Take chances, vary approaches when writing sports columns

Originally published November 2013

Ron Higgins had never left a press box during a football game in his 20 years of reporting. This time, though, he knew he had no choice.

Craig Zeigler, a tight end for Ole Miss, lay on the football field, his leg broken in two spots and twisted in a grotesque position after being leg-whipped by a Vanderbilt player. Teammate Eli Manning said later he could not look at his friend.

Zeigler, Higgins knew, was a beloved teammate who had worked through numerous injuries to earn his starting spot. So after the senior was carted from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Higgins walked out of the press box, headed to Baptist Hospital North Mississippi, spoke with Zeigler and his father before the surgery, and wrote a column that prompted Vanderbilt’s chancellor to call in praise and the Football Writers Association of America to award first place in a national competition.

“Think outside the box,” Higgins told students at the College Media Advisers national journalism conference in New Orleans. “Think differently. Columns are not just about good writing.”

Higgins, a long-time columnist for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, offered students ways to improve their own sports columns. He joined the Times-Picayune staff in September as lead SEC columnist.

Like a good columnist, Higgins brought students to places they normally can’t go and offered advice, tips in his session.

Here are some of the other tips and suggestions he offered for writing sports columns.

  • Be real. If you are funny, let the humor come through. But don’t force it. Be who you are. Write a column, he said, like you’re sitting in a bar and talking to someone after the game. “If you can do that,” Higgins said, “that’s when you’ve found your style.”
  • Don’t over-write. Don’t make anything bigger, or worse, than its true actuality. For example, don’t treat a regular, mid-season game as if it were the most important ever. “Be real with the game,” he said. “You can’t fool readers. Don’t candy coat a game a team should’ve won.” Plus, avoid cliches and jargon, instead relying on a style that all readers can understand, even casual or non-fans.
  • Don’t be a one-trick pony. In other words, don’t always be negative or fawning or attacking. Don’t be predictable. Like a pitcher, vary your pitches. Said Higgins: “Don’t get in a rut where you’re writing the same thing all the time.”
  • If you criticize, do your homework. Like a lawyer, build your case. Learn everything you can about a team, player, issue or subject before you lambaste. Get quotes, facts and other details that help support your arguments.
  • Be super-observant. Look for things that most others would ordinarily not consider. For example, Higgins once noticed an Alabama basketball player had written “I Love My Girls’ on his sneakers. After the game, the Bama player revealed he was referencing his sneakers, or ‘girls,’ not any kids.
  • Take readers to places they can’t go. Bring them to a dressing room after an emotional win, the sidelines during a tense game, or into the home of a player or coach. Guide them through areas inaccessible to most fans.
  • Be a team player. Ask colleagues what they are going to write about so you do not steal their angles. And, if you have breaking news, feed that info to the beat writer. “Remember, you’re all in this together,” Higgins said. A beat writer’s job is difficult enough.
  • You are not the story. Focus on the story itself. Said Higgins: “I’m just the guy who writes the story.”
  • Be accountable. If you criticize a player or coach, make sure to attend the next media opportunity, whether that is a game, press conference, etc., in order to talk with them. Let them vent, if necessary. “That’s how you earn respect from the people you cover,” Higgins said. “You don’t dodge and you don’t hide.”
  • Understand your responsibility. So don’t cite rumors, act ethically, be empathetic, don’t be overtly offensive, don’t make light of tragedies and personal challenges and always double-check facts – otherwise you’ll lose readers’ respect.

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About jgisondi

I am the author of the "Field Guide To Covering Sports," the second edition now available from Congressional Quarterly Press/SAGE, and "Monster Trek: The Obsessive Search for Bigfoot" (U of Nebraska Press). Field Guide to Covering Sports, Second Edition goes beyond general guidance about sports writing, offering readers practical advice on covering 20 specific sports. From auto racing to wrestling, author Joe Gisondi gives tips on the seemingly straightforward—like where to stand on the sideline and how to identify a key player—along with the more specialized—such as figuring out shot selection in lacrosse and understanding a coxswain’s call for a harder stroke in rowing. In the new Second Edition, readers also explore sports reporting across multimedia platforms, developing a foundational understanding for social media, mobile media, visual storytelling, writing for television and radio, and applying sabermetrics. Fully revised with new examples and updated information to give readers confidence in covering just about any game, match, meet, race, regatta or tournament, Field Guide to Covering Sports, Second Edition is the ideal go-to resource to have on hand when mastering the beat. In "Monster Trek," Joe Gisondi brings to life the celebrities in bigfoot culture: people such as Matt Moneymaker, Jeff Meldrum, and Cliff Barackman, who explore remote wooded areas of the country for weeks at a time and spend thousands of dollars on infrared imagers, cameras, and high-end camping equipment. Pursuing the answer to why these seekers of bigfoot do what they do, Gisondi brings to the reader their most interesting—and in many cases, harrowing—expeditions. You can order both from Amazon.
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