Keep it simple in sports writing

May 1, 2023

McPhee’s words are simple. He doesn’t use the word serve, although it is what he is describing.

Writing about a sport for those who don’t understand the sport is a challenge. Most writers figure they are writing for fans as familiar with the game as they are.

John McPhee, author of “A Sense of Where You Are” and “Levels of the Game,” writes about sports and other subjects clearly, concisely and understandably.

His style is unhurried, detailed and unflashy, says Jonathan Russell Clark, author of Skateboarding.

In “Levels of the Game,” McPhee writes:

Arthur Ashe, his feet apart, his knees slightly bent, lifts a tennis ball into the air. The toss is high and forward. If the ball were allowed to drop, it would, in Ashe’s words, “make a parabola and drop to the grass three feet in front of the baseline.”

He has practiced tossing a tennis ball thousands of times. But he is going to hit this one.

McPhee’s words are simple. He doesn’t use the word serve, although it is what he is describing.

In “A Sense of Where You Are,” McPhee writes about former Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley, who told him that he made blind shots over his shoulder because you develop a sense of where you are to the basket.

As he does before all games, he began by shooting set shots close to the basket, gradually moving back until he was shooting long sets from 20 feet out, and nearly all of them dropped into the net.

Then he began a series of expandingly difficult jump shots, and one jumper after another went cleanly through the basket. The crowd began to murmur.

Then he started to perform whirling reverse moves before another cadence of almost steadily accurate jump shots, and the murmur increased. Then he began to sweep hook shots into the air. He moved in a semicircle around the court. First with his right hand, then with his left, he tried seven of these long, graceful shots — the most difficult ones in the orthodoxy of basketball — and made them all.

So you don’t have time to write like that? Read McPhee’s two books.

Next: Our need for white space

Jerry Bellune is a writing coach and author of “The Art of Compelling Writing, Volume 1.” Coaching your writers (and editors) takes time you may not have. An option is to order copies for them of my book, The Art of Compelling Writing, now available for $9.99 at