Students interested in writing journalistically – sports or otherwise – invariably take similar approaches and make comparable mistakes.
Language tends to be the biggest challenge for many students, whether that means a reliance on clichés and jargon, an inability to write precisely or concisely, or an overusage of inflated and hyperbolic language to display key moments or trends in games.
Let’s address some of those related to an exercise I developed for my sports journalism course.
Grammar and spelling are typically problematic for newer sports writers across all areas of study – and, regardless what anybody says, these problems are not endemic to the current generation. Few, if any of us who graduated high school in 1981, understood gerunds, split infinitives, dangling modifiers or apposition. But we probably had a better vocabulary because we regularly read newspapers, magazines, books and spent far fewer hours watching TV, video or Vine. We were also asked to write significantly more than today’s students. My own daughters were asked to write only about an essay a year in their honors English courses here at Charleston High School – and they frequently did not receive feedback on these papers. Sickening. Sadly, I imagine that’s the case in many school districts today. So we need to spend even more time on grammar and sentence style, although it should not consume a course such as Writing For Sports Media. I offer a few suggestions here and there during in-class writing assignments. No doubt, the times are still a-changing. For this post, though, we’ll stick closer to sportscentric elements related to sports game stories.
For deadline game stories, leads should focus on key plays, trends, performances, stats and the game’s significance in sentences that are typically clear, direct and active. Avoid inserting lengthy introductory clauses or infusing the lead with background information. For example, one student wrote the following lead about a game played between the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals on Aug. 30, 2015:
“Spurred by a go-ahead homer by Kevin Kiermaier, the Tampa Bay Rays held on to defeat the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday
This lead has many solid elements: a key play, the names of the two teams, the day, and the score. There are a few elements missing from this story, namely a controversial double play at the plate that turned back a Royals rally in the late innings. Secondly, the lead addresses two actions: that the Rays were spurred by a home run and that they held on to defeat the Royals. Would be stronger if the writer had focused on a single element – or, at least, had offered more details on how they held on to win. In this case, that would be the unusual double play. Not a fan of the intro clause either, but it could be acceptable had other details been inserted.
This next student-writer focused on Royals pitcher Danny Duffy, a storyline that might have been the primary storyline sans the unusual double play at the plate. This lead, though, delays the primary statement behind a 30-word introductory clause:
“Following a strong first at-bat by Tampa Bay Rays starting right fielder Brandon Guyer, which resulted in a walk, and a first inning that took 32 pitches to escape, it was clear a worn down Drew Duffy could be in for a short outing.”
Consider this revision that makes the lead more active, even if it delays the most unusual play of the game: “Drew Duffy was worn down early Wednesday night. The left-hander walked a batter during a 32-inning first inning that yielded a single run. Duffy yielded only one more run during the next four innings, tossing 99 total pitches. That did not prove enough. The Rays defeated the Royals, 3-2, on Wednesday night, thanks to a sixth-inning home run by Kevin Kiermaier and an unusual double-play at the plate in the eighth inning.”
Here’s a student lead that incorrectly opens with background information through a lengthy introductory clause:
“With the Tampa Bay Rays losing 10 of their past 15 games heading into Wednesday night’s matchup with the Kansas City Royals, center fielder Kevin Kiermaier decided to play hero for the night.”
By the way, let’s avoid tagging athletes as “heroes,” “studs,” “superstars.”
Here’s how the Associated Press delivered its story lead:
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A late comeback bid by the Kansas City Royals was stymied by a strange and disputed double play.
Batter Kendrys Morales was tagged out near the batter’s box after a play at the plate to end the top of the eighth inning of the AL Central-leading Royals’ 3-2 loss Sunday to the Tampa Bay Rays.
We should also help students do the following:
Show, not tell. For instance, show that a play or hit was tremendous instead of inserting the word “tremendous.”
Eliminate commentary. (“
Fortunately for the Rays, things didn’t get any better for Kansas City starter Nathan Kams.”) Another student incorrectly wrote: “Nevertheless, the Rays were happy to take whatever play went their way after having a rough time the past several weeks.” Unless somebody told this to you, this is commentary and/or guesswork. Delete it.
Increase their knowledge of sports. Of course, this takes time. The Field Guide offers insights into covering 20 sports, but there are many other resources that can also educate: league websites, sports rule books, and books by authors such as John Feinstein, Roger Kahn, Michael Lewis, Roger Angell, and Bob Ryan. Plus, students need to devour good writing found in newspapers, websites, and magazines every single day.
Here are a few other points to consider:
Put the winning score first. “The Yankees lead the Blue Jay, 4-0” and also “The Blue Jays trail the Yankees, 4-0.” In tennis, you would write “Serena Williams defeats Venus Williams, 6-2, 5-7, 6-1.” In tennis, a player often both loses and wins matches. Ultimately, we lead with the player who won overall. So that could mean that “Rafael Nadal defeated Andy Murray 2-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-0.” He lost the first two sets, but he won overall.
A team or player ties the score, not the game. The Bears scored a last-minute touchdown to tie the score, 17-17. Also: The Blues and Predators were tied at 2 apiece through two periods.
It takes time for students to learn new skills and to eradicate bad habits. Give them time and you’ll start seeing progress during the semester, especially for those students who are working the hardest. To reinforce these lessons, you might want to ask students to write reflective pieces on professional sports stories, especially those associated with class assignments, such as this one I used in class. You can download additional class materials I used for the in-class baseball game story exercise by clicking here and here. And here are stories written by each city’s hometown publication in St. Petersburg and Kansas City.