If you’re a writer, sportswriting – good sportswriting, I guess I should say – is some of the best stuff you can read. It doesn’t even matter if you’re interested in sports. It doesn’t even matter if you find them boring or brutish. As long as you have a general familiarity with a sport – as long as you know, say, that the overarching goal in basketball is to put the ball in the basket more than your opponent, or that in football there are such things as quarterbacks and end zones – you’re going to glean an astonishing amount of writing instruction from reading about it.
Here’s why: sports are inherently difficult to write about, and the people who do it well are masters of their craft. And by “craft” I mean writing, not just sportswriting. Go and read the best, and you’ll see what I mean. And if that doesn’t convince you, go and read some of the bests’ stuff not about sports, their novels and poetry and memoirs and histories. Because it doesn’t matter what they’re writing – they can write.
Much of this has to do with the sportswriter’s main subject – that is, sports. Or, to break it down to essentials: movement. Writing about movement is notoriously difficult. Visit any writing workshop or crack any creative writing manual and you’re sure to find a few exercises aimed at teaching aspiring storytellers how to accurately capture the unexpectedly complex process of, say, getting into and starting a car. Do you mention that the driver fished the keys from their pocket? Do you explain that, when they cranked the key in the ignition, the engine came to life? And what about once they get going? Do you describe the traffic? The way the driver’s foot pivots on the floor as it moves between the two pedals?
The best way to answer these questions is to not answer them at all – to avoid the car and driving altogether, throw in a chapter break, and start the next scene once your character has made their way to wherever it is they’re going. But sportswriters can’t skip over the movement. They need to describe the point guard’s game-winning drive. They need to detail the spin on the pitches that consistently struck out the side. It’s their subject (not to mention their job).
But it’s not just the physicality of sports that’s so difficult to write about. It’s the spirit of the events, too. Take, for example, the post-game interview, an utterly inane spectacle that you’re nevertheless sure to see after any and every sporting event. How did you feel, the reporter asks, after you made that goal, when you sank to your knees and roared up at the sky, when you embraced your teammates and began sobbing? The athletes, perhaps unsurprisingly, are usually good sports about it, and attempt to formulate an earnest answer. However, it rarely ever comes out well. But this is not the exhausted men and women’s fault. They’re athletes, not sportswriters, and the reporters have usually given them no more than five or six seconds of post-game reflection before shoving a microphone in their face. Not even the greatest sportswriter could come up with something articulate and meaningful that quick. Besides, the athletes have already expressed themselves as they best know how – they’ve sunk to their knees, roared up at the sky, embraced their teammates, and sobbed openly in front of thousands of spectators and probably as many cameras.
The sportswriters, though? They can do it. They sit there hunched over their notebooks or in front of their computers, and they find the language to capture all that ineffableness. And the good ones – they do it with flair. Some of the English language’s best prose stylists found their calling in sportswriting, and many of its greatest novelists spent a good deal of their time and pages focusing on sports.
So here’s a link to Sports Illustrated’s Top 100 Sports Books Of All Time. Read some. Here’s a link to ESPN’s Grantland, where you can find loads of great contemporary sportswriting. And here’s a link to Only a Game, NPR’s best – and, host Bill Littlefield is always quick to add, only – sports show. If you’ve got any sense in you, you’ll wake up early Saturday morning, or sit at home (or in your car) Saturday night, and listen to Bill and his stellar guests (including Charlie Pierce, a guy who can write about sports and politics and culture and probably anything else with brilliance and wit) discuss sports, life, and plenty of other wonderful things. And check out your local paper. For all you know, you’ve got a great sportswriter – a great writer, I guess I should say – in your very own hometown.