Sportswriting, anyone? 8 Tips from National Sports Editors

Kristine Meldrum Denholm

As a decades-long suffering Cleveland fan (read: no championships in my lifetime — yet), I’m loyal to my teams.  There’s something to be said about rooting for the underdog, anyways. The same could be said about writing: though it causes sharp, stabbing pains sometimes, you can’t NOT write. Writing — like cheering for your beloved hometown or alma mater — is in our blood. Here’s what I’ve learned from my sports and my writing addictions:  Stay the course. Because won’t it mean more when you — er, I mean they — finally win?  That you worked your way through the lean years?

At the ASJA conference, I enjoyed moderating the panel “So You Want to be a Sportswriter?”  In this era of 24/7 TV channels, sports websites, magazines and newspapers, columns and tweets from sportscasters, analysts, coaches and players, mobile apps, not to mention fan blogs, where do independent journalists fit in? National editors from,, USA Today, and an expert author shared their advice.  Special thanks to Josh Barnett, Ted Keith, Emma Span and ASJA’s own John Rosengren for their time and expertise!

If you’re considering this niche, here are a few tips they shared:

Don’t overlook the need for content in sports. Editors are constantly evaluating their audiences. They’re not just producing the big magazines and sites—they’re producing draft guides, mobile apps, custom publications with advertiser tie-ins for certain audiences. Content needs are evolving.

Remember the online markets. They need content. That idea you have for a feature in a print magazine? Like other magazines, there’s no space. Consider the web where there’s more room.

Find interesting, unique stories that are not what you expect.  If the idea has enough value, and you’ve put a lot of research into it, it will get picked up by the right editor.

Remember your characters. What is at stake for the player or team? When writing about sports, it’s not who wins or loses, as much as what is won or lost. Go beyond the fans’ interests and touch people.

Consider the Twitterverse. Like it or not, each story needs legs—it has to speak for itself. It should have something that will make others link and share it.

So what if you want to interview Derek Jeter? So does, well, everyone. Don’t pitch “Hi there! I’m an energetic 23-year-old who wants to write about the Bulls! I remember Michael Jordan when I was a kid! May I?”  Find a fresh story. Present a unique idea. Do you have access? Is there a news peg? Also consider timing; remember the magazine editors are working months (and seasons) in advance.

Writing is only as good as your reporting. All editors agreed that an over-reported story is better than an under-reported one. They’d rather cut than ask you for more.

You don’t need to be a sports trivia buff.  “It’s not rocket science,” admitted a panelist who encourages new writers to the market.  Just find a good angle, do solid reporting and research, figure out what your editor wants done and do it, make your deadline and run it into the end zone for the win.