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Elements of lead writing worth emulating and common pitfalls to avoid

Sportswriters don’t just recount statistics or game results. They tell stories. That means they need to introduce themes and conflicts as early as possible in the lead elements to game stories.

That’s a challenge no matter one’s deadline.

But the best leads arise from diligent beat reporting and exhaustive research. Leads emerge a lot easier for those who do their homework – and for those who avoid writing lapses and pitfalls I’ll outline below.

Let’s look at some leads worth emulating.

Injuries significantly affected the outcome in the Bucs’ victory over the Saints on Sunday. New Orleans’ tight end, shoved out of bounds after a reception on the third play of the game, rolled into coach Sean Payton’s leg, sending him into the trainers room with a torn MCL and broken tibia – injuries that prevented Payton from calling plays the remainder of the game. A Bucs defensive back, meanwhile, tore up his knee while celebrating a key defensive play, which hindered Tampa Bay’s ability defend the pass. Two key plays; one theme.

Here’s the lead Rick Stroud filed for the St. Petersburg Times:

TAMPA — As Bucs defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake found out, celebrating isn’t always a happy thing.

Lake instructed Tampa Bay’s secondary to be physical with Saints receivers Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. But when safety Tanard Jackson produced the first of three interceptions, Lake’s jump didn’t result in joy.

Instead, he landed awkwardly and tore his left patellar tendon.

That wasn’t the biggest turnover — or worst injury to a coach — in the Bucs’ 26-20 win, which left them tied atop the NFC South with New Orleans at 4-2.

Stroud focuses on key plays, reveals their importance, and delivers the final outcome – all connected to the game’s storyline.

A day earlier, the Texas Rangers earned their second consecutive World Series berth thanks to an explosive offensive effort, which Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer Jeff Wilson puts into perspective in the following lead: 

ARLINGTON – An amazing third inning, matched only four other times in postseason history, ensured the Texas Rangers’ season would continue for another week.

But there were no sighs of relief in their dugout, and their foot remained firmly planted on the throttle. Ron Washington managed the final four innings as if his team was up one, instead of well in front.

Finally, the 27th out of Game 6 arrived, and euphoria swept through Rangers Ballpark — home of the American League champions for a second consecutive season.

The Rangers erased an early deficit with nine runs in the third inning, and the bullpen allowed one run in 41/3 innings in a 15-5 victory that clinched the AL Championship Series and another trip to the World Series.

Wilson focuses on a few key moments, such as the nine-run third inning and Ron Washington’s bullpen choices, and captures the jubilant mood among Rangers players and fans.

A few years ago, Daily Kansan sportswriter B.J. Rains pivoted his lead around a decisive play in the final minutes, fully developing the scene for a wonderful game story introduction:

TAMPA, Fla. — If faced with the same decision again, Todd Reesing would do only one thing different — throw the ball about a yard farther.

Trying to get the Jayhawks into field goal range with 41 seconds left and the score deadlocked at 34-34 with the then No. 19 South Florida, Reesing dropped back to pass and saw wide receiver Raymond Brown streak down the middle of the field. Reesing took a chance and let it fly, but the ball fell a yard short of Brown and right into the hands of a leaping Nate Allen of USF.

“We got what we wanted,” Reesing said, who passed for 373 yards and three touchdowns. “I kind of fell off my back foot a little bit and just didn’t quite get it there. If I had to do it again, I’d probably make the same decision. I just didn’t make the play.”

Allen stayed on his feet and returned the ball 38 yards to the Kansas 26-yard line. After a one yard run, freshman Maikon Bonani hit his third field goal of the game — a 43-yarder as time expired — to give South Florida a 37-34 win.

Not every game yields a league champion, a scintillating last-minute play or a nasty last-minute collapse. But every game provides a story that can be unearthed and polished through hard work and precise writing.

Sometimes, the best way to start is by learning what not to do. So here are six approaches to avoid when writing leads for a sports gamer. (Keep in mind that these are guidelines. Like in any art, you are encouraged to break every rule in the book. Just do so innovatively.)

1. Don’t generalize (especially when you’re telling readers something they already understand). For example, don’t tell readers that a season is filled with “ups and downs,” that college sports wear down athletes or that one play frequently determines a game between teams.

Consider the following lead:

When two of the best teams in the nation clash, the difference between winning and losing is often decided by the slimmest of margins. One missed tackle, an unexpected bounce of the ball or a bobbled save can have a monumental impact on the final scoreline.

Can you tell this story is about a college soccer game between two nationally ranked rivals? Not at all. This writer could have opened by describing a key goal that rolled in when the goalie failed to clear the ball during a scrum in the penalty area. Or on the fact that both teams are now tied for first in the conference, or even that Duke had to alter its offensive scheme because its leading scorer hurt her ankle before the game and did not play. Sports leads are not openings for composition essays, where one can meander into a topic.

2. Avoid lengthy introductory clauses in the opening sentence. Think about it this way – a subordinate clause is peripheral to the main idea in a sentence. So why open with the least important information? Instead, invert the information so it’s inserted at the end of the sentence or restructure the lead. The following lead includes a 40-word intro:

Three weeks after the San Diego State defense was beaten up by Denard Robinson and Michigan, and only five days after senior quarterback Ryan Lindley and sophomore running back Ronnie Hillman had their worst games of the season against TCU, things could have gotten ugly for SDSU against Air Force in Colorado Springs last Thursday, where the Aztecs hadn’t won in seven years.

Here’s a possible revision –

Things could have gotten ugly Thursday for San Diego State against Air Force, especially after getting throttled by Michigan three weeks ago, followed by poor performances by quarterback Ryan Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman last week.

Here’s a more concise approach –

Things could have gotten ugly Thursday against Air Force. After all, San Diego barely slowed down Michigan’s Denard Robinson in a 28-7 loss three weeks ago. Last week, quarterback Ryan Lindley completed only a third of his passes while running back Ronnie Hillman averaged less than three yards a carry. A letdown seemed inevitable.

Better yet, offer key plays as this AP writers does in his lead:

Ronnie Hillman scored on 22- and 57-yard runs in the fourth quarter and San Diego State pulled away for a 41-27 victory Thursday night.

3. Don’t rely on clichés in leads (unless you plan to tweak or revise them). Clichés are vague, lazy and trite. In a lead, they proclaim a writer’s dull mind. So do not write that a team passed a test with flying colors, that a team had a gutsy come-from-behind victory or avenged an earlier loss. Instead, find a storyline, address key plays or even cite significant stats. If you must use a cliché, consider one like Shirley Povich’s classic lead on the 1956 World Series when Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in postseason baseball history. Notice how he employs clichés to illustrate a point, not as a replacement for clear, precise language.

The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reach-first game in a World Series.

On the mound at Yankee Stadium, the same guy who was knocked out in two innings by the Dodgers on Friday, came up today with one for the record books, posting it there in solo grandeur as the only Perfect Game in World Series history.

With it, the Yankee right-hander shattered the Dodgers, 2-0, and beat Sal Maglie, while taking 64,519 suspense-limp fans into his act.

4. Avoid ‘hope’ and ‘look to.’ These words are particularly problematic in preview stories. Using these words displays a lack of creativity and reveals the reporter has not researched thoroughly. Every team and player hopes to win, and every athlete wants to succeed. Instead, investigate how a team plans to engage an opponent.

5. Don’t focus on team records in leads. Typically, these are unimportant, a fact that can be inserted (with parentheses) somewhere after the lead graphs.

6. Don’t lead with background information. In particular, don’t start by telling readers where or when a team competed, as this lead does: Men’s track and field competed at the Div. III New England Championship at MIT this weekend. Instead, this writer could reveal that MIT took the overall title, that two All-Americans battled it out for the long jump championship, or that a steeplechase runner recorded a provisional qualifying time for the NCAA championships. Tell readers what happened, not just where an event transpired.

The following lead begins with information about a previous game – background information in a lengthy intro clause – before mentioning an exciting volleyball victory.

After a disappointing home loss in their matchup Friday night against Georgia, the Mississippi State volleyball team picked up a dramatic conference win Sunday against Auburn.

This writer could have instead focused on the dramatic way the Bulldogs rallied in the final two sets to defeat Auburn, describing key plays during Mississippi State’s pivotal scoring run or characterizing the manner in which the team rallied. Did the team record a number of kills, rely on defensive efforts by its libero, or start drilling a number of aces? Address plays and trends that help a team in the present, not on past performances or background information.

Leads, while challenging, will improve the more a sports reporter analyzes work by other journalists, develops storylines before a game begins, and takes comprehensive notes during games. If you keep working on these three approaches, your leads will continue to improve – and your stories will flow more smoothly.

Joe Gisondi, the author of the Field Guide To Covering Sports, 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. Currently, he is an associate professor of journalism at Eastern Illinois University. Email him at jgisondi@gmail.com or visit him on Twitter.

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