Back to School
Today, I’m going back — virtually, at least — to the western Massachusetts school from which I graduated. I was asked by a former professor to speak to his class about profile writing in sports journalism. The class recently read one of my profiles that I did for Vice Sports a short while back.
I don’t feel qualified for such instruction.
That’s not a modesty thing, to be honest. When I was in college, we had a Boston sportswriter come to chat with us and this was a guy who’d won Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year. He had credentials out the wazoo. He had a Hall of Fame vote. It was incredible to hear him speak about the profession because he had an amazing repertoire of stories and insight to share.
It’s possible that one day I’ll have the sort of acclaim that this person had, and the acclaim that the two Sports Illustrated writers had when they came to speak to the group. But right now I’m just a guy who struggles to write every day, a guy who puts forth his best effort to tell some great stories and tries to do so with empathy and compassion and objectivity.
My advice is simple for writing profiles: Make the person stand out on the page in one of two ways: (1) Make an ordinary person — a teacher, an IT guy at an office building — become extraordinary through their actions and words and through the words of others; (2) Make a person we deem extraordinary — an athlete, a politician — become ordinary by showing the quirks of his personality or habits, make that person accessible.
That’s always my goal and it’s not always easy.
Writing is learned task, I believe. We can become better writers. We can become better teachers or doctors or accountants, too. Writing seems to be a profession in which the skills needed are skills that people believe come inherently. They don’t. Well, they don’t anymore than a person’s proclivity for numbers or science or singing. Those people, too, believe it or not, practice and work at what they do.
I don’t know if I’m going to be able to offer a class more tangible advice than this: Here is how I do it. This is what I think makes a great profile.
In the end, people end up going their own direction to accomplish a goal, including writing about someone. And just as someone doing open heart surgery on a patient has to do so with a learned skill set, you have to care. You can have all the physical skills to complete a task, but you also have to care. It’s what makes any task successful.
I’m bummed that I’m not heading out to campus to meet the group. FaceTime will have to work to do this today. It’s a different world than when I was in school: Back then we did our guest speakers in person and they had unmatched credentials; Now, we do it on computers, and the speakers don’t really know shit.