Don't “boot it” by “dodging bullets”
Some of the best writing appears in the sports pages of newspapers and other publications. So does some of the worst.
Sports stories should be the liveliest. The nature of the content makes that both inevitable and desirable. To help ensure that the writing style and the content are consistent, sportswriters are given more latitude than other reporters. And that's the genesis of the dichotomy mentioned in the first paragraph. Disciplined sports writers are among the best in the business; undisciplined ones are among the worst.
Many of the weaknesses of the latter can be minimized by an alert copy desk. It's the job of the copy editor to recognize when the writer has crossed that ill-defined line between the acceptable and the unacceptable, whether that line involves the difference between cleverness and triteness, jargon and “sportuguese,” color and editorializing, or repetition and synonymomania.
A generation ago, two disparate newspaper departments were afflicted by a common readership problem: More than half of the newspaper's subscribers systematically ignored them. Those two departments were Sports and Society. For the most part, men ignored society news and women ignored sports news. A revolution in newspaper society pages has dramatically altered the content, approach, name and readership of those two categories. But such a widespread change has not occurred to the same degree in sports — yet. It is coming, and the changes are becoming more evident every day.
The potential for readers of sports news is greater than ever because of the growing number of participants in such participation sports as golf, bowling, boating, fishing and tennis. To this we should add the burgeoning number of participants in such popular physical fitness activities as softball, volleyball and handball as well as jogging, aerobics and walking. Television has greatly expanded the interest in spectator sports, particularly among women and young people.
If written and edited intelligently, sports pages can become the most appealing section of any publication or Web site. That means sports copy should not be written or edited for sports experts. It should be written and edited with concern for those with only a luke-warm interest in sports, as well as for those whose interest is confined to a fairly narrow range of sports activity. Many of the changes needed to improve sports stories do not fall in the domain of the copy editor. Only those that do are discussed here.
When appropriate, a figure of speech can enhance a story. It makes its point; it is apt, dramatic or funny. It also is unexpected. The consistent and careful use of freshly coined phrases is not only the essence of wit, it is the mark of a thoughtful writer. When a figure of speech is particularly apt, it is remembered and repeated, to the delight of each person hearing it for the first time. In a society without mass media, such phrases would stay fresh for generations. With mass media,however, fruits and vegetables in the supermarket stay fresh longer. When a figure of speech has worn out, it is trite, hackneyed. It becomes a cliché. (Modern youngsters exposed to Shakespeare for the first time probably wonder why the old boy used so many clichés. They weren’t clichés when he wrote them! And the many he used that were he did so because of their wit! He used them to perfection.)
Clichés are the opposite of freshly coined phrases. Rather than being the product of thought, they are substitutes for thought. They are not unexpected; they are foreseen. They don't delight the reader; they put the reader to sleep.
Clichés are not peculiar to sports writing. All writing suffers from the malady (and not just from the obvious, such as “straight as an arrow” or “raining cats and dogs”). Here are a few that seldom appear in sports copy: bloody riots; controversial issue; devastating flood; expert authority; fire broke out; generation gap; hammer out; in nothing flat; jaundiced eye; keeled over; led to safety; miraculous escape; nitty-gritty; overwhelming majority; phased in (or out); rampaging flood; senior citizen; firestorm of controversy, tell it like it is; ugly mob; violent explosion.
As this shows, sports stories are not the sole domain of clichés, but the discussion of them is presented here because they seem to appear far more often in sports copy.
(c) MacNelly 2013
Here are some that disgrace sports copy regularly: dodged a bullet; booted it (referring to an error), unanswered points; caroms (for rebounds); ticks on the clock; circled the bases; century mark; southpaw; hot corner; miscues; roundtripper.
By its very nature, the battle against clichés is never ending. As soon as one is killed and buried, another takes its place. But that doesn't mean we should give up. Any word or phrase that you would not use in conversation for fear of being laughed at should come out of stories.
Look at these examples: Splashed the nets. Went through the competition unscathed. Dent the scoring column. Launched a three-point attempt. Drained a three-pointer. Scoreless stanza. Iced the putt. Survived a shootout. A backup net minder. Rounded out the scoring. Coming like the proverbial house afire.
Would you say those things in normal conversation? I would hope not. If you did, you would be (or should be) laughed at. So, when such inanities appear in copy, remove them.
When you are editing sports stories (or any story, for that matter), ask yourself these questions:
1. Is every word working?
2. Can any thought be expressed more economically?
3. Is anything in the story faddish, pompous or pretentious? (If read aloud, does it sound like Dick Vitale?)
4. Is all of the jargon eliminated?
5. Do the sentences contain any unnecessary modifiers or qualifiers?
As in other news stories, the best way to communicate is through the use of short, single-thought sentences. But never forget that improving writing does not necessarily mean removing words; sometimes words need to be added. The key to that, of course, is adding the right word.
Problems and solutions
Here's some clutter and suggestions for removing it:
| The Tigers own a 25-7-1 advantage in their series with the Owls.
|| The Tigers have won 25, lost seven and tied one game in the series with the Owls.
| The Hawks are 3-4 so far this season.
|| The Hawks have won three games and lost four.
|...last Saturday afternoon in a contest at Columbia.
||...Saturday at Columbia.
|Lawrence surrendered the ball
three times on fumbles.
|Lawrence lost three fumbles.
|got on the scoreboard
|put points on the scoreboard
|drew first blood
|first to dent the scoring column
|tallied the first points
|went to the locker rooms at
halftime deadlocked in a scoreless tie.
|tied 0-0 at the half
|Kansas has not played a match
since its tournament win Sunday
at the Sandblaster Invitational
|Kansas has not played since
it won the Sandblaster Invitational Tournament.
False purpose: False purpose is used in sports copy so often as to have become a cliché format. When editing sports copy, look carefully at every use of the word to. If it's a false purpose, even if not hilarious, alter the sentence structure to avoid it. (For a more complete review, read the page devoted to false purpose.)
Headlines: Be especially alert for clichés and “sportuguese” in sports headlines. The standard rule of never using a phrase in a headline that you wouldn't be ashamed to say aloud goes double for sports headlines.
Some points of style in sports copy need special mention, including these:
Apostrophes: Do not add an apostrophe to a word ending in "s" when it is used primarily in a descriptive sense.
A Cincinnati Reds outfielder
The Jayhawks first road game
Commas: Do not use a comma when giving scores:
Wrong: The Cards defeated the Dodgers, 4-3.
Correct: The Cards defeated the Dodgers 4-3.
Host: It's not a verb. A team can be host to a tournament, it can play host to a tournament, but it can not host the tournament.
Wrong: Kansas will host the tournament.
Correct: Kansas will be the host of the tournament.
Correct: Kansas will play host to the tournament.
Points: Follow the standard rule for numerals or words. If a player takes 14 shots and makes three of them, that's the way we say it. And it's three-pointers, not 3-pointers.
Quality: The word needs a modifier. Everything has some quality. Also avoid this cliché: The second-string player got some quality time last night.(Meaning: He played more than he usually does or was expected to do.)
Time: Always use numerals, even when below 10. For example: The Jayhawks scored their last points with 3 minutes remaining in the game.
Win: Use “win” as a verb, not a noun, except in headlines, when necessary. The noun in stories is “victory.” Note: won-loss (not win-loss) record is acceptable.