Baseball as an analogy for the writing game…

I was thinking about the post I wrote last month (, and the interesting discussion that erupted in the comments, and realized — too late, of course — that there might be a decent analogy for ‘breaking into the writing business.’

It’s akin to breaking into professional baseball.

Yeah, yeah, I know: “Oh no! A sports analogy. How clichéd can you get? And what kind of idiot is thinking about baseball in December?” Yet.…

Most people (in the US, at least), grow up learning something about baseball. It’s actually hard to avoid. We toss with friends, we watch the games with friends, we learn the terminology and the rules and how the game is played, we play pick-up games with the neighborhood kids in the backyard. For most people, though, that tends to be as far as it goes — we know a bit about baseball, but the passion for playing it isn’t there, perhaps because the native talent is lacking and thus we’re not prepared to expend the effort to make up for that lack of native talent (and you can make up for it, I believe, as I once outlined in an essay here: http://www.

In the same way, nearly everyone at some point plays with “writing a story.” It might be something totally amateur and juvenile; it might be a school assignment — but most people at some point have tried writing fiction, if only the literary equivalent of ‘tossing a ball around in the backyard.’

For some subset of “everyone who has ever played baseball,” there are those who go further: who move into organized baseball of some sort or another. There, your skills are refined and you learn the fundamentals of playing the game from people who are presumably more experienced than you at the game, who have (at least) played it for far longer. Sometimes, those mentors and teachers are excellent; sometimes they’re little more than amateurs like yourself (in which case, often their lessons are suspect, or might even cause you to have to ‘unlearn’ them later on, if you continue.) Welcome (in this analogy, anyway) to Creative Writing classes, whether in school or in some other venue…

But wait, you say, I can become a writer without taking classes. You’re right, that is absolutely possible. You can learn to write without formal training… just as someone can learn to play baseball at a professional level without indulging in Little League and high school sports. You can do that by playing with other professionals, by private lessons, by spending hours in a batting cage at a local sports center. Maybe (in the writing sense) you’re working on fanfiction, which can sometimes be an alternate method of learning, especially given the feedback you get from other readers. The truth is that the coaches and owners of professional baseball teams (or the editors or agents for writers) frankly don’t care about your background and how you got to where you are: all they care about is what you can do right now.

For some subset of “those who have learned the fundamentals” (however formally or informally that’s done), there are those who will go on to play professionally — to be paid (however poorly) for their efforts. For most, that will entail a longish slog in the “minor leagues” (though there are the very few phenoms who only stay in the minors for a few months before being called up, or those extraordinarily rare ones who skip the minors entirely — but you’re probably not a phenom, so don’t worry about it…). Here, in the minors, you start to truly hone your craft by jumping into the competition with both feet — and no matter what anyone tells you, it is a competition: everyone at this level wants to make it to The Show; everyone at this level wants one day to be a star.

For writing, the ‘minor leagues’ are all the semi-professional markets out there, the ones that pay a cent or three a word (or who may pay only by copies or donations on the website), but are still professional in the sense that an editor has chosen your work out of the slush that’s been submitted, perhaps even given you some editorial corrections to make, and deemed your story worth of publication.

And finally, for some subset of those who have labored mightily in the minors, there’s the major leagues. The Show. The place where your name has the chance to become known to all those who watch baseball (and, if you’re The Star, maybe even to those who don’t). There are only so many slots here (in the major or minor leagues): each team can only have so many players, but those slots are in constant rotation, and every, every player at one point in time was a rookie and took one of those slots from someone else who had it before them.

Yes, there will be those who come up at the end of the season to play for a month and then are sent back down, and maybe we see them again or maybe we don’t. There are those who get called up to play for a few games and come to realize that they’re not capable of playing at this level; they’ll leave — possibly to return to the minors to make corrections, or possibly never to be heard of again. There are those who play a year or two and mysteriously vanish. There are the ‘bench’ and ‘utility’ players who spend a career moving from team to team to fill holes, but never get the break to play regularly, whose names only the baseball freaks (or dedicated readers) know. There are those whose careers soar for a few years and then fizzle. There are those who play for years but never quite reach stardom, yet still manage to make a career. And there are the ‘stars’ of various description.

The analogy here for writing is obvious, I think: many a writer has sold one or two stories to the major markets only to vanish for one reason or another. The majority of people selling regularly are mid-listers, some of whom will make their whole career in the midlist. And there are the (few) stars, who make the Big Money. One might even make the “short story” vs. “novel” distinction here: some players are the legendary “five tool” player, which in writing terms means they can write successfully at any length; others have fewer tools and are maybe only short story writers, or only novelists. The stars who tend to get the most attention tend to be the home run hitters or the best starting pitchers– the ‘novelists’ — but occasionally a prolific singles hitter will gain renown.

Yes, the analogy creaks somewhat (as do most analogies) — writing isn’t, after all, a team sport, and no one pays you a salary as a writer of fiction — in writing, you’re paid only if you get a hit; when you strike out, you get nothing. If you’re a big league ball player, you can most decidedly make a living wage; in writing, that’s absolutely not a guarantee. And, worst of all, baseball is sex-segregated (at least at the moment). But…

If you want to write for the professional markets (especially if you’re a novelist), then there is the reality that there are only so many slots available, and no one’s going to add another one for you. Your job as an up-and-coming novelist is to take someone else’s slot. This certainly can be done — in fact, it has to be done if you want that manuscript to be published — and it behooves you to remember that each and every writer whose book you see on the shelves has been where you are at some point in her or his career. Everyone has blown away an editor so much that the editor had to make an offer… and then every writer has had to try to write an even better book because the struggle to stay published is even more rigorous: because now you’re the target. You’re the one who has a slot… and only your continued performance will allow you to keep it.

So that’s the analogy. What are your thoughts?

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  1. 1. Andy Havens

    I agree with the metaphor almost 100%, especially the way you’ve stated it. The difference being that most people can look at a pro ball player (or even a Saturday afternoon regular) and say, “Wow. That guy can hit the ball better than I do,” or “Look at him run! I’m not that fast.” Whereas with writing, most people don’t understand what makes for good product, and certainly can’t grasp many of the differences between their work and professionals.

    When I studied writing in college, one of my professors, Dan McCall, once said, “Just because everybody can write, everybody thinks they can write.” I’ve found that true in design (have a favorite color? you’re a designer!) and marketing (watch ads on tv? you’re an ad man).

    Yep. Doing it for real is a lot harder than it looks.

  2. 2. Karen Wester Newton

    I always use the prfessional sports analogy because I think it’s closest (I may have been the commenter you were thinking of), but I take comfort from the fact that writing is slightly less formidable to break into in one respect. Yes, there are a set number of speculative fiction publishers with a set number of books they can publish in a year. However, each book is judged on its own merits (or saleability, if you prefer). If they like your book enough, they will try to find a place for it, even if they have to slot it two years out. It’s even possible for mainstream houses to publish speculative books. Also, sports being a very physical enterprise, you pretty much have to try to break in when you’re young. Yes, there have been a few baseball players who were older, but they’re very much the exception. As long as you mind stays sharp, you can keep writing a lot longer than you can throw a baseball.

  3. 3. S.C. Butler

    I use the writing’s like baseball analogy all the time, though my take is a little different. I compare how you have to practice both every day, concentrating on the little things and not worrying about the homeruns.

  4. 4. S.L. Farrell

    Andy — That’s a good distinction Dan McCall made, though I gotta admit I’ve listened to people watching a ball game saying “Man, how could that guy miss that fly ball. *I* could have caught that one!” So not even professional ballplayers are immune to “I can do what you do…” :-)

    Karen — Yeah, one of the things I tell my writing classes is that writing is something you can do at a professional level far longer than sports. Jack Williamson was publishing excellent fiction into his 90s…

    Sam — I like that aspect of the analogy as well!

  5. 5. va zhuk

    Unfortunately, I think the main difference between playing baseball and writing is that there are much more people who watch baseball then read books, at least in the US.


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Author Information

Stephen Leigh

Stephen Leigh (aka S.L. Farrell) is a Cincinnati author with 25 novels and several dozen short stories published. Booklist called his Cloudmages trilogy "Good enough to cast in gold." He teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University, and is a frequent speaker to writers groups. Visit site.



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