For Those Writers—Most Editors Have Known a Few—Who Settle for Being Pretty Good

Frank Deford at home in Key West with his wife Carol and dog Miss Snickers. Photo by Tom Goldman/88.5WFDD

Frank Deford has been a writer at Sports Illustrated for 50 years, he’s written 18 books, and he’s been talking sports on NPR for 37 years. He called his NPR commentaries “Sweetness and Light: The Score on Sports” and this week’s talk was his last.

He once wrote something about sports that I thought applied equally to writers and for many years it was on the editorial bulletin board at the Washingtonian:

It is my experience, with ballplayers and all other human beings, that skill is a gift of God, but that great skill demands perseverance. It may, in fact, be a curse to be naturally too good at something, because then the possessor of that bounty tends to coast. Of course, precocity is fine and dandy, and we have Mozart and Alexander of Macedon to prove it, yet I suspect that most our larger talents are not so immediately evident but must be developed and honed. Otherwise, you are just pretty good at something, but never grow to beauty. No, the full measure of proficiency surely only flows at the confluence of what God gave and the person nurtured.



  1. Frank Deford’s book, I’d Know That Voice Anywhere, is a collection of his NPR commentaries. In the foreward to the book, he writes about the experience of listening versus reading:

    …I am intrigued at this proposition that what I have spoken/voiced for the ear is here seeking to catch the approval of the eye. It’s unusual, maybe even risky, to attempt such a particular trans-communication.

    …Nowadays, there’s probably more crossover headed in the other direction, written words being given a second exposure by a vocal professional—books on tape. Myself, once I left my mother’s lap, I’ve never heard a book read to me that I found as enjoyable as when I read it myself.

    …the great advantage anyone reading something always has over being a mere captive listener is that the reader can conveniently pause and reread what she is tackling, making sure she understands clearly what is being foisted on her by the writer. I know that on NPR I can sneak by with a clever fillip, a nice turn of phrase…whereas if I was writing the same material out I would be much more careful in illuminating my point in detail…

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