Self-Indulgence Sunday: Writer Writing about Writing

THE DEVIL.

You probably remember the hullabaloo in Toronto regarding Aron Winter's reluctance to allow the media into Toronto FC's dressing room a few weeks ago. Winter decided that he'd pursue the European tradition of restricting dressing room access to players and staff rather than the Major League Soccer law saying that the room must be opened fifteen minutes after the final whistle.

Naturally, this received major coverage in the MLS media, because there's nothing reporters love more than talking about how much reporters have it tough. A few, mostly former players who've earned great respect like Jason de Vos (in a couple of his tweets) and idiot bloggers who like to shoot their mouths off like me (almost constantly) stuck up for Winter but for the most part opinion was against him. So, as it turns out, was Major League Soccer. Don Garber smacked Winter with a rolled-up magazine and soon reporters were in the Toronto FC dressing room once more.

Well, back on Wednesday, the Voyageurs Cup kicked off. As you're doubtless aware; I only wrote, like, seven articles on it. I was in the press box in Edmonton and things were a little sketchy; the club staff were trying their best but they didn't always have the resources they needed. The starting lineups, for example, came down something like twenty minutes before kickoff instead of the usual hour. But for the most part things were done professionally and the coverage which came out was certainly of the usual standard.

Which is interesting, because reporters weren't allowed in the dressing room. Not at all. Each team sent out a coach and one or two players to talk to the press in the media room (FC Edmonton brought head coach Harry Sinkgraven and players Alex Surprenant and Kyle Porter; Toronto FC brought Aron Winter and midfielder Oscar Cordon). The situation was the same in Montreal where the Whitecaps played the Impact. This, you'll probably notice, did not end the world. In fact, I bet most of you couldn't tell until I told you or until you heard about it from somebody else.

What irritates me about sports reporting, perhaps more than anything, is that too many sports reporters make assumptions about their readers that just aren't true. Oh, you guys are all idiots. You need inane quotes and bite-sized bullshit or you'll tune out and watch Dancing with the Stars. And you don't, or at least most people likely to be reading this don't. Hell, this paragraph alone has five sentences in it. That would get me fired from the Edmonton Sun, had they the poor taste to hire me.

The catalyst for this post was not, in fact, the now-rather-stale Aron Winter controversy at the beginning of the week. Rather, it was a post I read on a site called Simply Futbol. Don't be fooled by the second word of the title; it's an English-language site. I suspect it followed the now-familiar Internet naming scheme of "because simplyfootball.com was taken".

Anyway, Simply Futbol is looking for writers. Godspeed to them, because there's not enough quality soccer writing on the Internet. But still, when I read things like this, my heart just sinks:

You may not be aware of this, but people who read web content do not actually "read it", they "scan" it, looking for keywords and phrases and more appealing visual content.

They are looking for short, sharp information and will not read huge chunks of information, written in essay format. This is the fast-paced, interactive world of the internet, not ploughing through difficult, word-heavy textbooks!

The reason why "Top 10…" and other "list" based articles are so popular online is because they allow information to broken down into readable, easy to follow chunks of information. Use this format wherever possible with your articles. For example, an article on the reasons Kaka turned down a move to Manchester City could become "10 Reasons Kaka Turned Down Manchester City". Please note, "essay format" articles will not be accepted as paid content if a more web-friendly format is possible.

Now, I don't mean to pick on Simply Futbol; they're just the guys who got in my way this time. If you read the rest of that "writers wanted" post, there's actually loads of good stuff in there: a useful style guide, advice on adding pictures or video to spruce up your presentation, and so on. Their advice on catchy, concise headlines is something that I still can't get right. There are loads and loads of websites who specialize in this sort of thing. I wrote for one, earlier this year, which I shall keep nameless out of respect for a bunch of very nice people that just happened to be wrong. It started out with me providing somewhat more sombre analysis than I provide on Eighty Six Forever (think about my post-games on the Score's Footy Blog, if you like: serious, cogent, but with an occasional wry edge; that sort of thing). It ended in my being constantly told by the editor to make my paragraphs shorter and to get quotes on stupid things. I went along with it to an extent because, well, I wanted to write for this website, but as I realized my articles were getting worse and worse I eventually just tore my hair out and left.

I know I'm speaking to the choir. By definition, the people reading this web content aren't the "people who read web content" Simply Futbol is talking about: I used a word that had four syllables up there, after all, and my sentences have subordinate clauses and everything. That last sentence was forty words and it had a colon in it. Somehow, you've managed to avoid clicking away in disgust, and for that I thank you.

Nor are you guys bizarre freaks who like the Whitecaps and have word fetishes. The most popular blog on the SB Nation soccer network, by an overwhelming margin, is Sounder at Heart. As of this writing (on Saturday afternoon), their front page boasts a literate preview of the Toronto FC match including a projected lineup and careful consideration of potential tactical conundrums. A comprehensive analysis of Toronto's team by sidereal, involving long words and "difficult, word-heavy textbook"-style paragraphs. A links post, which sounds very content-for-the-sake-of-contenty but is accompanied by Dizzo's trademark thoughtfulness, thoroughness, and snark. You get what I mean. There's no fatuous, top-ten-list shit anywhere on that page. And they're one of the most-read MLS blogs anywhere. It turns out that people who surf the Internet for information on their favourite team are actually interested in information and not vapid idiocy. The problem with something meant to be easily digested is that it has no taste.

Would you like some more examples? Canadian Soccer News is already one of the biggest, most important sites for, well, Canadian soccer news, despite being saddled with things like Richard Whittall's almost embarrassing erudite articles on the soccer media (embarrassing to at least one of his fellow writers, anyway), Duane Rollins's thought-provoking editorials, and sometimes-referee Daniel Squizzato giving detailed analysis on the FIFA Laws of the Game. South of the border, the yeoman's work of Jason Davis and company on Match Fit USA is justly praised and widely-read in spite of the fact that even their match reviews are pretty wordy. I'd keep going but I'm already well over 1,200 words (shit, another no-no! [shit, I probably shouldn't say "shit"!]).

There's a market for simple articles, of course; that's why wire services have sports sections. Sometimes you really are in a hurry, you really do just need one fact or a short summary, and then you'll be glad you don't have to sift through three pages of wit and wisdom to find an attendance figure for an NASL game. (And, of course, some people really are illiterate chimpanzees who are more interested in a player saying he's settling in well than in something potentially useful). But, for the most part, it's an oversaturated market. Why does the world need another guy writing part-time about Serie A if he can't offer more than just low-rent articles meant to be skimmed then forgotten?

This brings me back to my initial point about not allowing reporters in the dressing room. Leaning on player quotes is a crutch: nothing more, nothing less. Occasionally, you'll get something useful, like a player going off on his coach or speaking candidly about an injury. But even in those cases you'll get those same stories as easily by watching practice, or chatting with the coaching staff, or keeping in touch with your contacts on the team. Player quotes become filler, meant to fill space and provide easy content that even a moron in a hurry could skim through. Like any tool, dressing room access has a use. But don't pretend it's necessary. Don't lean on it for the sake of leaning on it.

Now, if you like writing the sorts of articles I just ranted about, or if you like reading them, then more power to you. Really. I don't object to your tastes or your talents. What I object to is the idea that it should be the rule: that you ought to go for simpler every time, that if you can't go into the dressing room and listen to athletes saying vapid things you can't do your job, that readers can't handle complexity.

Because this article is clocking in at fifteen paragraphs and 1,589 words. You made it. And so can other people.

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