The Answer to ‘How Did You Become a Writer?’

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A question I get fairly regularly is ‘How did you become a writer?’ or ‘How do I do what you do?” There are very simple answers that I generally give, but they’re not really good answers. I’m not anywhere at this stage in my career. I still need to earn a better weekly salary to live a proper quality of life. But even just getting to this point has taken a very long time and has seen more failings than victories.

After secondary school(or high school as most of you reading this will call it), I studied Journalism in college for three years. This is the simple answer you give to people when they ask how you become a writer.

I did earn my degree and I learned some academic things during my time in college, but I question how valuable my degree has really been to my career so far. I wasn’t a good student. I spent my time just doing enough to get by and enjoyed college live more than focused on getting to classes on time. Even when I did pay attention fully and make as much effort as I possibly could, I didn’t feel like I was benefiting.

Maybe I’d actually be a much better writer and have a full-time job by now if I had got better grades and made more of an effort, but not once over the last six years have I been asked about a college degree by a potential employer or asked to show proof about what kind of grades I earned. The only things I ever had to provide were writing samples and proof of my knowledge of the sport I was applying to cover.

My physical degree is in a drawer somewhere in my house. I haven’t ever needed to take it out so I couldn’t even tell you where it is right now.

Part of my apathy towards college was the lifestyle, but probably a more important part was the fact that I was already working after my first year. My first job came for www.Irishcentral.com covering the New England Patriots. I was a part-time blogger who wrote relatively simple pieces on a regular basis. I made a respectable amount of money, respectable for a college student, and worked my ass off when I initially got the job.

That job came between my first and second year of college. Then after my second year of college, I applied to be an intern with Bleacher Report. An editing intern. I did it for a few weeks, but quickly realized that it wasn’t for me. I didn’t enjoy correcting other people’s mistakes and not actually creating any content of my own, so I dropped out of the internship after less than three weeks.

That internship was very important though. While I was no longer partaking in it, I carried over the freedom to write for the site as an unpaid contributor. At the time I didn’t care about getting paid, I was just excited to see my name next to a headline. I wrote my first article on March 17th, 2011. A piece on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Breakout Stars.

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I was excited, but also a little bit nervous because I thought I may have been breaking the rules as I hadn’t actually been accepted when I applied to be a writer for the site.

My article went straight to the top of the Steelers homepage and I had my first ever big headline. I didn’t write for Bleacher Report again for a couple of days because I was waiting to see if I’d get an email from an editor or someone high up to tell me I wasn’t supposed to be able to write for the site.

After nothing arrived in my inbox, I slowly began to write more and more articles on the site. At first I didn’t just write about the NFL, I wrote pieces about soccer, rugby, basketball and anything I felt I had enough knowledge about.

This continued for a couple of weeks, but since I thought I was going to be removed from the site eventually when they realized I wasn’t supposed to be writing there, I decided to push my luck and apply for the Featured Columnist program.

I didn’t like my chances going in. I knew I wasn’t a good writer compared to other people at the time, but figured I’d just try it because I had nothing to lose.

My worst nightmare came. I had to write a piece comparing players to movie characters, something that wasn’t just out of my wheelhouse, it was an idea at the time that scared me to death. I wasn’t funny, I’m still not, my strengths were in actual football analysis and those were even limited at the time. I considered just forgetting about the Featured Columnist role and going back to just writing pieces on Bleacher Report when I wanted to complement my role at Irish Central.

However, after some encouragement, I again decided to just try it because I had nothing to lose.

I wrote three articles for the Feature Columnist evaluation and fortunately the other two were friendlier to me. I became a New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and General NFL Featured Columnist. Things were definitely looking up. I spent most of that summer writing different articles on Patriots, Steelers and NFL-themed topics, before Collin McCollough, an editor at Bleacher Report at the time, invited me to join the NFL coverage team as a full-time writer.

The idea of doing this was phenomenal to me. It seemed unrealistic that someone who initially couldn’t get accepted for the site was now one of the very few people being paid to write for the site.

Unfortunately, I could only fill that role for a month because I had to go back for my final year of college in September. My final year of college was a little more hectic than the previous two, so I had to spend more time in lectures and pay more attention to assignments outside of class hours. Meanwhile, I had to keep writing for Irishcentral also so I stopped writing Bleacher Report pieces.

After college finished, I went back to Bleacher Report, but Collin had now moved on to a new role and the person looking after the Featured Columnists decided to remove me from the group.

Bleacher Report was beginning to undergo the drastic change that has overcome the site in recent times. After just scraping my way into the Featured Columnist program last time around, I figured that I had no chance to make it back this time as they were now bringing in outside writers and establishing lead writers for each division. I stopped writing for Bleacher Report altogether because I was annoyed at the idea of having to work my way back up after already spending so much time doing that the previous year.

After leaving Bleacher Report and finishing college I became disillusioned with the idea of being a writer. I figured I’d never make it and I didn’t want to go through all the effort of building from the ground up again.

Before I finished college, I had started writing some pieces for the Guardian. I was putting a huge amount of work into those pieces, but my commitment to my Irish Central work was waining.

Irish Central ultimately fired me in 2013. I deserved to be fired and I only realised it after they let me go. That was the time when I was going to give up. A friend knew of a good job in the south of Spain where I could continue writing for a living, but I wouldn’t exclusively cover the NFL and I wouldn’t get to write about the kind of topics I would want to write about.

I was just a couple of days away from taking the interview to apply for that job, uproot my life and start afresh in a different country.

It really was a great job. Something you could build a career on and make a decent living in a beautiful country. But there was an itch in the back of my brain everytime I thought about doing it. It felt like quitting on a dream and giving up at a time when I hadn’t really made enough of an effort to justify giving up.

So at the last moment, I decided not to go for the job. Instead, I invested my time in building a site where I could highlight the quality of work that I could do. A site called Pre Snap Reads (or initially a site called Before the Snap but that’s an awful name so we’ll pretend it was always called Pre Snap Reads).

Pre Snap Reads was initially just a wordpress.com site. It looked cheap and would likely deter people from reading the content I was putting up. My money was running low at the time, but I decided to take the risk and invest around €200 in building and hosting a wordpress.org site. I knew I needed to open the site with one big article that offered readers something unique and showed off why I could be a valuable writer to potential employers.

Over a year before this, I had written an article on Bleacher Report that I thought was brilliant(I know, I’m a cocky prick). It broke down every single snap of Darrelle Revis and also used tape breakdowns with analytics to give a truly in-depth view of a player who played a generally ignored position.

The article flopped. Nobody saw it and it was simply lost in the crowd. I was demoralised and forgot the whole idea of analysing cornerbacks that way.

Forgot it until I needed something to stand out on Pre Snap Reads. Revis hadn’t played a full season in 2012, so looking at him was a waste of time. Instead, Richard Sherman in Seattle was emerging as a cornerback with a good reputation. Sherman and Brandon Browner had caught my eye as rookies when I wasn’t watching football that closely, so I vaguely knew about him.

I wrote the piece on Sherman and launched the revamped, professional-looking Pre Snap Reads at the same time.

At the time, I was an unknown writer, so I linked my work to bigger writers on twitter. I didn’t constantly do this, I did it when I thought I had something they might value and I only did it to writers who might specifically be interested in this kind of piece. Mike Sando of ESPN was covering the NFC West at the time and he very graciously read my piece when I linked it to him and to my incredible shock, wrote about it on ESPN.com.

Simultaneously, twitter was spreading the article like wildfire. I sent it to Eric Stoner, who was a draft writer at the time(Eric is now retired so leave him alone), and when he retweeted it Doug Farrar saw it and shared it with his followers. That led to FieldGulls.com sharing it and my piece was spreading all through those outlets that covered the Seahawks.

Over the coming months, Pre Snap Reads would focus on writing very in-depth pieces on individual players. These were the kinds of articles that couldn’t be found anywhere else because most beat writers didn’t do this kind of analysis and most national writers who wrote in-depth pieces were typically writing about specific games or plays rather than whole seasons.

After a couple of months that saw Pre Snap Reads get over 100’000 views, an email arrived in my inbox.

An email that I had dreaded just two years ago. It was from a Bleacher Report editor. Except, it wasn’t the Featured Columnist Editor or the person who decided on who was accepted to be a writer on the site or not, it was Collin McCollough again. But this time Collin was looking after a bigger team of NFL writers. He had moved up in the world since I had worked under him.

Collin offered me a chance to return to Bleacher Report and another opportunity to make money as a writer. I wasn’t fully employed by Bleacher Report, so I could still accept other positions that came my way. Scott Kacsmar had just joined Football Outsiders as an editor, so I believe I took over his role at Bleacher Report. Football Outsiders were then looking for a new Film Room writer to replace the departing Andy Benoit.

Fortunately, Scott and Aaron Schatz had read my cornerback analysis and were impressed enough to offer me that job.

Around the same time, Sigmund Bloom and Joe Bryant of Football Guys brought me in to do some film work for Football Guys. Pre Snap Reads became a secondary thought and any potential new career in Spain was fiction from a book I was no longer looking to read. I had got a second chance after messing up my job at Irish Central. This time there wouldn’t be any reason to fire me, at least, the reason wouldn’t be effort.

I worked as hard as I possibly could have during my first season covering the NFL. I appreciated the position and had renewed my optimism. Now, my second season is about to begin and that optimism and appreciation is still there.

The answer to how you become a writer is not an easy one. I was very, very lucky because the opportunities opened up at the right time. However, I also didn’t give up after being rejected many times and failing with pieces many times. I’ve still failed with pieces way more times than I’ve succeeded and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

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