Career Advice

Gymnastics, Deadspin, and Book Deals: Dvora Meyers Talks Knowing Your Niche

By Mason Lerner June 4th, 2014

“Write what you know” is one of the most popular pieces of advice given to writers. It gets repeated to the point of becoming white noise, but it’s one of those clichés that hounds you for a reason: It really works. For Brooklyn-based freelancer Dvora Meyers, writing about her passion for gymnastics led to her first book deal.

Meyers is a regular contributor to Deadspin and Jezebel, and her work has appeared in publications like The New York Times and Slate. She is currently working on her first book, The End of the Ten, which looks at how the sport of gymnastics has changed in the ten years since it abolished the Perfect 10. Over email, she discussed how focusing on a particular subject has helped build her career.

How long have you been writing professionally?

I started dabbling in freelance writing when i was in grad school, so that would be around 2007 to 2008.

Like a lot of freelancers, you seem to have a wide spectrum of issues you cover. I know you contribute to Deadspin and Jezebel, but how did you break into the business?

When I first started writing, I primarily wrote for Jewish publications. I had been raised quite religious and so I was close to those stories. I wrote a lot for places like Tablet Magazine and the Forward. But after a few years of that, I started branching out and pitching to other publications, at first without not much success. But i eventually, I got pieces into The New York Times, Slate, Salon, etc.

Do you have a story you’ve pitched you’re particularly proud of? Not so much the quality of the story, but what you had to go through to get it published?

The first and only piece I submitted to the New York Times Sunday Styles Section. The story had originally been a personal essay that was just fine. Then a friend read it and thought I should think about it differently as a reported story. So I started doing research, finding subjects to speak to, and then I pitched it. I followed up at least three times. At this point, I thought it would be a no for sure, but then they said, “yes.” I wrote it, and then they ran it four months later. Gratification is often very delayed in this business.

You managed to get a foot in the door and start a career. How did the Deadspin and Jezebel contributions start? Is that an ongoing thing? What do you write about for each one?

I have a weird sort of expertise in the sport of gymnastics. I did it for a long time, and though I was pretty bad at it, I really loved the sport. Still do. And so I decided that I should be writing about the sport for the Summer Games in 2012. That was one of my goals for that year.

I actually started with a Slate story in 2011 about [the World Gymnastic Championships] that a friend there helped me submit. And then I had an idea for a one-off story in 2012, and I got an email address for an editor at Deadspin and pitched it. They said, “yes.” I wrote it; they ran it. That seemed like the end of the matter.

A couple of months later I got an email from a different editor at Deadspin, asking to speak with me. He told me he read a post I had just published on my blog—which is pretty ugly to look at by the way, and I’m deeply ashamed of it—and really liked this piece of analysis I had done about coded language for weight and body type in gymnastics. Long gone are the days of openly talking about a female gymnast’s weight, but there are still veiled ways to have that conversation. Anyway, he wanted me to rewrite and expand it for Deadspin, and he said that he would love to have smart analysis about gymnastics for the Olympics, and would I be interested in doing it for them? I jumped at it, especially since he seemed to want to publish the sort of analysis I had always been dying to see about the sport. Instead of the usual pabulum about how the beam is four inches wide and how young and adorable the gymnasts are.

And since Jezebel is part of the Gawker family, I wrote some stuff for them, too.

Writing about something you really care about ended up leading to really great things for you. Do you believe the two are connected? That is, writing about what you love and making positive things happen career-wise?

I used to make fun of my obsession with gymnastics and how writing about it couldn’t possibly be a professional boon to me. The idea seemed laughable. But to be perfectly honest, it really has given me a lot of opportunities.

I made the decision early on that I would seize opportunities for myself in 2012 when interest in the sport would be at the highest. And I felt very strongly that, at least in mainstream sites, there wasn’t really anyone else writing about gymnastics how I wanted to. (This is obviously not true on the smaller, specialized sites where there is excellent analysis all of the time.) I honestly believed that there was a mainstream audience for intelligent, in-depth analysis.

I think it has launched me the way it has, because I love gymnastics and know so much about it. It freed me to showcase some of my best writing chops, which included a joke about glitter in foxholes. (It worked, I promise!) Typically, when I wrote a story I didn’t have to do too much research. As my mom once joked, I’ve been researching the sport since I was eight. So i just could think and write and craft.

And all that led to your first book deal, right? How excited are you about that?

I’m very excited. I worked on the proposal for months. A lot of interviewing went into it. I even rented a room in a farmhouse on AirBnb for a week in upstate New York, so I could simply write without distraction.

And it obviously paid off. Can you please tell me about the project?

As I’m sure all of you non-gym nerds will learn during the Olympics, 2016 is the 40th anniversary of Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10’s in Montreal, the first for a female gymnast in Olympic competition. So, the idea originally was to sort of look back at the changes that have taken place during the last four decades, but an interesting thing happened in 2006—international gymnastics abolished the perfect 10 after scoring scandals at the 2004 Olympics. So, 2016 will also be the 10th anniversary of the abolishment of the 10. Hence the title, “The End of the Ten.”

As I was working on it, I realized I was far more interested in looking at the last decade-plus of the sport since those changes have been made and seeing how it has and hasn’t changed the sport. Especially how it seems to have benefited countries like the U.S. with seemingly endless pools of talents. Since the change is relatively recent, not a lot of research has been done on the new scoring system and what it means for gymnastics.

The sport may be popular, but as you said, it doesn’t get much intelligent mainstream coverage. So while it might not be necessarily be described as a niche sport, it has allowed you to carve out a niche as a freelancer, no?

Well, that’s why I don’t write exclusively about gymnastics; 11 months out of 12, I’m writing about other things. I don’t think I know any freelance journalists who write about just one thing, niche or otherwise. But I have become known for my work in this one area, which I don’t think is a bad thing even if it occasionally overshadows my other work.

What is next in the book process? I know you are writing it, but when do you anticipate publication?

Around the Olympics in 2016.

In a perfect world, where would all of this lead for you career-wise?

Writing a hit TV show about break-dancing gymnasts. (I really like breaking, too.)

Image via AP Images

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