Even Spock might agree: Clarity is the key to solid sportswriting

Once upon a time, someone somewhere used a new word or phrase to describe something related to sports that was creative, illuminating and/or humorous. Through the years, that word became embedded in sports journalism’s lexicon, used – perhaps, tirelessly – numerous times. So should this word be considered a cliché, a worn phrase or just another vocabulary word, no different than other parts of speech? At what point should writers eschew such words and phrases?

cliche

Let’s look at the word workhorse, typically used in football stories to describe a running back who carries the ball a great number of times across a game or entire season, figuratively plowing through defenders and hauling the ball across the field. On some levels, workhorse appears to be a creative, appropriate analogy. Such phrases, though, are often misappropriated and frequently overused by writers who prefer the easy descriptor instead of a more apt word.

In the Daily Wildcat, a younger writer uses this word in a profile of Arizona running back Nick Wilson. This writer offers a solid, quick take on this player. (The Wildcat, by the way, is usually among the stronger college sports staffs so check out their coverage whenever possible.) The profile take includes the following sentence:

“The primary reason for positive outlook could simply be because of the fact junior Nick Wilson, who has been a workhorse, for better or for worse, appears ready to go for the upcoming season.”

This writer then offers details on how Wilson has been a workhorse – rushing for 1,375 yards and 729 yards the previous two seasons and accumulating 105.8 yards per game two seasons ago. In many ways, this runner can be considered a busy runner, although not to the level of an Earl Campbell, maybe the pre-eminent example of a running back serving as the proverbial workhorse after rushing 765 times across four years, including 267 times in 11 games during a senior season when he gained 1,744 yards and earned the Heisman Trophy. As a pro, he carried the ball nearly 400 times during three seasons and made more than 300 attempts five times. Earl Campbell, perhaps more than anybody, could be considered a workhorse – not that he doesn’t have peers, such as Larry Johnson (46 attempts in 2006), Jamal Anderson (410 in ’98) and Eric Dickerson (who had 400 once and nearly 400 three more times). These players definitely labored to ground out the yards. Collegiately, no running back worked harder than Steve Bartalo (below):

steve

A Google search revealed 141,000 uses of workhorse in .38 seconds, at least half being sports references to sports such as football, baseball and soccer – and many of these words used improperly. A running back who gains 110 yards on three to four carries, for example, is definitely not a workhorse, nor is throwing 175 innings five months into a MLB season – at least from a historical perspective, right Old Hoss?

To be fair, though, this is how we learn as writers. We emulate the language used by others, believing these words to be the best way to write about sports. Lord knows, I did that all the time, copying words, phrases and sentences into journals and then working hard to insert as much as possible into my own writing. In 1981, players regularly scampered into the end zone, rammed through the middle of defensive lines and rambled past linebackers in my stories for the Fort Myers News-Press (below).

older sstory

Eventually, we pare these worn phrases from our writing, replacing them with more sophisticated, apt and – most importantly, clearer descriptions. Clarity, after all, is the primary goal for all written communication.

So is workhorse an acceptable word to employ in sports stories? Absolutely…if used accurately and sparingly. A word or phrase becomes cliched when it obscures and/or is imprecise. Challenge yourself to delete all such phrases from your writing. That means you: charity stripe, alligator arms, Texas leaguer and brick.

Here are a few other words and phrases to avoid, along with some style suggestions:

  • Do not refer to games as contests. A football or volleyball game is not a chance to win a four-day trip to Acapulco on “The Price Is Right.
  • Refer to collegiate athletic programs as teams, not clubs, which really signifies a larger association than that connected to a single team. Major League Baseball teams are affiliated with several minor league teams and leagues, making these teams are larger organization. Still, you would usually not refer to the Cubs as a club unless referencing the entire organization.
  • Ran out of gas = tired, worn, fatigued
  • Teams and athletes lose to one another; they do not fall like a bunch of dominoes.
  • References to height and weight vary depending on the usage. For example, cite a player’s size this way: Marquette Smith is 6 feet 2, 280 pounds. But if you are using the size as an adjective, then you would cite size this way: “the 6-foot-2, 280-pound defensive tackle.”
  • On first reference, use interceptions, touchdowns, position names (quarterback, linebacker, offensive guard, etc.). Use the abbreviations on second reference: INTs, TDs, QB, LB, OL.
  • They tried to pry Jackson away from Louisville. … Typically, you don’t need to add words like away, down and up after verbs.
  • LSU was not prepared coming off of a bye week. … Do not add that extra of after off in nearly every sentence.
  •  … and as it always has, rock crushes scissors:

I’ll continue to add to this list through my Twitter account.

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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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