Indiana University

National Sports Journalism Center

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Twenty-five more dos and don’ts and counting . . .

If I am ever to do a book on "A Thousand Dos and Don'ts of Sportswriting," I need to get with it. So far I have offered only 100 such suggestions in two installments, the last delivered more than a year ago. I have no excuse other than Life With Pepper. She is a beagle and an adventure. The puppy has eaten shoes, a watch band, that gauze netting under our mattress (after which she crawls up in there and hangs, as if in a hammock), a ballpoint pen, my new Hanes boxers, a dozen artificial flowers, a curtain rod, and two corners off "Morning Miracle." At the moment, asleep, she is dreaming of her next assault. I must type quickly. So, 25 more . . .

1. If an editor rewrites your lede for SEO purposes, leap from a high place onto the editor's head.

2. Tweet to your heart's content. Do it the way Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times does it, reporting.

3. Do not quote tweets in your news story or column until you have called the tweeter for verification and elaboration.

4. Think Pulitzer, not page views.

5. Read promiscuously. Stay faithful to Red Smith.

6. Know the end of your piece before you start, as W.C. Heinz did in "Death of a Racehorse."

7. I attended the birth of a racehorse. Midnight, Hermitage Farm, Goshen, Ky. Lightning, thunder. A horseman named Tom Shartle in attendance with Bushfield, the mother of 10. Her newest baby was in my lede: "A little past 1 o'clock in the morning, he helped a newborn filly stand." I knew the end, the horseman saying, "It's a long way from here to the Derby."

8. Tape to your typing machine these words: "You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Aristotle.

9. Be a ruthless editor. Usage rule 17 in William Strunk's "Elements of Style" is "Omit needless words." But which words are needless? Such editing is best done under self-hypnosis. Look at your copy as if it were written by someone else, by an enemy, by an illiterate who fell off a passing turnip truck, or perhaps produced by a roomful of monkeys with half-glasses of Scotch alongside their typewriters. In that state of merciless excision, the problem changes. Now it's not deciding which words are needless; it's deciding which few can be saved from such an unholy mess. Either way, the piece profits from the cruelty.

10. Be a skeptic, not a cynic.

11. Believe nothing you hear and half of what you see.

12. That's why Bell invented the phone. Gene Weingarten, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner for the Washington Post, believes there's a god of journalism who takes care of us if we make that one more phone call. Two more calls, we're golden.

13. The best answer to most ethical questions: When in doubt, don't.

14. If you know the who, what, when, and where, and won't quit until you know the why, you're in the right job. A friend said her vagabond days ended when she found herself in a shabby, disgusting, derelict newsroom filled with misfits, reprobates and other journalists. She said, "I finally felt at home. I had found my chimpanzee family."

15. Listen to Springsteen's "Glory Days." In the wink of a young girl's eye, glory days, they'll pass you by. As Jimmy Cannon saw Joe Louis, I saw Muhammad Ali. It's every heartbreaking sports story.

16. Major league athletes often say: "You don't understand, you've never played the game." It's irritating, and not least so because they're right. They understand their game at a level beyond a sportswriter's reach. It's an understanding so well arrived at through a lifetime of experience and muscle-memory work as to appear instinctive, and they're unable to articulate it. We should respect that understanding, not argue it. In such cases, though one may be tempted to say he has written about murders without murdering even an editor, the best way to keep the interview alive is to say, "Educate me."

17. Kill cliches, and not just the one-game-at-a-time, gotta-step-up, backs-to-the-wall variety of cliches. Kill cliches of story concepts, of thought, characterization, structure – but retain the right to argue that your overcoming-adversity story is the exception that proves the rule. I once offered to a national magazine the story of a long-distance runner who had dogged doctors for 12 years to diagnose the trouble with her heart. Finally, after a third heart attack, she received a heart transplant. Within a year, she set a world record in the 1,500-meter run at the U.S. Transplant Games. My story was rejected by an editor who said, "We've had too many heart transplant-success stories." I wanted to leap from a high place onto her pointy head.

18. Read E.B. White. Read "The Decline of Sport." Read it aloud.

19. To learn how good a sports blog can be, read Joe Posnanski and Charlie Pierce. They do sagas, Joe's running to thousands of words, Charlie's done in miniature.

20. For quotes, "said" suffices. Elmore Leonard says so: "Never use a verb other than ‘said' to carry dialogue. . . . The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in." That thought was immortalized in 1964 by Professor Robert C. McGiffert of the University of Montana School of Journalism. Because Editor & Publisher magazine paid him $2 for the submission, the professor entitled his piece, "$2 Poem."

As any reader knows, a source can
charge, declare, affirm, relate,
recall, aver, reiterate,
allege, conclude, explain, point out,
answer, note, retort or shout,
rejoin, demand, repeat, reply,
ask, expostulate or sigh,
blurt, suggest, report or mumble,
add, shoot back, burst out or grumble,
whisper, call, assert or state,
vouchsafe, cry, asseverate,
snort, recount, harrumph, opine,
whimper, simper, wheedle, whine,
mutter, murmur, bellow, bray,
whinny or … let's see now
… SAY!


21. Leonard again: "I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ‘she asseverated,' and had to stop reading to get the dictionary."

22. "Is ESPN actually journalism?" A student at a major journalism school asked the question. "It seems to me," the questioner said, "that all they do is trot out a bunch of so-called experts who scream and yell at you. But all they're really doing is giving you their opinions. It's very similar to Fox News and I get confused sometimes if this is actually journalism or what it is." There's an important place in journalism for opinion, whether whispered or shouted, but that place should be small compared to the room for news and information. So, yes, it's journalism – done poorly.

23. Carry a notebook at all times. Carry a pen. Carry two pens because one will run out of ink. Stuff happens and short-term memory is good for maybe three minutes; after that, the brilliant thought that perfectly captured the spirit of the thing is gone. You will go home and read biographies of writers who have gone insane.

24. Go to a little basketball gym. Sit in the bleachers with the moms and dads. Have popcorn, a hot dog, and a Coke. Remember, these are the glory days.

25. If you can, wait until you're done writing before you wake the beagle.
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