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 clichés, 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.