Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Bob's 10 Tips For Column Writing

Following up on what I wrote the past couple of days, I have my own tips for writing sports columns -- advice that can be applied to columns in general and journalism in general.

Since these are my own tips, I'm not going to comment specifically on each one. I've tried to offer advice that isn't exactly the same as what Red Smith or Mark Purdy gave, but there are some similarities.

1. Avoid stating the obvious or there's no point to your writing.

2. Don’t write something simply to see how many people will read or react to it.

3. Challenge your readers but don’t insult them.

4. Get to the point. Be careful not to go into long rants.

5. You want your sources to think of you as a friend, not just a name and number. But remember that friends don’t expect you to just do whatever they want you to do.

6. If you don’t know how to explain something, then talk to somebody who does — and not simply somebody who will tell you what you want to hear.

7. Issues may be complex but that doesn’t mean you have to make them complicated. It is possible to discuss an issue in which many details are involved, but to explain those details so the average person can understand them.

8. Remember that doing research means looking at material that may go against what you believe as much as looking at what supports your beliefs.

9. Avoid superlatives, exaggerations and over-the-top statements. You don’t want your writing to sound like the ramblings of a bad sports commentator.

10. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box — but make sure you present information that backs up your ideas.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Mark Purdy's Sports Column Writing Tips

Continuing where I left off the other day, Mark Purdy has some of his own advice for writing sports columns. Once again, plenty of the advice is good not just for sports columns, but for writers and journalists in general.

Let me take you through the advice Purdy gave with some of my own thoughts included.

Follow your own brain waves, not the broadcast airwaves or the loud voice of anyone else.

Journalists owe it to themselves to follow their own minds, not whoever talks the most, the loudest or the most stuff you agree with. An independent mind is a good thing — the question to ask yourself is whether or not you really have an independent mind. If you find yourself gravitating to people who just tell you what you want to hear, then you don’t really have an independent mind.

Avoid the obvious the way a coach avoids the truth.

I see way too many writers and pundits play “Captain Obvious To The Rescue” and that’s not good. For example: Of course every NFL team’s goal is to reach the Super Bowl. So don’t write about that, Captain.

Look at the whole playing field and think about who saw what or who might know what.

When in the locker room, look at the person no one’s talking to; he or she might have the most interesting things to say.

The two tips go hand in hand. The small details that make a difference in the outcome of a game can be more important than you think. Additionally, you may find more interesting tales from the people nobody talks to — particularly because the players who reporters are more likely to talk to, are going to know how to deal with reporters and not share much.

Pay attention all the time; you never know what may come in handy.

I’ve found this happen several times when covering athletic contests — some of them examples I shared in my book. (Blatant plug.)

Don’t be afraid to propose an idea, but make sure it’s backed up with good information that makes sense.

This is the type of writing you will often find at It’s All Over Fat Man, an independent Denver Broncos website. Ted Bartlett does a good job at this and Doc Bear will do this from time to time. And none of what they write about it is telling coaches what to do, but viewing trends they see taking shape and how they believe coaches might react to them in the future.

Cultivate relationships with sources where you can ask on background, “What do I need to know before I write this?”

The best relationships you can develop with a source are the ones in which you can ask them to explain something to you and they’ll give you what you need to know because they trust that you will be able to explain it to others.

Listen to radio talk shows in small doses for a general sense of discussion topics, but if you listen in large doses, they’ll only make you more stupid.

Purdy passed on this advice from Ray Ratto, a San Francisco Bay area sports writer. The one thing to remember is that a radio talk show is closer to two guys in a bar having a conversation. They may know what they like and don’t like, but you aren’t likely to get the best insight.

If everyone is agreeing on a certain thing, a red flag should go up. There’s always another side to the story, no matter how absurd that other side may be. And you owe it to yourself — and your readers — to at least consider it.

This doesn’t mean you give into conspiracy theories, but it does mean you need to ask yourself if there might be some valid points from the side that isn’t getting attention. This is especially good advice in this day of the narrative that’s pushed by my many who work in media today.

When you’re stuck for a column, go back to your reporting skills. Then dig deeper into them. Then dig even deeper.

There’s a reason why columnists need to get their feet wet in the world of journalism, even if their intent is to become a columnist.

Take chances. The best part about writing a daily column in a newspaper is, if you write the worst column in the history of journalism, it will be in the garbage the next day.

And I will add: If you say it on television, it’s likely to be forgotten about in a week, or if you write it on the Internet, it’s going to get shuffled into the archives.

Don’t bask. Move onto the next idea fast. The worst part about writing a daily column in a newspaper is, if you write the best column in the history of journalism, it will still be in the garbage the next day.

I’ll add the same advice above.

Have fun.

Don’t have too much fun.

That’s actually good advice for life in general.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Red Smith's Sports Column Writing Tips

A few years ago, I attended a sports writer workshop in Denver. Mark Purdy, a sports columnist who writes for the San Jose Mercury News, was one of the speakers. He discussed how sports writers should approach columns and passed out a couple of handouts with tips for writing sports columns.

The first handout included tips from Red Smith, a sports writer who eventually joined the New York Times and became one of the most well known sports columnists in the United States. The Associated Press named its award for outstanding sports writing after him.

Allow me to share with you some of the advice that Smith gave to people regarding sports columns, along with my thoughts on the tips themselves. Honestly, these tips are not just good advice for sports columnists, but journalists in general, and some might even be good advice for people in general.

Create in the reader the impression you were there. You saw, you heard.

I have found that relating personal experiences with people and events is how the best columns are put together. It’s sound advice from Red.

Never fake. The reader knows when you are stretching the truth.

In other words, don’t exaggerate just to draw attention — even if it’s something you think people want to hear.

Use no slang, except to make a point in quotes. No clich├ęs, same exception.

I think this is self explanatory. Sports fans may use them, but they do that in casual talk as they watch a game. Most of them don’t want to hear it from a sports commentator, so why would they want to read it from a writer?

Don’t be pompous, not even authoritative. Don’t strut.

Nobody knows the answer to everything. This is not just good advice for sports writers, but everybody in general.

Write about people always. Make the reader see the people, hear them.

I have found the columns I have written about people to be particularly my best work. Readers like to know about people and what makes them tick.

Don’t manage your local teams. You are a sports writer, not a manager.

I may have violated this rule a couple of times in my earlier years. I’ve learned my lessons. It’s not the job of a sports writer to tell people who should start, how to approach a game or any other critique that fans are likely to toss around.

Don’t try to dictate decisions which are not your responsibility. Let those responsible hire and fire coaches.

This is not just good advice for sports writers, but good advice for those who criticize every little thing a coach does. It’s unfortunate, though, that some of those people don’t get the message — and unfortunate that some happen to be sports writers.

Don’t base your facts on your opinions.

More advice that’s good not just for sports writers, but the general population.

Be relentlessly accurate. Know that some sources are lying, or at least exaggerating. Never let them know you know that.

There are always going to be people who want to avoid the truth, particularly when they hold a lot of power or influence. The trick is to listen to them and not take everything at face value, but not to act like you don’t trust them.

Don’t drown your readers in statistics.

What Red refers to here is overkill. You can use statistics once in a while to make a point but don’t overdo it and don’t make it complicated.

Always check back with sources on complex situations.

This advice applies to any form of journalism.

If humor comes naturally, fine. Print it, but don’t strain for it.

My addition to this advice: Humor works best in small doses. Exception: If you plan be a regular humor columnist like Dave Barry.

If you know a sports figure is a crook and can prove it, say so with provable facts — but doubly verified.

Again, this advice applies to any form of journalism. For those who aren’t involved in journalism, this is why investigative journalism takes time to come together. No matter how much you thrive on instant information, some details just can’t be pulled together in just a few minutes.

Be tolerant and compassionate, even to those who may not deserve it.

The example given was when Red Smith was interviewed on 60 Minutes and asked for his opinion of Howard Cosell. Smith’s response: “I have tried very hard to like Howard — and I have failed.”

Whenever you engage in journalism, you are always going to meet those people you may not get along with. You need to learn to have patience with those people and not treat them as if they were just somebody to put on the hot seat all the time.

Book Now Available Through Amazon

Looks like the Amazon page for Small Town Sports Beat is now up, so you should be able to order the book.

The Amazon page is here.

Still waiting on Kindle and looking into the matter.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Small Town Sports Beat LAQ


This LAQ will cover what I expect to be the questions most often asked about my book Small Town Sports Beat. Please review this list before you start asking questions about the book. A few of the answers are subject to change, so the LAQ will be updated as needed to reflect that.

Why wasn’t this person or that event included in the book?

As explained in the introduction, I simply could not include every person I have met or every event that I have experienced. I hope no offense is taken for anyone or anything that wasn’t included.

Why did you end the book with the year 2011?

There is a reason that’s revealed in the book, which I consider to be a spoiler, so read the book if you want to know. There were some significant events that happened in 2012, which I would have liked to include, but 2011 was the logical ending point, given the main theme of the book.

Where is the book available for purchase?

Through Amazon.com, both in paperback form and for Kindle. I published the book through CreateSpace and anyone who has an account with that site can purchase the book there.

To buy through Amazon, go here.

To order for Kindle, go here.

To buy through CreateSpace, go here.

Will copies of the book be made available for purchase elsewhere?

That depends on demand for the book. I will be exploring an option for selling the book through a means other than Amazon, but that will come down the road.

If I am able to sell copies through another avenue, I may be able to take mail orders on a limited basis. Again, that’s an option I’ll be exploring.

Will copies be made available to libraries?

I have donated copies to the Arthur Johnson Memorial Library and to the Raton High School library. I hope to make copies available to other libraries in the future.

Will you sign copies of the book?

If you meet me in person, I will. If a mail-order option that isn’t through Amazon becomes available, I may be able to sign copies to be sent via mail order. Obviously, I can’t arrange for a signed copy to be ordered through Amazon or CreateSpace.

Will copies be made available for those wish to review the book?

Please contact me privately to discuss these particulars.

Are you willing to make appearances to discuss the book?

If there is interest, yes. You may e-mail me and I can make arrangements with you. Keep in mind I have to work around my job schedule.

Why is this an LAQ, not an FAQ?

Because it’s the questions I expect to be answered about the book. You can’t have frequently asked questions if they haven’t been asked yet, right?

OK, sorry I asked. What questions may I ask that aren’t covered here?

You may e-mail questions you have about the book to ratonsports at gmail.com or you may post them in the comments section of the blog. I will try to answer as many questions as I can on the blog. I will answer questions about the process of writing the book, events mentioned, my travels around the state or general questions about The Raton Range and/or newspapers and journalism in general. But please keep the following in mind:

* If the question has already been addressed in this LAQ, don’t ask it again because it will be ignored.
* For anything pertaining to specific story ideas, corrections regarding stories that appeared in The Range, or coverage of events, please contact me directly at The Range office, by phone (575-445-2721) or my work e-mail (bobmorris at ratonrange.com). Please do not use the blog or the gmail account for those purposes
* Questions about Little League need to be directed to the same phone number and e-mail address, not on the blog or via gmail.
* When you ask your question, you need to conduct yourself as if you were saying it directly to my face. And remember, if somebody directed such a question to me by yelling in my face, I’d tell you to not talk to me that way. So please be civil, polite and to the point if you want your question answered.
* As I make blog posts and answer questions, you may wish to check those first before asking your question, as it may have been answered.

How can I help spread the word about your book?

If you liked the book, feel free to tell your friends about it. Tell them about this blog and about my Facebook page. You are free to link to this blog if you wish.