Reading sports taught me to write

There’s an episode of Seinfeld wherein George somehow lands a job with a publishing house. In a conversation with his boss, George is asked who he reads. After a beat, George replies:

“Mike Lupica.”

If you missed it, the joke is that Mike Lupica was a sports columnist for the New York Daily News, and not an expected name on any list of favorite authors. The choice demonstrated George’s lack of suitability for any role within a hundred feet of a publishing house.

The thing is, though: George was onto something.

In 1991, my hometown Atlanta Braves went from perennial losers to contenders. It was an exciting time—it felt like every conversation at school or home was about the team, and every game became an event. The suburban Kroger where I bagged groceries played the radio broadcast for late-season games over the PA system, and the buzz of the store would drop to near-silence as everyone listened to pivotal plays.

I watched Braves games on TV when I could (thanks, TBS!), but without fail I read the game recaps in my local paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, every single morning. I loved everything about the structure of the game recap—the establishing details, the action points, the oddities and milestones, and the preview of what’s next.

Alongside the recaps ran the sports columns, which either placed the game recap within a larger context, or dove deep into a single facet of the game as a whole—a player, a play, a coaching decision, a management choice, and what have you. The recap was canon; the column was interpretation. The recap told me what happened, and the column adopted an angle.

As the internet begat digital publishing, I was exposed to more writers—and more writing styles. Bill Simmons introduced me to the concept of the running diary—a mash-up of the game recap and his strong opinions about and reactions to every event. Joe Posnanski introduced me to the recap-historical precedent approach to covering an event, an approach I summarize as, “this thing happened, but do you realize how insane and impressive it is that it happened?!” And Mike Schur took fact-checking to another dimension by exposing the wrongheadedness and laziness of some sports columnists by tearing apart their arguments line-by-line. (Sadly, Mike Schur no longer writes about sports regularly, as he’s busy creating television shows like The Good Place.)

Years ago one of my colleagues expressed to me an interest in becoming a better writer, and I offered him this advice: read sportswriters. Read them to learn how to report on complicated actions and processes. Read them to condense something sprawling down to what’s essential. And read them to differentiate fact from opinion. Those are useful skills in a whole lot of scenarios, not least of which is my chosen profession of interpreting and reporting on human behavior.

Sports are epics in every sense of the word: they offer multiple characters with different motivations in trying circumstances, all taking place both simultaneously and over the course of seasons and generations. To clearly write about sports takes immense skill and talent, and I learned more about writing from sports literature than anywhere else.

George had the right idea.