“Why are you the way that you are?” — Ten of my biggest writing influences

Every now and then I browse through the archives of Earn This — and my colllege newspaper columns, and my old personal web-site, etc. — and I usually come away some combination of pleased and disgusted. Pleased, in that my writing has become progressively more readable. Disgusted, in that so much of what I’ve written has been so bad.

I don’t claim that I’m a good writer, or even a competent one. I do claim, though, that I have gotten at least marginally better at writing than I was in 2002 as a freshman in high school. Part of that has been simple quantity of practice. Part of that has been ruthlessly critiquing my own writing, sometimes months or years after I’ve written it, and taking away some lesson from that analysis.

But what I want to focus on in this post is a third habit that has had a strong impact on my writing: Reading lots and lots of articles and books in areas that I write about, and trying to emulate aspects of writing that I enjoy.

This year is the tenth anniversary of when I started writing for fun, so I thought it’d be interesting to collect the ten pieces of writing or writers that have (by my guess) most directly impacted my own writing — especially for this site. Most are in a relevant genre; some aren’t. Here are my ten biggest written influences, and a brief explanation of why I like them and how they’ve impacted me.

  • Roger Ebert’s movie reviews

The majority of criticism of any medium usually boils down to consumer advice — should I expend money and time to consume this thing, or shouldn’t I? Movie criticism specifically tends to focus on plot and character elements, with sparse descriptions of visual style. Those that do strive to write something more meaningful or inclusive in their evaluation run the risk of sounding too jargony or pretentious.

No movie critic I’ve read balances these dilemmas as skillfully or enjoyably as Roger Ebert. He’s far from perfect; his biggest sins are that he spends too much of his time writing synopsis instead of analysis, and, recently, he too quickly rejects blockbuster, genre material. But he’s the best at showing you why he feels the way he does about a movie, concisely explaining the film’s visual and storytelling vocabulary, and injecting a likable and personal voice — all while maintaining accessibility and avoiding snootiness.

A lot of that has to do with his supreme intelligence and empathy, and also his unusual path to writing film reviews. He never received formal education in film study, if I’m not mistaken. He’s just smart, observant, and — importantly — an extremely passionate fan of cinema. As a quote on his collection of four-star reviews notes, that’s surprisingly uncommon of film critics.

  • AllMusic.com’s album reviews and artist profiles

My go-to source for reading a review of an album or artist I like is AllMusic.com. It’s a site that is aptly named; its mission seems to be to have a review for every album ever made. It’s done a pretty impressive job thus far.

The reviews and artist overviews are assembled by a variety of writers, and the reviews vary vastly in quality and length. My favorite of the crew is definitely Stephen Thomas Erlewine — he makes the significance and unique personality of each album crystal clear, rather than just recount each track. (Less prolific, but even better, is William Ruhlmann.)

But the reliability of the reviews’ existence, the site’s well-written artist retrospectives, its effortless interface, and its occasionally masterful reviews (I actually sent an e-mail to Dave Connolly thanking him for this entry) make it one of my most-visited web sites.

  • Bill Simmons’ columns and books

There are a few reasons that Bill Simmons took sports internet by storm when he started writing his “Sports Guy” columns for ESPN. He’s got a great, distinctive, conversational voice; he invents fun theories and systems to explain sports; he uses ample movie and pop culture references; he writes from the fan’s perspective, not the athlete’s or journalist’s perspective; and (underrated) he has an authoritative knowledge and passion for sports.

Since then, he’s released an encyclopedic Book of Basketball and spearheaded a new pop-culture/sports analysis site, Grantland (which I’ve written about). No matter the form of his writing, I’m always excited to read it, even if I don’t know or care much about the topic. The writer in me admires and tries to mimic the unconventional Simmons, from his command of a smooth writing voice to his substantial but readable long-form analysis to his thought-provoking theory building, to his ambition in starting projects and trying new things.

  • Rick Reilly’s columns

It’s a shame that Rick Reilly seems so outdated in the Internet era. With so extensive and instantaneous sports coverage available for free online, his columns can seem quaint and meager. It’s become fun to bash Reilly’s idiosyncrasies and his cheeky wordplay and his large sentimental streak.

Don’t listen to any of it. Reilly’s body of work matches that of any ten bloggers. He tells concise — sometimes funny, sometimes moving — stories that capture the human side of sports or take some thought-provoking spin on the material. His style may seem old-fashioned or manipulative in a world where the Bill Simmons of the world are omnipresent, deconstructing and categorizing and bucking tradition.

But no writer has had a bigger impact on the way I think and the way I write, whether it’s sports or not. I hope there will always be room in the crowded sportswriting landscape for someone like Reilly, who can help us keep perspective and consider both sides and remember the human side of every story.

  • The AV Club’s articles

The AV Club could just as well be number one on this list, because its superior New Cult Canon column was what inspired me to call up Grant and start work on Earn This. More recently, Earn This just released its first ever roundtable post, inspired by (or rather, directly aped from) their AVQ&A column.

What I love about The AV Club is its huge spectrum of writers, styles, and content. From the latest silly internet video, to episode-by-episode recaps of classic TV shows, to simple album reviews, to thoughtful deconstructions of pop culture trends, The AV Club takes its work seriously and has something compelling to read.

  • Alan Sepinwall’s TV writing

I stumbled upon Alan Sepinwall‘s recaps while searching for reviews of Freaks and Geeks, and he’s been my go-to guy for TV writing ever since. He’s just that thorough, thoughtful, and entertaining to read. He’s the best in the business at breaking down what works for a television series, what doesn’t work, and what separates good TV from great TV.

There’s probably no pop culture writer I read more of these days than Sepinwall.  In my Wonder Years posts, you can see my poor man’s attempt at writing the kind of episode recap and analysis he’s popularized.

  • Chuck Klosterman’s writing

My introduction to Klosterman (and enduring favorite piece by him) was his essay “Every Dog Must Have His Every Day, Every Drunk Must Have His Drink” from Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. I love this essay (which can be read in its entirety if you cleverly abuse Amazon’s “Look Inside” search feature, searching for “billy joel”) not just because it’s about my favorite musical artist of all time, but because it showcases much of what makes Klosterman fantastic.

He opens with a tangential theory and anecdote that’s equal parts amusing and poignant. Then he transitions into a defense of Billy Joel, which is notable for two reasons. One, Joel is an artist that rarely gets extended analysis from professional critics and pop culture analysts. Two, it goes against the usual take on Joel, that he’s derivative and sterile and manipulative.

Klosterman is defiant in the way he thinks about pop culture and the way he usually avoids falling into the typical hive mind (which is why I find it somehow meaningful that he, like everyone, adores Adele). Obsessive, thoughtful, and fun, Klosterman is a must-read for any pop culture enthusiast.

  • The Rolling Stone Album Guide

When I was a senior in a college, I started getting severe nausea after almost every meal. I spent a lot of time lying in my bed or sitting in the bathroom, trying to forget my discomfort. My go-to book was the 2004 edition of The Rolling Stone Album Guide, which my now-fiancée bought for $3 at a bookstore that was going out of business. It was perfect for my situation. Thoughtful enough to sustain my interest, broken into consumable bits, and a light enough read that I could enjoy it while only paying half attention, the Guide was just what I needed. It’s stuck with me, too.

All of the caveats that normally apply to reading The Rolling Stone — the obscenely opinionated and dismissive writers, the general yuppie liberalism and obsession with “authenticity,” the seemingly arbitrary picking and choosing of what qualifies for their coverage, their large-scale rejection of numerous genres and styles, etc. — also apply here. But there’s no more engaging introduction to the rock canon, no more colorful big-picture evaluation of the past seventy years’ musical greats, than this book.

Since reading the book, I’ve bought about a half-dozen books with similar aims to chronicle all of the important figures and albums in the history of rock (I buy a lot of books; this is me). None has come close. The Guide‘s fusion of opinion, history, and anecdote makes it a standout, even if you have to sometimes have to take its opinions with a grain of salt.

  • Jerry Beck’s Animated Movie Guide

I found The Animated Movie Guide while I was browsing my local library’s media and arts section. I’ve always loved animated movies, so I grabbed the book. When I got home, I started reading it; two or three hours later, I put the book down when I realized I hadn’t eaten dinner. It’s one of those books I adored from the first page.

It’s not that the writing in The Animated Movie Guide is particularly outstanding (though it’s perfectly fine). It’s the book’s goal (overviewing every animated feature) and attitude (that animation is and always has been serious art, not just kiddie fare) that finally made me comfortable bringing animated features out of the “guilty pleasure” ghetto in my brain.

If you’re looking for an overview of the history of animated films (a very different beast from animated shorts and animated television), then this is by far the best starting point. And you might also consider taking a peek at the month of animated feature-related material I started and never finished.

  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Okay, this is a dopey inclusion for some obvious reasons. I’ve never published a piece of fiction in my life. There’s really no overlap between Rowling’s writing style and my own. More people have read these books than any other set of novels, ever, by a considerable margin, so I can’t claim my connection to the series is unique.

Yet, I feel like her shadow lingers over everything I wrote. During my most formative years, the Potter books taught me an awful lot about how narrative can function, what works and what doesn’t, and why I spend my time trifling through fiction in various media.

So: thanks, Rowling.

Also, I send my thanks every other writer who contributed to what’s on this list. The work of every one of you is, by and large, exceedingly popular (probably most pop culture internet writers would include at least a few of these ten, and certainly most twentysomething sportswriters would include Reilly and Simmons). But I’ve connected with your work on a personal level, and you’ve helped me figure out why I love writing.

Dan S.

Dan is the editor of Earn This. He co-founded the site in 2009.

2 thoughts on ““Why are you the way that you are?” — Ten of my biggest writing influences

  1. This is awesome. I thought about doing a similar post until I realized that you pretty much hit all of mine. I like Ebert except for him doling out 3.5/4 star reviews like candy on Halloween…AMG and the Rolling Stone Album Guide will take away days of your life, and that’s a good thing…Klosterman is always entertaining…and Sepinwall hooked me because of his devotion to Chuck. Great list.

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