HOW YOU CAN BECOME A PROFESSIONAL WRITER IN ONE NOT-SO-EASY LESSON

By JOSEPH TINTLE

Every year I get a new batch of students and every class wants to know how I got into writing and eventually sports writing before I became a teacher. I tell them to sit back. This will take a while.

It all began in May 1962. I was in fourth grade and writing an essay for my teacher, Mrs. Coleman, at the kitchen table. That’s when my dad looked over my shoulder and said, “You’re going to be a writer, son.”

“How do you know, Dad?” I replied. “I’ve only written a few sentences.”

“Because I’m a writer; I can just tell.”

While I have always remembered what he had said that evening, I fought off his suggestion for years. I hated writing. Writing was a drag. Too much thinking. Too much organizing. Leave me alone.

High school wasn’t much better. The assignments were awful. Perhaps if someone had taken the time to show me a way to tap my creativity and assign me topics of interest, I might have flourished.

College. Well, at least the books we read were of value and our class discussions are still etched in my memory. But writing, for me, was pure labor. I had better things to do.

Then came college graduation one Saturday in June 1974. Monday followed and my parents told me to get a job.

Get a job? I’m no good at anything. Can’t do math. Forget science.

“Remember when you were in fourth grade,” my father said. “That time when I told you there was a writer in you. Why don’t you pursue that line of work?

“Because I hate it, Dad.”

“But you’ve got to do something. And look, you’re a pretty good storyteller. If you can tell stories, you can write stories.”

He had a point. So I gave it some thought, sent out scores of resumes, and eventually was hired by a newspaper as a copyboy. The first month of employment was uneventful. I proved I was a capable headline and caption writer and pretty good at filing stories and photos. But when the editor told me to write a feature on a 16-year-old pitcher from North Arlington, New Jersey, I almost choked. A feature story! What’s that? How do you write it? I played baseball, but I never tracked a game and wrote about it. I was plenty scared, but I’ve always had a good poker face and I just said, “Yes, sir,” and headed off to do as I was told.

Because my assignment was a feature, I could hand it in the next day.

I was a nervous wreck during the interview with the kid and not much better when charting the game.

Afterward, I headed home and spent the night and part of the next day trying to “craft” a story that the editor would accept. I’ve got to admit I did my best and I thought it was pretty good too.

I dropped the story in the editor’s basket and a few minutes later I saw him reach for it. He read the two-and-a-half-page piece and called me over. Then he walked me to a five-foot high cabinet where he began editing my story with, what was called in the newsroom, a Chinese grease pencil. I watched as he dragged its red, waxy point through line after line of my prose. He crossed out everything I wrote until he got three-quarters of the way down the page and left a sentence untouched.

“Why didn’t you cross that out?” I asked.

“Because it’s a simple declarative sentence. Not like this other horse shit you wrote.”

The editor crossed out the rest of the page, almost all of the entire next page, and when he came to the final half page of copy he saved himself time and drew an “X” across the page.

Then he glared at me. Real hard.

“So, how long do you think you’d like to work for us?” he asked.

“Till I’m 65.”

He held up the three pages and tore them in half.

“No, seriously,” he was saying now, “how long do you think you’ll be working here?”

I already was reading between the lines, but I played along.

“Five years?”

Rip.

“About a year?”

Rip.

“If you give me horse shit like this again, you’ll be out of here in twenty minutes.”

And to make his point, he tore the sheets one more time and threw them at me. My story had been reduced to confetti. I was mortified. Did I mention this was done in front of an entire newsroom?

“Pick them up,” he ordered.

“No, you’ve made your point.”

I headed back to my desk and finished the shift.

Neither of us picked up the torn scraps that night, but I made a decision. This would never happen again. The next day I bought copies of The New York Times and the Daily News and I went to the library and took out an anthology of sports stories. I not only read the works of Times sports columnist Red Smith and sports writer Dick Young of the Daily News, I wrote out their articles by hand so I could get into their heads and learn the secrets of sportswriting.

A month later, the editor assigned me to write an advance about the upcoming Princeton-Columbia football game. I couldn’t think of two more desperate teams, but I had a job to do. I spoke with both coaches, interviewed a couple of players on each team, found an angle, and got to work on an old Remington typewriter. I had two hours to write the piece. I handed it in on time, returned to my desk, and waited for the bomb to drop.

The editor read the story, took out his Chinese grease pencil, but hardly used it. Then he put a headline on the story and sent it to the print shop.

I was curious as to what his thoughts were.

“Was the story okay?” I asked timidly.

“Did I rip it up and throw it in your face?”

I nodded, and back to my desk I went.

Well, I did not stay much longer after that. I was pretty thin-skinned at the time. But if I have to cite a turning point in my writing career, it most certainly was the night I turned in my first story about the kid from North Arlington. And while I never would have treated a young writer the way I was treated, I’ve got to admit that sports editor’s teaching method worked. I’ve been writing ever since.