That time I read 134 amateur sports articles and what I saw along the way

"This is not an opening sentence, this is a long thought spewed out".

"This is not an opening sentence, this is a long thought spewed out".

Early 2018 I read 134 articles from amateur sports writers. It was something I had always wanted to do, you know, until I suddenly had all these pieces to read.

My original tweet said "If any new sports writers want me to read one piece of theirs, send it through on this thread. I'll do my best to give honest feedback after I've read the piece. (Which could be anytime between now and eternity)." I sent the tweet on January 20th, it took me until March 6th to get through them. Many were lost because of twitter's bizarre algorithms, and people kept sending them long after I asked for mercy.

Some were fantastic, but many had the same errors.

But in the 134 (yes, that is the third mention of that number, it's tattooed on my pubis) I learnt a great deal about where new writers go wrong. Some of these things I already knew - I run a Sports writing course - but others surprised me and could be of great benefit to aspiring writers out there.

I am not a sports news writer, and few people sent me news pieces. What I got were opinion articles, a few stats blogs and some historical deep dives.

The great news is all my mistakes from when I started out came back when I was reading this work, so not only did I notice these mistakes, I know why many of them have been made. So this piece is a guide for people starting out, it will do very little other than help writers avoid the most obvious mistakes. But that's ok, you will find deranged ways to fuck up that are completely of your creation, and isn't that what writing is really about.


So this was my intro to this piece. See how at the top I started with a slight kapow, and it might grab some attention. Then I told you what this article was about. Before explaining why I had done it. It's not in my best 75 intros of my career, but it does the job. Less than 3% of the pieces I read achieved this.

Many were boring, "When you look at the relationship between these two sporting regions you would have to admit that there is actually something quite special about them". These long sentences are written as you first thought about your piece, and they should die before you publish.

Then there is the opening that tells you the first thing that happened. Stefan Edberg served first, Australia won the toss, and Dikembe Mutombo controlled the tip. If the toss, opening tip or first service game is the most essential part of the story, you start with it. If not, please begin with the cool sporty stuff.

And the worst opening is the one that tries to be clever and is just a muddle of confusing sentences that doesn't tell you anything. I'm all about the moody scene setter, but if we're a paragraph in and I cannot understand I'm confused and not intrigued I won't read on.

This is the thing with intros, you are lucky if the reader gets that far. They're on the train, trying to distract themselves from buying a new pair of sneakers they don't need. They're barely paying any attention to what their thumb is scrolling through. Then your article pops up, and something about the headline, or the person who has shared it, makes them click. But how many seconds do you get from them starting the piece, to them deciding it's the stinkiest pile of shit ever and they could not read another word. No seconds.

From the moment they are there, they are judging you, and if your intro is tedious, confusing or unwieldy, they're gone. You lost them, they're now on some knock off Kardashian insta account laughing at the comments.

Most people write their intro first, and what I learnt after reading 100 poorly written ones is that most people should write their intros last, or at least, rewrite them last. Writing is often about discovery, the words come out of your fingertips differently than they do when they are banging around your head. Your writing takes you other places, ideas flow weirdly, and the takedown piece on Russel Westbrook that you started ends up being a bizarro Westbrook stan piece. And that is ok, but not if your opening is still the same.

And most openings are written to get something on the page, "phew, actual words", and then you write more. So why would that opening ever work? It takes years to learn how to create an intro that fits the rest of your piece in the first draft. Even then professional writers spend a lot of their time on either their opening (time well spent) or their closing (this one's just for you, most people get to your close and then click on the "7 celebrity heads that are shaped like avocados - number four will shock you" link underneath).

But the opening allows you to make your point, argue your case, inform your reader and tell the story. It should grab people, lead them in. So it has to be as clear, smart and tight as anything else you have written, or you're losing readers before you start.

Match reports

The least interesting pieces I read in my experiment were the shopping list articles (not listicles). It's common enough that I have to share it. My belief is something weird happens when people read match reports in newspapers. They think everything written on sport is a match report - where you can only have one match report per paper. And the match report is seldom the most interesting thing written on the game. It's is a narrow article, a piece written on what the major events were in the day's sport. Not all events. Because this is where people go wrong.

A fantastic match report - hell, even a bland normal one - will not tell you every event of the day. It will choose the most important ones to tell the story of the day and then find a way of putting them together to illustrate it. The poor ones, of which I have now read quite a few, will list what happened - in chronological order - taking me through the day step by boring step. Often starting with the very first thing that happened, followed by the second thing, and what do you know, there is the third and fourth, fifth and sixth right on their tale. If you haven't at least started with the most exciting, annoying, frustrating, surprising or revealing moment, why on earth would I read on. A match report is the story of the day, I need not see John McClane wake up, take a piss, clean his teeth, pour cereal in his bowl to understand why he hates people killing his family. That is the way you should think of match reports.

But why are you writing match reports? Sports writing in newspapers is obviously limited, and rarely covers the game in great depth, but they are good at match reports. So unless you are writing for a newspaper or a sports site and they have asked you to write a match report, you never need to write them. I didn't write my first one until two years into my career. There's no reason to write a straight match report on a blog. You can do anything, why do the one thing that clashes with what newspapers are writing. The entire idea of writing for a fan sports site or your own blog is the freedom that brings. You can do anything, why write what they have forced some poor old bastard to write to pay their mortgage.

And a lot to this comes down to the fact people think all sports writing is a match report. No, a match report is the only piece that day needing to give you a good idea of the entire's day play. There are colour pieces on the experience of being there, opinion pieces, tactical looks, technical issues, statistical analysis and a mix of so many other kinds of sports writing.

A match report is part of it, but even then, if you're writing it, you're telling a story. So leave your shopping list on your notebook, on your page write a story.

Plan and rewrite

Plan or rewrite, those are the two things I kept thinking about as I read people's work. Not that the basic ideas were terrible, or some of the information, but the pieces were a mess.

The same pattern kept emerging. A vaguely interesting title, a general idea with some merit, and then the piece would wander off somewhere. Occasionally that worked. Usually, it was rambly, unkempt and didn't go to a place more fascinating than the original thought.

Now there are two ways to go here. If you believe in what you are doing, plan your piece. It doesn't have to be the depths a professional feature writer would do. But even simple planning can help.

Let's say you were writing about LeBron James complete game, you'd do something like this.

LeBron James the complete basketballer
LeBron's size
LeBron's ball handling
LeBron's court awareness
LeBron's playmaking
LeBron's defense
LeBron's defensive flexibility
LeBron's brain

LeBron as a prototype and finished product

Now, there's not a lot of work in that, I just worked through quickly the kinds of things I'd like to write about. I would hope in writing I could make this article more interesting. But this allows me to go from topic to topic, not miss anything I deem essential, and if I sway off course, it will be a decision I make to help the piece, not because I'm not sure what to write next.

If it is hard at the start, try answering these questions.

What am I trying to say
What do I need to say along the way
What am I setting up with the intro
How to I show at the end what this means

Personally, I don't think this is that hard, but. I know a lot of newer writers feel uncomfortable about planning. Because they don't see it as a part of real writing, or because it intimidates them. So there is another way, rewrite.

You had an idea, then you wrote, and that idea morphed, twisted, because something else, and it's not the same piece now. Some bits need not be there anymore, the start makes little sense.

Every time I bring this up with amateur writers they tell me how little time they have, how they've banged out this piece in their lunch breaks, that they can't spend extra time on this. But what is the point of the quickfire read that doesn't flow, isn't captivating or loses people's interest. If this is to be a career, or even if you just want people to read your work, put in extra effort. My writing took a huge jump when I embraced the rewrite. When I started going over my work outside of the original screen, I wrote it in and when I read it out loud to myself.

Years ago I had an ex-girlfriend in a frenemy type relationship who said, "You always get excited when you finish the first draft, but that's like the start of it, not the end. Do you think Hollywood writers finish the first draft and they're done?"

It took a few years for it to sink in with me, but she was right. The work is not done until the piece is as good as you can get. A first draft is a doodle that can take you anywhere. Once you know where you're going, that's when the rest of the work starts.


That was a subheading. It's not the headline of your piece; it's just a random word or phrase in the middle of your flow.

The buzzfeedication of writing has been pretty full-on. And in some ways, it's showed there are more ways to interest people than simple prose. I love innovation, and I think we should always try to improve what we do. This is communication; finding exciting ways to communicate is just part of what we do as writers.

Insert subheading here

But people have got to stop putting subheadings in every damn piece. It doesn't make articles easier to read if there is no reason for them to be there. They are for listicle pieces (top 23 reasons the number 23 is a number). If you are writing a listicle, they are fine. In fact, any kind of list or piece that needs segments, like a how-to guide.

If you're writing prose, say a mini-biography on someone that is 1200 words long, And it flows as one piece from topic to topic. Then adding random words in bold in the middle is not just unnecessary; it's distracting.

And most of these pieces then become this weird prose listicle hybrid. If you want to write an article on the five greatest White Stripes song titles, that's a piece perfect for subheadings. If you will write on how "The White Stripes manage to rock harder than bands with more members", then why do you need to make it anything like a list?

Segmented pieces

That's not to say segmented pieces are bad. I write them a lot, but I know why I'm doing it. Usually, it's because I'm dramatically moving place, tense or time, or I have a standalone story that needs a break before beginning and ending. They need not be subheaded though.

And let me explain the difference. When I write my standalone sections, I write them up in a mini-story arc and then bring them down. If I write them correctly, the reader will naturally want to read on.

So if they are not written that way, and someone has just plonked a subheading where there is a natural flow change of topic, it burns. It gives the reader a chance to pause and then leave. You haven't built it organically; you haven't prepared for it as a writer. Some editor who did an online course in grabbing people's attention has inserted a sub in to keep the reader awake and really given them a reason to leave.

Björn Borg is a robot

Subheadings in standard pieces do the opposite of what you want writing to do, they say, 'Hey there reader, this next bit will be how Björn Borg is a robot'.

And then you write about how Björn is a robot. It's like starting with a punchline.

Subheadings as pencil marks

When it wasn't done because you or your editor thinks that's how articles should be written these days, it's often done through laziness.

Often it happens because when you are actually writing, as it's easier to write if you have segments or subheadings there. I think that's great. I do it all the time. My mind isn't linear, so I find writing from beginning to end hard. Also, I like to write each section separately so while I am writing that section, I'm focused on that alone.

But then at the end, I look at the piece, and I take out all the subheadings unless it's a list. I then look for connections between ideas. And I try to see how the whole thing comes together. If I keep in sections, it's because it makes the piece more natural to read or it just flows better that way.

By using subheaders just because they're easier to write with you're leaving the pencil marks in after you've inked your illustration.

In a perfect writing world, you'd start with the idea, then think about the best ways to get the story across. Then you'd write and edit the piece before re-reading it one last time to check what you've done is the best way to get it across.

Too often people wing it or go with what they think is popular right now.

The rule

Are subheadings making my piece better for the reader?

I mean that is the question you should be asking about every word, sentence, thought, thread and anything else you do. The idea of why is this here, what does it mean, will it help people, is so simple, and yet quite often we never think about it.

Sure, this is about subheadings, and how they blow chunks of soiled yak meat, but every time you do something, you should be wondering why. Subheadings are just on-trend, there will be something else people will be doing in a few months. Still, if you never stop and ask why you do any of this, everything will remain just a copy of whoever is the new BuzzFeed.

Exclamation Mark

"Never ever, not once, not as a joke, never, not even to see what it would look like in a draft finish an article with an exclamation mark."

I'm shocked at how many people spend all this time writing, researching and editing. Then they get to the need and end it with their big finale that's supposed to knock people down, sum it up, and they do it like girls in the 90s used to text!

Do you see, I had you, and then that exclamation made you gag a little. If you need to use an exclamation mark - and I'd argue you don't - then for the love of Johnny Cash never do it for the last line. The last line is for writing, not for exclamation.

In professional writing finishing with the ! would be bizarre. You see it sometimes from celebrity columnists because they are not pro writers. But I was staggered at the number of times I saw it, it had never occurred to me to finish that way unless it was part of a joke.

Now you can argue the relative merit of exclamation marks in writing. I think they have almost no real value in writing outside of dialogue or when using the word OMGPONIES!!!!!11!!!!. But you can't argue that if you need to finish your article with an exclamation mark, then you've probably not written your last line very well.

It's a cheat for lousy writing. If your sentence can't wind the reader, throwing punctuation's dimwitted nephew into the sentence won't save it. It's admitting you got it wrong.

Finish with your best work, not your worst mark.

PS Imagine I had instead written 'Finish with your best work, not your worst mark!' How is that better, how has it improved the writing, or feeling of that line? The line is either good, or bad, the ! is pointless. Bin it! Bin it.

Why are you writing this

So many of the notes I gave the amateur writers included one phrase, "why are you writing this?"

It's a question for quality writing that reads well or terrible writing that's a collection of letters more than words. So many of the pieces lacked one key ingredient, they felt like articles I had read in other places, or the thing a kind of annoying fan might think of. But there's no reason for them to exist. A piece on Roger Federer does not deserve to exist, unless you feel something within you that needs to be said. And it can't be, I want to write about Roger Federer because I like him. Because by the time Federer becomes Federer, those pieces have been written.

So before each article, ask "why am I writing this?" Is Federer the epitome of perfection in sport. Is there a moral lesson in his tennis. Does he change the way you look at the world? What does his existence mean to you, what does his backhand mean to you, what did that one time he played mean to you.

And that does not mean you then write a piece like "What Roger Federer means to me". It means you use what it is you find exhilarating, interesting or captivating. Focus on the thing that made you pause BoJack Horseman and write about Roger Federer. Because that's good sports writing, telling me how great Roger Federer is leads to average - at best - sports writing. But taking it to another level, finding a connection, a point of difference, something that makes you laugh, cry or think. If it moves you, it may move others.

As you become a professional you kind of have to make or at least manufacture that in some things you write. But not as an amateur, the freedom you have now is pure, you can only write about things you give a shit about. As a professional that will seldom happen, but you can, so every time you hit the keyboard, it should be with passion and vision. There should be a reason, a driving force behind why you are banging away.

And if there is, other smaller mistakes will not be as crucial because you'll be able to drag the reader through with you, because there is a reason for this piece to exist.

From memory of the 134 pieces, there were about five or six I enjoyed. One was an incredible psychological introspective look at something that happened in sport. But the others were history or stats based. What I appreciated with these works was the depth in them. It got to a point where I could read a piece and tell the writer hadn't even done a google search, had done one, but looked at the first page, or had searched two or three things before the article was written.

Those who really looked into a topic, even if their writing wasn't beautiful, or they made other errors along the way, I felt like I was really going somewhere, and it was worth the bumps. More than ever sports fans are educated, they know things, so if you do limited research, they will pick it up. The Athletic's entire model is around experts who follow closer than super fans.

If you are looking to make a mark with people, then give them as much interesting information as possible. You probably won't be able to break news, interview top athletes or travel to matches, but research is something you can do.

Complicated language and cool sentences

"Penchant for inculcating"

It is possible you are a genius with words, and that you will invent a new way of writing. And I hope you do, cause that sounds like a shitload of fun. But it's also possible you're writing confusing sentences that don't convey the true meaning of what you're saying. It may be to show how stylish, or smart, captivating or grown-up you are, but to most of us, it's just hard to understand.

There's an incredible skill in writing using alien language so that people understand. Unless you have spent years crafting an amazing new prose style - testing it on people from different backgrounds - chances are it's pretty unreadable to people who aren't you.

But more likely you aren't trying to write in some new style, but roughly copied from one you admire. Your homage to David Foster Wallace. For the longest time, I wrote in the style of a friend whose writing I adored. But I wasn't as good as him, because he was the original and there was a reason he was writing like that. It was within him, all I was doing was copying parts of his prose and attaching it to my writing.

And he wasn't a great writer because of his style, it was how he looked at the world and what he focused on that made the most sense. His style just added to the effect.

So while looking for some fancy way to write might seem the best option, unless it comes naturally to you, and reads well, it's not working.

You see this most in big words. Too often it felt like someone who swallowed a thesaurus but could not digest it. Big words do not make you smart, high school kids use them to get extra marks, real people use the right word, if you mean horny, say horny, if you mean amorous, say amorous.

And all this goes for cool looking sentences, I judge my work by the lack of cool sentences. If I am putting a bunch of these in its because the piece is a bit garbage.

So with the very language you write it, stop trying to impress people. People hate people who are trying to impress, and you live and die from your ideas, research, the way you look at a story, how you build it, and what are you saying. The actual words are a part of it, but if they don't convey the other parts, what's the point. It's not writing, just a code only you can understand.

Temper your penchant for inculcating and stick to what matters.

The big idea

Once upon a time I was obsessed by the big idea. As a film writer, I was trying to work out the most original and smart captivating plot of my movie. I spent almost all my time working on great weird twists. Limited time actually writing, building a world, working out the real relationship of the characters, looking for conflict or anything that would improve the script. All that mattered was that original idea.

But the more I am an actual writer, the more I understand that while the idea is important, the actual writing is as essential. The flushing out of characters, the attention to detail, picking the key moments to dwell on, how you look at each section, what order you put it in, what to omit, all of it.

Saying you want to write a piece about how Mitchell Starc could kill a Sabre-Tooth tiger is a great way to grab my attention, but now the article has to be as good. You have to build the world, make the right joke and justify the piece with insight.

Too often with new writers, I saw these exciting ideas in the headline or intro strangled by lack of cogent thought or pointless asides later on. If you really believe in your idea, then honour it with the work. Write it out, make the entire piece as good as the original idea. You can put snakes on a plane, but you need more than to make it work.

Pop culture references

Dropping pop culture references is seen as cool, or at least was back in 2005. There are a few in this piece. John McClane came in to teach us about what is necessary when telling a story, BoJack Horseman appeared when I wanted to show how people consume media, and the White Stripes were there to explain about subheadings. I have used pop culture references my entire life, probably too much.

But bringing in things outside sport to explain sport is crucial and important. Still, if you're dropping a pop culture reference into every piece, it's because you can't think of better examples or you want to look hipper, or more ironic, or ironically hip.

And it is not just pop culture references, because you've read Medea does not mean I need to know. I don't care what you read, or how smart you are, I have clicked on to learn something, be moved, or taken on a journey, you stopping now and then to quote lines from The Bicycle Thief does not help that.

The main reason I don't trust pop culture references is that they fit into the complicated language and big words trap, of trying to impress people. Sometimes you have to use analogies from pop culture to explain things. But there aren't many times you need to mention the bathroom song from American Astronaut.

You can write an incredibly interesting piece on how Draymond Green is tougher, smarter and angrier than the Hulk. But calling him the Hulk in your article is dull. And comparing him to Kingpin or someone more obscure is overreaching. If you want to write an article about how Marvel has affected how we see sports stars, or how sport stars are the new superheroes, then pop culture references are essential, but mostly they are a crutch for poor writing.

For each reference it's worth asking are you putting it there, if you're going to reference the Dark Knight (fuck my eyeballs out there was a lot of Dark Knight in these pieces), is there no better way to tell this story, is Dark Knight the only way to shine a light on your topic. If you are saying Roger Federer is Superman, are you saying he was an alien orphan in need of serious solitude, or just really good. Because if he's near perfect, maybe there's a better way of saying it than relying on a comic book from the 1930s.


I am not an expert on the plasticity of the human brain. Still, if we have muscle memory in our mind on how to do something, then there is an especially shit part of the brain that just remembers clichés. My five-year-old son said, "they grow up so fast".

No one wins the war on clichés, if you put a gun to my head, I could not count the number of times I have tried to avoid clichés like the plague. But it does beg the question if we know them so well, why can't we spot them when we write them, I mean each one is the spitting image of another one. Yet, when it rains, it pours, the way we use clichés you'd assume they are selling like hotcakes.

Sorry about that. But every writer uses clichés, often the world's, sometimes their own, and it is a hard thing to overcome. Especially in sports writing where so much is done against a deadline. Oh, and sports is so full of clichés, it's hard to breathe at times.

But I noticed a spike in reading clichés from newer writers. No one thinks clichés are ok, but most of us at least try keep them at bay. To editors, they often stick out like a sore thumb, so if you want to progress in your career (or just improve your writing), it's vital to slay this dragon. All I ask is you fight them, one cliché at a time.


A wonderful writer once told me once you've won them over with a good example, you don't need to launch into two or three more along the same line.

I still struggle with this, but new writers drown in it, in so many articles I saw it was just line after line of the same information, passed to me differently, or a different parable, analogy or example that said the same as the last. And I get it, you want to smash your point across. But if you've ever read something like a religious text, or a creed from a conservative website, you'll be familiar with hearing the same ideas repeatedly.

And it's a tough business, working out if you've adequately explained something so the audience will be on your side, or if you're just telling them 17 different ways that Usain Bolt is charming. The hard bit is learning bits of information you have to say and what's too much.

It falls under the advice that says, "when you know, you know". It's one of those things you learn, and then one of those things you break again when you get a cool story, and you want to put all the facts out there.

With almost all these things, it's about questioning what you have written. And while it gets easier, it never stops. It doesn't stop for Wright Thompson, Darcie Wilder or Sturgill Simpson, any writer, in any genre, fights with this. And sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, but you learn, and hopefully you get better.

The one thing I learnt from reading all this work is that the people doing the writing need to spend more time reading it. Not proofreading it for errors but actually reading it. (Though obviously, subediting is important This entire article would be improved if I'd had a sub-editor and not just me). That goes for tone, language, cliches, references and examples. If you are reading what you write (out loud I find is best - sometimes I use Robo readers because I hate the sound of my own voice), you will spot these errors. Learning how to read your own work will help you get better as a writer. And in a world with fewer subs and editors than ever before, it can be the difference between you and another aspiring writer.

And breathe

"You just need to take a breath".

Many of the articles I read were banged out on a commute home, a stolen lunch break or the writer had this urgency to get the thing done. So what I saw wasn't 134 pieces, but about 115 first drafts.

And it's not doing me a disservice, it was nice to go back through all my mistakes - old and new. But I felt people were letting their passion down, not honouring their original thoughts and ultimately throwing their time away.

There is no one reason people want to get into sports writing. Some want to hang out with athletes, think the lifestyle is cool, have a burning passion for sport, love writing or journalism, or believe they have something to add to the conversation. But you are spending your time, putting in a piece of yourself, it doesn't matter to me if you want a career in this, or want to create something nice, you owe it to yourself to take a few seconds and breath.

And those few moments, to look at the intro, plan and rewrite, justify why you've done things, remember your core idea, do a little more research, write well, communicate clearly and breath. Maybe you only look at one of these common mistakes each piece, but take some time, think about what you're creating.

Imagine your favourite athlete, not now, but when they were young. Think of their solitary work on the court, running laps when their friends are eating hamburgers, being told they aren't good enough, are too short, don't have the skills, or whatever it is. And yet they kept working on their game. Honour them - and yourself - and put in that level of effort.

If you did work like that you'd improve. And that's why all these people sent me their pieces, why you're reading it, and why I write things like this, to improve. So no matter what you do next, try to think, breath and write.