Bring your ‘A-Game:’ Avoid using cliches in sports writing

Cliches still plague sports writing. I suspect that’s because younger sport writers, by and large, watch more sports than read about them, which is a shame because there are so many amazing sports books out there.

There’s Seabiscuit, a story researched so throughly, told so intimately and written so magnificently by Laura Hillenbrand that I felt as though I had actually lived as Red Pollard, Tom Smith and Charles Howard. At the end of the book, I felt sadness because I could no longer spend time with these people who had lived more than a half-century earlier, the same sort of melancholy I feel when friends and family pass away. I had the same feeling after reading about Francis Ouimet and Eddie Lowery in The Greatest Game Ever Played. Captain Jean-Luc Picard can certainly understand what I’m saying:

There’s also the seminal A Season On The Brink that kicked off a series of terrific insider books by John Feinstein about contemporary American sports, Friday Night LightsThe Miracle of St. Anthony, Cinderella Man, The Blind Side, One Shot At ForeverThe Last Best League, Meat Market, Moneyball, Shoeless JoeFifty-Nine in ’84, Levels of the Game, Best Seat In The HouseForty-Eight Minutes, No Cheering in the Pressbox, The Soul of Baseball, Beyond The Game, and Death to the BCS, which should be required reading for anybody covering college athletics. There are, of course, hundreds of great books and articles out there.

But I digress.

Reading is essential to writing, even more so when young sports writers are bombarded by worn, tired phrases that sometimes work better on a baseball broadcast, a sports talk radio show  or a pithy segue on “SportsCenter” than in a game story or profile piece. In cliche-ese, writers need to step up their game for more reflective audiences who prefer to read than watch, and to take it to the next level by addressing one story at a time in order to write within themselves and to give 110 percent.

Let’s look at some words and phrases to avoid, all taken from college media during the past several days. I’ll refrain from citing the writers because, after all, they are still learning. But, first, let me digress one more time. It’s a really good, instructive story.

Years ago, the editors of the student-run Daily Eastern News wrote an editorial that displeased the English Department here at Eastern Illinois University. As adviser, I was contacted by a faculty member, who was, to be blunt, a pain in the ass. In his magnificent mind, he knew far more about journalism than anyone in our department – and probably the world – because he had a doctorate in American Literature. (Not to brag, but I also hold three English degrees, yet I still do not fully comprehend “The Wasteland,” no matter what the thunder said. (Disclaimer: That was written mostly for English professors, who, right now, are laughing hysterically and spewing cups of Old Grey on their tweed jackets as we speak. Funny stuff. Really.)  So this big-brained English professor riled his graduate assistants, encouraging them to cut out the editorial, correct its grammatical errors in bright, red ink, and then post it on walls across campus because, you know, that’s how you deal with young kids who write something you disagree with. This is called an ad hominem attack, a logical fallacy that we teach freshmen to avoid in our composition courses. I told my staff to tear the inked up editorial from the walls, which, eventually prompted an English graduate assistant to call and complain about censorship, saying my actions had curtailed her free speech. That’s when I responded: Would you post comments about your own students’ work across campus, especially if it would embarrass them? These kids at the newspaper are also students trying to learn their craft. So why shame them? That’s not how educators should act.” She paused, apologized and hung up. As I tell my editors: praise publicly, chastise privately.

That said, let’s dive into some commonly misused words and phrases used this past week at college media:

  • Dish, as in the batter hit well at the dish. The proper word is plate.
  • Teams do not plate runs, they score runs.
  • Frames. Instead, use the more accurate word: innings.
  • Brought their A-game. Instead explain how a pitcher or point guard performed exceptionally during a game. This meaningless phrase is mostly on-air filler or a way for sports fans to try to exhibit insider sports knowledge during conversations.
  • Slammed the door, as in “Northwestern closer Leo Ciurcovich came in for the ninth and slammed the door on Purdue, cementing the game for the Wildcats.” Instead, offer more specific information on how the pitcher shut down the opposition: “Ciurcovich retired all three batters he faced in the ninth by inducing a grounder and striking out two to secure the victory.”
  • -era. As in, this is end of the Kobe-era or this is the start of the Curry-era. Tagging “-era” might have been creative the first few times someone used it, but it’s becoming worn.
  • Both teams started out of the gates slowly. Seabiscuit may have occasionally started slowly out of the gates on a horse track, but this does not apply to baseball, basketball, football or hockey. This phrase makes as much sense as pretty much any Key & Peele skit (But it’s not nearly as funny). So bag the phrase. The same goes for “their backs were against the wall.”
  • Redundancy: No need to cite that a player went a perfect 3-for-3. Three hits in three at-bats is perfectly fine without any clarification.

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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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