I’m 22. I write a few columns each week, but I most definitely have not “made it”. I’m still very much a developing writer and professional. For those reasons, many people don’t care for my advice on writing or chasing a career in journalism.
However, many other young people have approached me in the past and because of the point I am at in my career, I feel that I can offer a different perspective to the other ‘advice to writers’ pieces out there.
These are just my thoughts on what it’s like for me as a young professional writer, whether you heed the advice I give is not my concern. I am just making it available to those who want it.
The Balance Between Your Ego and Your Humility
You need both and you need a balance between both. No matter how humble a person appears, there is not a single professional writer who is employed that doesn’t have a strong ego. You need a strong ego to deal with the inevitable abuse and vitriol from sections of your audience, but also for your work to properly prosper. No matter how good you are, chances are you will be rejected many, many times before you find work. I was let go from Bleacher Report two years ago, then I became fully unemployed roughly seven months ago. At that point, I decided to continue to believe in what I was doing because I have enough of an ego to believe that I was right and they were wrong. Eventually, I landed with FootballGuys, FootballOutsiders and back at Bleacher Report, so everything did work out.
However, you still need that humility. You will likely do years of work for very little or no pay. More than once, you will likely spend up to 20 hours working on something that is thrown out immediately or never even read by an editor. You will definitely have to take on constructive criticism and learn from others who have been where you are going. In order to develop and grow as a writer, you have to be able to take on those things head on. The most important thing in this regard is identifying who you listen to and who you learn from, because believe me there will be many, many people trying to tell you what to do. Typically, you pay close attention to what your editors tell you, especially those editors who have extensive experience in the business at different levels.
Ignore the Criticism, Ignore the Praise
All of it. The only column or article that matters is the next one you write.
Know When to Shut Up
This seems obvious and simple, but it’s not always something people understand. Unless you’re Bill Simmons or Peter King, and even then there are no guarantees, your opinion means next to nothing to the people who employ you unless it’s something that they specifically ask you. Even then, you have to understand what is worth fighting for and what is not worth fighting for. For example, I hate writing the nickname of the Washington football team. I will never ask any of the sites I work for to change their stance on the nickname, because it’s really got nothing to do with me and the reality is each of those sites could let me go tomorrow and the site would just continue to roll on.
Many people who want to be writers are very opinionated and it’s natural for those people to express those opinions. I am that way and I’ve got in trouble in the past for saying things I shouldn’t in different avenues, fortunately none of those have been major issues, but there are many things I regret saying. Even a single tweet you send out, editors and other journalists can easily see it and they will likely remember you. If you’re then looking to apply for a job, why would they hire you? They wouldn’t, it’s that simple.
Don’t Be That Guy
Ever seen those guys who just constantly agree with other writers and constantly talk about how great specific writers are? I don’t mean guys who send out the odd tweet to show their appreciation of someone’s work, I mean the guy who is laughing at stuff that’s not funny and just constantly agreeing with everything the writer says and praising the writer’s work. Those guys think they are networking or developing relationships, but 99 percent of the writers I know typically see through that and have more respect for those who can interact with them normally.
Instead of agreeing or praising the work of those writers all the time, interact with them about specific details or respectfully debate against some points they make. Most writers love to debate things because that is essentially what they do for a living every day. You will meet many writers who just shut you down or call you an idiot for disagreeing with them, the reality is those guys aren’t really who you want to associate yourself with because they won’t ever help you develop as a writer.
Develop Your Own Voice and Thought Process
This is simple but it’s also impossible to describe(at least for me it is). Essentially, you can learn from other writers and be inspired by them, but ultimately you need to develop your own style. Preferably, a style that shows off your best traits and offers something of value that isn’t offered by anyone else.
“No” Is Temporarily Unavailable
If you’re only starting out and you don’t feel that your writing is at a competent level in comparison to others, take every opportunity that comes your way to write. EVERY single one. Apply for every position and work as hard as you can no matter how small or big the opportunity is. It all stands to you because at the very worst you spend enough time getting better as a writer even if what you do is never published.
Who? What? When? How? Where? Why?
If you went to college, they’ll tell you that those five questions are crucial. What they fail to tell you, at least what they failed to tell me, was that specific questions can be more important than others. If you’re a reporter, then who-what-when-where is most important. If you’re an analyst like me, then focus on the how and the why.
I didn’t dive into schemes and personnel groupings and all the technical terms when I was starting writing about football. I just watched football and tried to look at the little things to figure out why things were happening and how those things affected the game. It’s a humble beginning because at times you will be doing things that seem arbitrary or obvious, but it’s a beginning and everyone needs a beginning.
Fix Your Passion
This is a personal opinion and something that annoys lots of people, but it’s something I believe 100 percent. You can be a fan of an individual team and still be an objective analyst or NFL writer, but you can’t be a passionate fan of a franchise and still be an analyst or NFL writer. Your passion needs to be for the game, not the team. That type of passion is similar to passion in relationships, it clouds judgment and affects how you act. You can still care when your team loses, but you can’t let it play on your mind if you’ve got a deadline two hours later and you need clarity in how you think.
Even if you only want to write about one team, you have to know enough about every other team in the league to put your thoughts into real context. When I was younger, I was a Steelers fan and I realised I needed to know more about other teams. I listed the teams out from 1-32 every week and ranked them in how well I knew each team. For that following week, I was only allowed to write about or analyze the bottom five teams in my rankings. I did that until it became very difficult to rank the teams. I did it until I knew as much about Daryl Smith with the Jacksonville Jaguars as I did Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts.
I understand that people will take issue with this, but as I said in the beginning of the article, these are just my thoughts. I’m not projecting anything in this article as fact.
Officiating Is Off Limits Outside of Specific Examples
This follows a similar line as the previous point. Nobody reads your work to hear you complain about officiating. If you’re breaking down a specific play with a big call, that’s fine, but don’t dwell on it and don’t attribute the outcome of the game to the officials. Any fan can do that, they’re not reading your work for that. Find something more interesting to write about and mention the officiating if you have to, but don’t make it a major point of your argument even if it really was a major issue.
Nobody Cares About Your Fantasy Team. Repeat, Nobody Cares About Your Fantasy Team
Seriously, if people follow you on twitter, they follow you for stuff that interests them or could possibly interest them. Unless there is something legitimately noteworthy that happens in one of your leagues or something that is downright funny(IE someone scores the most points in a season but finishes 0-14), DO NOT tweet about it. It’s boring and comes across as quite childish.
Most of the above doesn’t focus on the actual process of writing. In order to portray some points about that, I want to use examples of writers I know.
I have great admiration for a writer who many would see as a threat or as competition if they were in my position. Alen Dumonijic is the only other writer I know who does similar work to me and who is the same age as me. Alen is an exceptionally nice person, but also someone who has an outstanding ability to criticize in minute detail without ever falling into the trap of using hyperbole. Alen knows how much I admire his work because it truly stands out when held up against that of others. I don’t feel that I can do precisely what he does, so it is best to follow his work instead of me trying to explain what I see in it.
My earliest memory of Sigmund Bloom is a conversation we had about Tarvaris Jackson. At the time I was much less experienced as an analyst but had felt that Jackson was under-appreciated for his work in Seattle. I never really wrote about it or said it because Jackson had a reputation as being someone who wasn’t good and nobody else really pointed out what I thought I was seeing. One day Bloom did and I realised that he was someone who wasn’t caring for reputations and was actually paying attention to what was happening right at that very moment. Little did I know at the time, but I would find someone who had the passion and work rate that allows him to be one of the best writers around. What you’ll learn from Bloom is how he channels his passion. Seemingly everything he does is met with excitement and appreciation of what he gets to do for a living, that may seem trivial, but it’s something his followers/readers undoubtedly notice and appreciate.
I’m going to lump these two guys together, but they’ll probably appreciate that as a shared compliment. When you’re starting out, you’ll hear about the work-rate and the effort it takes to be a top writer. If you want to understand where the bar for that work rate is set, go find the work of Scott Kacsmar and Chase Stuart. Not only is there a vast quantity of articles, there is also an overwhelming level of depth and knowledge in those articles. That’s what it takes. That’s the effort level you need to be in this business because you can be certain there are plenty more people like Scott and Chase coming up.
If you appear on many, many major networks, have the respect of the top-level analysts across your field and have a stupidly big following on twitter, that means you’ve made it…right? I don’t think that’s how Matt Miller views himself. Matt deals with a lot, I’ve seen an awful lot of it first hand, and that can ruffle anyone, but it doesn’t ruffle Matt. The thing that stands out to me with Matt is that very often I will see him talk about how he is trying to learn different things. Things that aren’t necessarily seen as valuable or things that many will brush off as something they presume they know. He admits to mistakes and actively pursues ways to get better. If he’s that far ahead of you and I and still doing that, why should any of us think that we can’t always learn something?
While you will find many, many writers who affect how you write and the way you develop, I think everyone finds one specific person who they feel is most similar to themselves. Or at least, most similar to what they want to be. For me that person is Matt Waldman. If you read Matt’s work, you will learn how to look at things from all angles and consider all the consequences of actions or all the aspects of a player(or life). It’s a cerebral approach that doesn’t rush to decisions or force an idea that is inaccurate or flawed.
For many people, finding a specialty is the ideal scenario. I don’t know anyone who has found and refined their specialty as well as Jene Bramel. I can’t really say much about Bramel, except that he is a doctor(a real one) and an IDP specialist. If I had the words to explain it, I would explain it, but I think it’s best to just watch how much work Jene puts into his area of expertise and how he presents his opinions/findings.
I was a terrible student. I have no idea how I earned my degree because I spent my years in college up til 7am watching football or in some pub somewhere. For that reason, my writing isn’t really as refined or as professional as it could be. Fortunately, I know a lot of writers who are very professional in how they write articles. They understand what they are writing, why they are writing it and how to present it. Of course, there are different ways of doing things so they won’t all be the same, but I can’t find fault in what any of them do. Josh Katzowitz, Chris Burke, Doug Farrar and Will Brinson are all different, but you’ll learn something from each of them if you read often enough and if you pay attention to more than just the content.