Six areas where sports writers go wrong – the inside story

19 Feb

Having edited the work of leading British sports writers for more years than I care to remember, I can tell you that their articles are not always as well-written as you might think.

That is because, certainly in the tabloid world, the readability of a newspaper article is often down to a sub-editor’s fine-tuning rather than the author’s literary gifts.

In my early days as a Daily Express sub, we had a football reporter on the staff who regularly came up with great exclusives. But although he’d type up the news as an ‘article’, it was usually little more than a clumsily-written fact sheet.

Nobody cared, though, because the only thing that mattered was the story itself – and turning it into a back-page lead was usually a routine job for an experienced sub-editor.

In more recent times, one or two of Fleet Street’s top sports hacks had a reputation in the business for churning out pure gibberish rather than acceptable copy. And whilst I am not going to name the paper or writer concerned, I had the misfortune to be saddled on several occasions with subbing the investigative reports of one of the best known drivellers.

All I can say is that reading the final flowing version of his ramblings in the following morning’s edition was for me just about the ultimate in job satisfaction. Even if I still wasn’t sure what it was all about!

Sub-editors are what I call ‘desk reporters’ – journalists who work in an office environment editing and honing the work of those out in the field (or in the press boxes, to be more accurate).

Almost without exception, the subs have spent lots of time out there reporting before moving on into the sub-editing arena. It is rare indeed for someone to START his or her journalistic life as a sub-editor.

More often than not, the changeover is a conscious decision by writers with particularly high grammatical skills and a desire to work office hours rather than be farmed out on stories at all hours, day and night.

So what advice can I give to embryo sports journalists? What is the perception of someone who has been there and done it all towards the errors made by young writers developing their skills out in the big wide sporting world? Where do the reporters go wrong?

1/ Not checking the facts: Many writers just churn out copy off top of their heads and THINK they remember accurately. In the old days, reporters used reference books – it is so easy these days to carry out a quick internet search to establish the facts, but how many people actually bother to do it.

2/ Over-estimating the reader: Another common error is for the writer to assume readers know more than they actually do. I have edited match reports where the reporter hasn’t even included the score! So always think when you are writing whether you are providing everything the average reader would want to know.

3/ Spelling: This is usually the big difference between a reporter and a sub. With the sort of back-up subs provide, it doesn’t usually matter too much if a reporter can’t spell too well, as long as he or she is not completely dyslexic, of course! However, a sub who can’t spell would be as useful as a lifeguard who can’t swim. So if God hasn’t given you the gift of being able to spell (and word recognition IS a gift, not something that can really be learnt), then forget about ever becoming a sub-editor.

4/ Grammatical errors: Most people are aware that the infinitive and the verb should never be split, but how many people use expressions like ‘to brilliantly save from…’ or ‘to angrily remonstrate with the referee’? Those variances with correct grammar don’t really matter because few people realise it should be ‘to save brilliantly from’ or ‘to remonstrate angrily’. However, some expressions do grate – for instance, I find the phrase ‘‘in the back of the net’’ ludicrous. I mean, if the ball is in the back of the net, where is the FRONT of the net? The ball is in the net, end of story.

5/ Getting too technical: You’ll often find people writing about a football match as if it’s a game of chess – presumably to convey the impression they understand its complexities as well as those who coach and play at the highest level. Basically, football is a very simple exercise, though from reading what some of the so-called expert journalists churn out, you’d think it was rocket science.

6/ Amateur experts: Following on from the previous point, some writers think they know more than the REAL experts – namely the managers and the players. A writer is in a privileged position but if he has never played the game, is he REALLY qualified to slag off players for making mistakes? You can make an argument for saying ‘yes, anyone is qualified to criticise’, but it’s a debatable one. This is presumably why the TV channels use former professionals almost exclusively as their critics and summarisers – be it for football, rugby, cricket, tennis or whatever.

The above article, part of which I wrote during my time as managing editor of the Sportingo.com website, embraces my thoughts after 35 years of reporting, editing and headlining hundreds of sports stories for newspapers like the Daily Mirror, Daily Express, The Sun, Daily Star, Sunday People and News of the World. I just hope it helps the next generation of sports writers in some small way…

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