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 covered sports and worked as a sports copy editor for more than 20 years at several newspapers in Florida, including the Fort Myers News-Press, Clearwater Sun, Florida Today and Orlando Sentinel. I started writing for a weekly sports publication in Coral Springs, Fla., at age 15. I have been hooked on sports journalism ever since. I was fortunate to have worked with some amazing editors along the way, journalists who took the time to help me even when my copy was not top-notch. Now, I teach journalism at Eastern Illinois University and work as an editor for Landof10.com, a vertical that focuses on Big Ten athletics. A second edition of the "Field Guide To Covering Sports" will be available sometime in February 2017. The book is a practical guide to preparing, observing, interviewing and writing about 20 different sports, from auto racing to wrestling. Chapters also address ways to cover high school sports, fantasy sports, to develop sports blogs. You can also learn how to cover games, to write features and to interview better. Fans can also learn basic rules of these sports, along with ways to better observe the action. New chapters in the second edition will address social media, advanced analytics, fantasy sports coverage and revised, expanded chapters address game coverage, features and columns, among other new sections.
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