I wrote my first article for WorldMag.com in January of 2012. I had been blogging for about six months at that time, and they took a flyer on me. It worked out pretty well. Every week since then with only three or four exceptions they have published a 500-word sports commentary piece of mine. Last week I turned in my final article for World. I am grateful for the chance to write for them and for the opportunities it afforded. But I am especially thankful for the writing lessons I learned over four years and two hundred and twenty articles.
Every week I had a deadline. Every week I needed to write something that was better than terrible by the end of Wednesday. The consistency and constancy could be oppressive, but they were precisely what a procrastinator like myself needed. It provided the structure I needed to be productive. I learned that I always need deadlines to complete projects so if one is not assigned to me I must assign it to myself.
Some weeks not much happens in sports. Or something happened that is a thing I wrote about just a few weeks earlier. Sometimes there isn’t a new controversy or mega-event. I was a commentator, not a reporter, so I had to find a message and a perspective – not just tell stuff that happened. I had to learn to keep my eyes and ears open, to listen to broadcasters and commentators keenly, to read columnists with a curious eye, and to examine even the mundane from as many perspectives as I could think of. Over time I learned to see and hear connections between seemingly disparate or mundane events and meaningful ideas.
Five hundred words – that was my word count. Make a point to help people think or live differently. That was my aim. So every week I had to structure a story with enough details for the uninformed and enough thought to make it meaningful into a five hundred word bucket. More often than not I had to go back and cut what seemed like pertinent details or ideas in order to tighten the piece. Sometimes I resented the word count; I wanted to rant or explicate or explore ideas. In the end I came to appreciate it. Five hundred words – how to ebb and flow an idea, how it looked on a page – became almost instinctive. As a young writer having that limit was a boon for me.
World reaches a relatively defined demographic. I am not in that demographic, though I am familiar with it, so I learned how to write in such a way as to connect with the audience (I think. I hope?) but also stretch them. My inclination as a writer is to pay little attention to audience and simply write the idea, the story, the concept. So to have a proto-reader in mind challenged and improved me.
Some weeks I would sit down on a Wednesday evening, my allotted writing time, and have no ideas, no outline, no story, and no energy. Those were panic moments, at least for a couple years. What would I write? How would I finish? Would it be terrible? Inevitably, though, I would find an idea and grind it out. Over time the panic instances diminished. Then the worry diminished. I realized I had found a process I could trust. No matter how empty my brain or my page, I knew I could find five hundred words worth writing on sports and faith. Week in and week out I followed the same steps, developed and worked the same mental muscles, and practiced the same skills. The process worked.
Nobody gets a hit in every at bat. The trick, as a writer, is to recognize your swings and misses and your foul balls. It took me a long time to start getting the hang of this, to realize that some pieces weren’t my best work. I used to get offended and defensive when my editor would send a piece back with questions or suggestions. (I still do too often.) But I began to recognize, even predict, when this would happen. I began to respond a little better with a little more humility. This is a big step for a writer – a big step toward getting better.