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Memories of a sports writer

The subjective nature of writing used to be maddening for me.

It was my goal – my focused, intense goal – to be a good writer. Whatever “good” means when it comes to writing, because it’s so often in the eyes of the reader.

I grew up appreciating, though, what I deemed to be good writing. I enjoyed reading The Wichita Eagle as a kid and was drawn to the writing of people like Max Seibel, John Swagerty, Bill Hodge and others. Were they good writers? I sure think they were, especially in their primes.

Later, I enjoyed the writing of many of the people I worked with in the sports department at The Eagle, such as Dan Lauck, who had a brief period as our columnist way back in the 1970s. I would start listing some of the names of the writers I admired over the years at the newspaper, but I would surely miss someone and then have some serious explaining to do.

So much of what a newspaper does is about reporting. And bulldog reporters are worth their weight in gold, even if they’re only so-so writers. Getting the story is much more than half the battle.

But even after four decades in this business, I’m drawn most to those who can turn a phrase and pull me into a story with the ability to write.

Those who can both report and write are the best in the business, in my opinion. A guy like Rick Plumlee, who for more than 30 years covered KU sports for us and more recently has been a jack of all trades on our news side, is a tremendous reporter and writer.

Kirk Seminoff, currently The Eagle’s sports editor, moved up the ladder from being a part-time correspondent because of his ability to report a story and write it with equal aplomb. (It never hurts to suck up to the sports editor. And using the word “aplomb” when describing him is sure to get me a raise.)

I have admired many others of my colleagues and contemporaries over the years, of course. And I have learned different things from most of the people I have worked with.

What makes for a good sports writer?

That’s the million-dollar question.

The ability to make a story rich is one thing I look for. I admire those who can turn what could be a mundane story into something more. It almost always takes some extra time to find that element that will make an OK story something better, but it’s important to do so.

Words, of course, are important. But not too many. Getting bogged down by words will turn a reader off and this is one of the great battles most writers face. I still occasionally want to use too many words when fewer would tell the story better.

I can’t really pinpoint where I learned to write. I know that I gained a lot of confidence in my writing during my junior year of high school, when I was far from an ardent student. One of my composition teachers, I believe it was Mrs. Thomas, gave us an assignment to pick a subject and to write a 20-page paper.

I chose, of course, Chinese art. I had a bit of an attitude problem in high school, and I was going to show the teacher that I was capable of writing about a subject that I previously knew nothing about. It was one of my many silly decisions in those years, but I was determined to pull it off. And determination, at times, was in short supply for me.

So I read everything I could find about Chinese art. It was an age before the Internet, so I actually had to scramble to find stuff. I was pretty sure that I had made a huge mistake by picking this subject matter, but the fact that I had something to prove pushed me.

I wrote the paper. And I got an ‘A.’ Little did I know then that researching the subject matter, and then writing a paper, was the best training possible for what I was going to do with my career. It tested me as a reporter and as a writer.

I think I got a ‘C’ in the class, but that’s not important. Or at least that’s probably what I told my parents at the time. What was important, and what sticks with me to this day, was that I wrote a 20-page research paper on Chinese art, the most obscure subject in the world to me at the time.

I’ve been in many uncomfortable spots as a reporter and columnist since then. But I’ve always been able to draw on that one high school experience to help me through.

I don’t know if I’m a good writer or not. And that’s the truth. Writers are the most insecure people in the world because we’re putting it out there on a regular basis. It’s like running naked through city streets. OK, not quite like that, but you get my point.

Every time I sit down with a blank computer screen, it’s my job to put something readable on it. I want to be enlightening and entertaining. I want to push your buttons. I want you to either love me or hate me. That’s my goal. But I’m probably failing because I’m no good.

There I go, being a writer again.