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Lessons from the pantheon of sports writing

In this season of JPs and theses, one has barely the time to ponder what one is writing, let alone consider how to write it. Yet those of us who enjoy the delicious prose that language affords us somehow always manage to whittle out some spare moments to contemplate the writer's craft. Now, a mere college student dare not compare himself to those gurus of semantics and semiotics, the twin-Billed mastery of Buckley and Safire, but I do try my best to appreciate the linguistic wonders of the world.

There are those who go in for uplifting oratory – spoken passages that inform and inspire, and there are those who think that visual imagery can be valued at ten hundred words. I'll take those speeches in black ink, however, and prefer a good oped to a clever cartoon. After all, anyone with half a talent can read aloud another's composition or evince a quick chortle from illustrating popular thought. A finely tuned, tightly strung essay, on the other hand, is a unique pleasure, and a rare one at that.

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The very best essayists aim not to place a knowing smirk or arched brow on a reader's face – though that's a delightful side-benefit. No, the very best take pride in their work for themselves, as do their counterparts in the world of fiction and academic writing. Reporters – and I do appreciate my almost-colleagues in this and other papers – are a breed apart, in that their main motivator is the desire to see their name in print by exposing that which is better left clothed.

I don't claim to be a very good writer, but I do work at keeping my stuff fresh and stylistically interesting, to gain sheer joy from putting pen to paper (and sometimes fingers to keyboard). Not surprisingly, there's a rather cogent correlation between how happy I am about the effort I tend to conclude at 4 a.m. and the number of positive comments a column receives or the proximity to the start of the alphabet of a paper's grade. But so much for theory; in practice I trace two major influences on my writing style. Perhaps a restless freshman can build his idiosyncrasies onto them as well, and we'll have a reason to read the Princeton Alumni Weekly's "On the Campus" again.

The first great work, more accurately a series of weeks, that continuously molds my verbal expression is the best-written publication in the country, Sports Illustrated. I first picked up SI in my public library at the age of eight, and have read at least 90% of the subsequent issues cover-to-cover. The magazine has boosted my spirits and explained the world's workings, while I work to repay an unquashable debt by using SI to teach advanced English in Latin America and by emulating its intertextual on-your-toes rhythm.

Especially those with little interest in athletics ought to pay close attention to Alexander Wolff's multi-layered simplicity and Frank Deford's worldly insight. To bring things closer to home, the best writer (by far) of any campus publication in my time at Princeton was sports editor of the Daily Princetonian. It is no coincidence that Grant Wahl '96 now plies his trade at – you guessed it. (In fact, a ridiculous number of SI staffers, including A.W. '80 and F.D. '62, have entries in the senior thesis collection at Mudd Library.) There's no way I can relate the precocious beauty of SI in my own words, but I was not being pedantic in calling this America's best writing writ large.

A more specific effect on me has yet another Tiger alum – go figure! – George F. Will '66. The vast majority of 'Prince' readers who (should) read his bow-tied banter encounter Will biweekly on Newsweek's last page. But even mediocre Will-hunting finds George in syndicated columns and on the after-Mass punditry circuit. The more ambitious will have read a book or four and been enlightened further by Will's mildly seething poetics.

His best work, of course, culminated in the brilliantly understated, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, a thinking man's testament to the game he loves. Indeed, Will's pieces cycle through politics and baseball in a rough ratio of four to one (alas, this has been rising of late because while tales from America's pastime are sparse in the off-season, the chase for tails by America's current leader heats up in winter). A great commentator on society and the individual, Will has taught me the meaning of many vocabularial gems and verbal conflagrations (e.g., "stropped" and "abstemious"). In a recent column, he even advised to "not commit sociology promiscuously."

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If one aims to better one's writing style, one cannot do badly with Sports Illustrated and George Will. Though the former is occasionally overdone and the latter gets preachy at times, on balance they are refreshing stimulants in a world numbed by sound bytes and eye candy. Perhaps they also provide guidance, or at least something to think about, as we get back to our extended book reports – mine is due April 1 – and if anything, I shall make it worth reading.

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