The Best American Sports Writing series and the editor behind it

As of today, The 2015 Best American Sports Writing paperback is available on Amazon, which means writers ranging from aspiring to accomplished now have new material on their reading lists.

I’ve bought the book annually since the early 2000s, and always wondered what goes into its making. Wonder no longer. The series editor, Glenn Stout, explained the process last month.

Stout, who lives on Lake Champlain in Vermont, reads voraciously, often while using an elliptical machine. Sometimes, he’ll read just the beginning and end of a story, and if he’s still engaged, finish the rest.

He chooses 75 stories to nominate to the edition’s guest editor, this year Wright Thompson.

Stout sends each story as a word document without the author’s name or publication, though that’s easy enough to find. The guest editor is welcome to choose stories Stout has not nominated.

“I just try to pick stories that I want to read again,” Stout said of his philosophy.

There’s a certain literary aspect to the work Stout chooses. Some sportswriters — notably Bob Ryan — have commented about the lack of deadline newspaper work in the book series. Those writers who have registered gripes fail to understand the mission of the book series, Stout said.

“From the very beginning, this book has been Best Sports Writing. Two words. Writing about sports. Not sportswriting,” Stout said. “Those are two different things. There’s an overlap. But they’re two different things.”

Stout says there’s a wider definition to sports [space] writing, which opens the series to more material than strictly what you’d see in a daily newspaper. In the 2015 entries, you’ll find just one story from a newspaper (a feature by Tim Graham of the Buffalo News).

This year’s book includes narrative work from ESPN, Esquire, GQ, Buzzfeed, SB Nation, Jacobin, New Nowhere, Sports Illustrated, Sports On Earth, Fox Sports, The Daily Beast, The New Yorker, The New Republic and Yahoo!

“The variety of work being done now is really unparalleled,” Stout said. “This genre was dominated by newspaper people writing takeouts, and magazine people. You had to be in the club. Now, with the proliferation of the web, there are so many places to write, there’s such an excitement for writers and readers. People are so inventive now.”


Who’s Stout?

A longtime freelance writer, Stout now edits the acclaimed Longform section of SB Nation.

Stories from Stout’s section have appeared on this blog multiple times. They’re typically vivid with description, deeply reported and written like mini novels.

“Our goal is to write something that’s good enough for the Best American book,” said Stout, whose stories are eligible for his book. “Let’s try. We won’t always get there.

“Often people aren’t asked to do their best work. They’re just asked to do work.”

While Stout wants the best out of his writers, those who work with him characterize his editing style as collaborative.

“I don’t want to say he’s a fatherly figure so much as a buddy who knows what you’re going for and how to get you there,” said Rick Paulus, whose story titled The Bat Doctor Is In appeared on SB Nation this summer.

“…He’s a literary dork in a good way.”

Stout might go back and forth with edits eight to 10 times. He’s looking first for reporting, structure and narrative arc. Then, when that’s up to standard, he begins tinkering with what he calls “the good stuff” — the shape of the story and the sound each word makes.

Every story has its own language, he said. A 2013 feature on late NASCAR driver Dick Trickle, for instance, needed to consist only of words that Trickle might say — words that keep the reader in the place and feel of the story.

“I think that last step,” Stout said, “is what can take a story that is otherwise fine but eminently forgettable, and turn it into something that’s memorable, that can be shared, and when you finish it, you turn to somebody else and say ‘You have to read this. That’s the goal.”

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