Charts and style

Though the inclusion of charts in writing isn’t something that tons of people plan on doing, it’s essential for people who do data driven journalism, and articles that focus on statistics or numbers.

Though charts are generally amazing and should be used more often than they are, there is such a thing as a poorly designed chart. That’s why we have the Darkhorse Analytics Blog helping to show us why data always looks better naked.

I highly recommend clicking that link, because they have an awesome graphic on the page that breaks down the best way to strip down a chart, and make it look better to the eye.

Adding a chart to a post can make your writing style much more informative, and even more creative. The better the information is presented, the better, and charts and graphs do a tremendous job of presenting numbers to readers.

Charts are friends. Just like you won’t let your friend go out looking terrible, don’t let your charts look bad either.

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The longform sports article and style

Many sports reporters have to keep their work short and simple, particularly when it comes to recapping games, or reporting on news, a new type of genre has emerged in the sports world, mainly due to the rise of online blogs and websites that can host the 2000+ word articles.

Though the longform articles are not only a new genre, they also have led to a new style of writing, one that has to be so interesting and intriguing that it keeps the reader entertained for a long period of time.

Most sports writing is designed to be direct and to the point, as readers just simply want to get the information they desire and move on. The newer longform pieces, however, don’t do this. Instead, they draw readers in by setting up a dramatic story, and then string them along by adding context, before finally concluding the piece.

The change is interesting and important, because it shows that writers can’t get stuck in a place where they can’t branch out with their writing due to their style. If they want to succeed, they have to find voices that work for multiple types of writing, and then find ways to excel at both.

(Here’s some good longform pieces if anyone is interested.)

Literally copying other writers

Though we are looking at aspects of a writer’s style that may be worth emulating, sometimes we have to just literally copy other writers in order to get a better understanding of the different ways to arrange words on a page.

The Write Practice gives us an interesting perspective on this, by suggesting that going out and copying, word for word, a page or two of our favorite writer will help us to write better and further develop our own personal styles.

If you imitate long enough, eventually, you’ll find your own voice. It will be some crazy combination of everyone you’ve imitated plus something that is wholly you.

So go out there and steal something. If you do it enough, the world will be better for it.

Though I don’t think many of us will go out and actually copy pages of other writers, it’s still some food for thought that may help give some of us better writing styles.

Emulating the avoidance of bad habits

Though many of the current posts on this blog focus on practices to emulate, and stuff that might be worth copying when it comes to writer’s style, what is there out there that we should avoid, and stay away from if we really want our writing to have a distinct style?

Jonathan Morrow, associate editor of Copy Blogger, gives us seven bad writing habits that we learned in school, which range anywhere from writing long paragraphs to using sources for every bit of information.

His seventh reason is perhaps the most influential, as it states:

7. Listening to “authorities” more than yourself

Who am I to criticize the writing habits you learned in school?

Well . . . nobody.

Yes, I’m a professional writer. Yes, I have a literature degree. Yes, other writers have paid me up to $200 an hour to edit their work, and they’ve been amazed when all I did was correct the above mistakes.

But that doesn’t mean I’m right. In fact, that’s probably the most important lesson you can learn about writing:

No one but you is an authority on your writing.

Not me. Not your English teachers. Not Strunk and White and their highfalutin Elements of Style.

The longer you write, the more you’ll realize that other writers can’t tell you what to do. You should listen to more experienced writers, sure, but never more than you listen to yourself.

Great writers don’t learn how to write by sitting in writing courses, reading writing blogs, or browsing Barnes & Noble for yet more books on writing.

They learn how to write by coming to a blank page, writing something down, and then asking themselves if it works.

If it does, they keep it. If it doesn’t, they don’t. Then they repeat the process until they finish something they feel is worth publishing.

So, yes. Emulating certain practices can be beneficial.

But doing your own thing can be, too.

Getting your work right

Rob Vollman gives us a good outline of his analysis process when he describes how baseball is ahead of hockey in his interview with NBC Chicago. 

• Establish what works and what doesn’t (and to what extent),
• Figure out how best to express these concepts and/or tie them to traditional analysis, and to
• Build a proven track record of success.

I think the most important aspect of this is to build a proven track record of success. For someone who does either reporting or a predictive type of analysis, establishing credibility as someone who is right the majority of the time, if not all the time, is key.

As for individual articles, finding out how to best express concepts and tie them into traditional work is important. If your work is going to be successful, it is most likely going to be unique. Finding a way to reconcile the new work with the old work is key, especially when working in a field that already has a bit of history, such as sports journalism. At the same time, making sure your ideas are being expressed is equally important.

Working with an editor vs. working without an editor

In my limited experience as a writer, I’ve written for five different websites. For two of them, I had an editor who would review my work and decide when it was a good time to publish it. For the rest, I had to proofread my own work, and send it to someone who would simply publish it on the website without checking it over first.

The two publishing experiences are very different, as having an editor makes you lazy sometimes; you leave sentences that don’t make sense in the article, and you sometimes don’t correct grammatical mistakes because you know that someone else will catch them. Writing without an editor forces you to proofread your own work, and make sure that it’s at the highest quality possible before sending it off to be published.

I recommend getting used to working without an editor, and forcing yourself to produce high quality work that is, for the most part, error free. This way, working with an editor can become a luxury that catches the few mistakes you do make, and makes your life just a little bit easier.

How much can one event inspire someone?

Sports are a great breeding ground for inspirational stories, with underdogs, comebacks, and unbelievable feats of athleticism starting the snowball effect that makes players into heroes, and heroes into legends.

Jason Reid, a sports writer for the Washington Post, found himself so inspired by Isiah Thomas’ play during Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals that it convinced him that he wanted to write about sports for the rest of his life. 

Obviously there are always going to be inspirations for individual stories, especially in the sports world. Players and teams win games, go on streaks, and create ideas with their play. But for one player, in one game, to send someone down a career path, is truly phenomenal.

Though this particular case only applies to sports, it would be interesting to hear from other writers how they decided they wanted to write in their specific field of interest. Most have always liked to write, but why write novels/personal essays/short stories, instead of about travel/sports/fashion? The inspiration for someone to decide upon a career path seems just as interesting, if not more interesting, than the inspiration for a single article.

Keeping the passion is important

Throughout many of the writer’s advice articles that I (and the rest of the class, I’m guessing) have come across, a common theme that has surfaced is making sure that whatever type of writing you’re doing is something that you have an intense passion for.

Though people can have this passion for a topic, or a type of writing, there will always be moments when that passion wavers, and the writer is challenged to find a way to renew it.

Clare Austin, of Raw Charge, a hockey based website, gives us a way to do so by outlining how she found her passion for hockey again after finding that she wasn’t enjoying the games anymore.

Austin simply reset her mind, and got back to doing what she enjoyed, instead of what might gain the website page views. Constantly watching the games and looking for some tidbit of information to share, or for a tiny bit of analysis to write about had worn her out, as had constantly talking about the game in terms of statistics and numbers. So, during the playoffs, she stopped doing that, and simply went back to watching the games for the joy of it.

Though it isn’t mentioned in the article, Austin does find use her rediscovered passion, and continues to write about hockey to this day. The article was posted in 2013, and in the two years since, she has started her own blog and consistently provides the hockey world quality analysis, especially in terms of goaltenders.

How might other writers rediscover their passions after finding themselves bored, or disinterested?

Vollman on writing with Hockey Prospectus

As one of the co-founders of the website Hockey Prospectus, Rob Vollman would know what it’s like to write for them. Though he now writes for ESPN, Vollman posted an article on HP to help recruit new talent to the site before he left. In it, he detailed some of the positive publishing experiences he had with the site.

Writing for Hockey Prospectus means being bookmarked by everyone in the hockey analytics community. People know what they’re getting when they come here, which is why it also attracts those outside our community who want to stay up to speed on so-called fancy stats without having to visit dozens of blogs and/or having to search through pages of more standard coverage.

Having your work featured here will lead to many more opportunities, too. For example, I made my radio debut in the summer of 2011 with Nashville 104.5 the Zone (now known as 102.5 the Game). Host Willy Daunic, now the Preds’ play-by-play man, enjoyed something I wrote, and wanted to share it with his listeners. Since then I’ve appeared as a radio or podcast guest in most NHL cities, and it’s definitely among my favorite stat-related activities.

Writing for Hockey Prospectus gets you instant access to a network of valuable contacts, including HP alumni who currently work in front offices or mainstream media, prominent analysts writing for virtually every media outlet that covers hockey, and the current staff of writers – including the next generation of big names in analytics, like Arik Parnass, Ryan Stimson, Sam Hitchcock, and Micah Blake McCurdy.

There are a lot of great websites from which to choose, but none of them offer the same package in terms of reputation, credibility, exposure, radio, podcasts, mainstream promotion (ESPN), an annual hockey year book, and access to a huge network of established names.

Writing exclusively online is much different than writing in print, but clearly the publishing experience outlined above is a pleasant one. As Vollman states, there are tons of websites to choose from, and it’s important for writers to ensure that they themselves pick good websites to write for. Though the sites have to try and recruit good writers, it’s a two way connection; if a good writer can get his work featured on the right website, he should pursue that opportunity, even if it means not having the site recruit him.

Vollman: Tips on becoming a successful writer

Rob Vollman, co-author of  seven books and co-founder of the website Hockey Prospectus, has been writing about statistics and analytics for a while. In a post on Hockey Prospectus, he gives some advice to young writers who may want to follow in his footsteps.

Trust your early voice, because you ultimately wind up going back to it later.

Identify your passion, find your voice, and pursue that with your entire focus. And remember that the only way negative people can be right about you is if you quit.

Don’t rely on a website, radio station, or publication to provide the audience for you, cultivate it yourself. Reply to emails, respond to tweets, and get engaged in the comments sections. This is invaluable information to discover who your audience is, and how to hit their mark.

Write every day, and the ideas will surface. There is absolutely no substitute for hard work, and you’ll need a genuine passion for the field to stick with it.

So, overall, it seems like the best bet is to find your own voice, stick to it, and branch out to multiple publications in order to find an audience. Obviously tons of work is going to be involved, as he mentions, so the passion will be needed in order to help find the fortitude to push through that much work.

Any thoughts on his advice?