Reading is first step to learn how to be a good writer

ROB STEEN, the co-leader of the sports journalism degree course at Brighton University, advises that to be a good writer, you first need to be an avid reader

If I could have earned a quid for every time I’ve been asked how to become a professional sportswriter, I’d be able to afford…well, let’s just say a lifetime Sky Sports subscription should cover it. And however many pointers I proffer, whatever mood I’m in and whoever does the asking, there is one constant slice of advice: read.

Reading the sports pagesRead in the interests of being up-to-date and better informed, yes, but for so much more besides. To the other question I am most frequently asked, namely “How can I improve my writing?”, the answer is no less constant: read good writers.

I resist insisting that it really is that simple – and that’s because of the generation gap. For those of us who attained puberty before the advent of the web, the requisite concentration was not too difficult to attain and maintain; for my students, the plethora of competing sources and the ceaseless thirst for fresh information, especially in 140-character globules, has made this altogether trickier. Speed has replaced thought.

The bottom line, nonetheless, is inarguable: rapid, bite-sized reading is shallow reading. Understanding and appreciation require deep reading, patient reading, thoughtful reading. Don’t mistake speed or quantity of reading for depth of reading. Stick with reading for information and you will only go so far.

First things first: you yourself want to be read, but what right do you have to expect readers to give your musings the investment in time and energy desired if you don’t do likewise? Second, given that one of most compelling motivations for any would-be journalist is to see their name in print, noting the byline on a piece that has informed or entertained you is the least you can do.

While this may have a tiny bit to do with displaying respect for those who have already climbed the ladder you are attempting to ascend, it has far more to do with your own development as a journalist. If a particular reporter or columnist’s work repeatedly stimulates you – whether because they appear to possess an uncommon insight, enviable contacts or simply a winning way with words – follow them, devour their work and learn.

Read what they have to say in a paper-and-ink format and you will become better attuned to journalistic design and discipline: the need to write to the length instructed, negotiated or commissioned, the realities of the profession, the sense of collective endeavour. All journalists play for a team.

In particular, you will appreciate how one piece complements another. Click a link and you may feel aggrieved, for instance, if you read an article that omits a key fact; only inspection of the relevant page in the inky version offers the sidebar or basement piece which demonstrates that more than one person is covering that topic and has dealt with the “missing” fact.

When I was itching to plant a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, I read voraciously and found favourites: Brian Glanville (Sunday Times) for his deep knowledge of global football and marvellously expressive prose; Matthew Engel (then of The Guardian) for his determination to right cricket’s wrongs, the crisp sentences and wry witticisms; and Frank Keating (The Guardian) for his political fervour, boundless enthusiasm for all things ballish, and creative disrespect for dictionary diktats.

I also reaped plenty of juicy fruits from American sportswriters such as Roger Angell, Tom Boswell and Roger Kahn, not to mention unsporty scribblers. You could call it a stew of influences. Whatever the ingredients in yours, stir them well and leave time to gel.

Learning from your chosen guides is a two-way street: they supply the material, the expertise and the wisdom, the angle and the style; it’s your job to read deeply enough to appreciate what they offer. What makes them so readable? Do they unravel complexities clearly and concisely? Do they diverge from the hack pack and take unpopular stances? Do they make you re-evaluate your own perceptions? Do they make you giggle – and why?

Then there are the more aesthetic but no less important considerations: do you like the way they use words, and if so, why? Are word-choices what sets them apart? Is it their construction of sentences and paragraphs? Do they vary the length of their sentences, whether for ease of digestion, for the sake of rhythm or for dramatic effect? How enticing are their intros? Do their outros pack a punch?

The next trick is to learn how to read your own writing – and not purely for the sake of fairness, balance and accuracy. I set my first-year undergraduates an assignment: choose two reports of the same match in different publications, then compose a 500-word analysis assessing the similarities and differences, and what they told you about the nature of both sports journalism and writing. Then comes the part of the brief they hate: they have to read it aloud to the rest of the class. I do it not to show them up but to impress on them the value of the process.

Writing, you see, also has a great deal to do with listening. Good writing should be able to be read aloud. Spoken English and written English have much in common but there are countless distinctions. The following intro to a news story in our best-selling daily newspaper should indicate why:

“Cellar beast Josef Fritzl enjoyed romps with teenage rent-boys and tranny hookers in a Thai sex paradise, The Sun can reveal. The 73-year-old monster sickened British holidaymakers after they spotted him hand-in-hand with a 16-year-old lad.”

To capture the reader’s attention and keep them interested, tabloids take liberties galore, but plainly do not use conversational English. They tell their stories according to the strictures of tabloidese, pioneered in Britain by Hugh Cudlipp’s Daily Mirror in the 1930s, immediate and sensational, full of compound adjectives and aimed squarely at shrinking attention spans. How often do you describe an annoying neighbour as “a 73-year-old whinger”? Have you ever heard anyone say “cellar beast”?

Structure an article as if writing a best man’s speech: make it read right, which means making it sound right. It should flow easily, fluently and logically from one sentence to the next. It should be straightforward to follow. Metaphors are best used sparingly; the crucial points are best made succinctly. When reading aloud, not only does the appropriateness of the words and structure become more readily apparent, so does the rhythm.

Underpinning all this, though, is another incontestable fact: good writing is impossible without a mastery of basic punctuation – and the most accurate measure of whether you have that at your fingertips is to read your work aloud. Always make time to give it the vocal once-over before pressing “send”. You’re in the communication business, a trade where clarity is the be-all, end-all and everything-in-between-all. If words are the bricks of good writing, good punctuation is the cement. Poorly punctuated writing is merely confusing, not to mention more or less pointless.


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