends by following this advice. It is also an enormous waste of time and energy to get into fights with people on the internet.”

In the “anonymous” age, it’s so easy to abrasive and mistake it for wit. Don’t mean to go into a side tangent here with so many other points that were more pertinent to the central focus of this wonderful post, but it’s worth highlighting on its lonesome. Maybe you gain a few 20-somethings who view barbs with the same reverence as schematic breakdowns, but in the long run, it’s just not worth it. The sporstwriting community is way too incestuous to allow for burned bridges. It’s just never the smart move.

To the rest of this piece—brilliant work, though I would expect nothing less! One thing I might add, beyond reading as much as you can, and exercising your writing muscles as much as you can: write as many different things as you can, in as many different places. If you’re a freelancer, figure out where your talents work and spread the wealth! You can never utilize enough platforms to broadcast your voice, and if you’re serious about writing, every platform offers new possibilities for writer brand & visibility. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be limited to sportswriting. Some of the best storytellers I know in sportswriting have evolved their craft through mastery of other genres and subjects—nonfiction feature stories, short stories, etc.

Also, it’s the digital age. Embrace that. Writing is great, but are you a complete content creator? Hone your multimedia skills. Can you make your story pop beyond your text? Have you mastered Photoshop to the point where Xs & Os telestration comes naturally, and displays cleanly? Can you edit videos that further supplement your text, adding evidence or otherwise just emphasizing important details? I don’t think writing stops at writing anymore in the digital age. It’s still the most important element, but storytelling is so multidimensional anymore, and so many concepts are blurred with increasing access to information & technology, and the rise of a generation who can readily synthesize those skills into content with multiple points/levels of access, that you’re doing yourself a disservice if you only marry yourself to print.

I guess that’s a lot of rambling at the risk of hijacking a wonderful post, but just a couple things I would add to the conversation. Otherwise, thanks for sharing this, Chase!

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Bob June 9, 2013 at 4:47 am

Can’t disagree with anything here or add anything that hasn’t already been said by others.

Keep up the excellent work, Chase. Congratulations!

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Top Eleven Hack is a hack tool for the facebook game called top eleven June 22, 2013 at 1:41 am

normally appreciate your website however you should check the spelling with a number of of your threads. Quite a few will be rife along with punctuational troubles so i to find that incredibly problematic to tell reality nonetheless I will certainly are available again yet again.

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Bob Henry July 12, 2014 at 9:41 am

Congrats, Chase. Your success is underscored by the fact that you have become one of those go-to guys for other young, aspiring writers in the profession. Now stop talking about years, you’re making me feel old.

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Chase Stuart July 12, 2014 at 9:57 am

Thanks, Bob. I don’t care what Woodrow says, you’re a class act.

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