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How To Break Into Sportswriting
by Chuck Bednar

Can you explain the infield fly rule? Do you know who has the lowest score in Masters' history? Can you name the winner of the 1979 Indy 500, or how many All-Americans came from the Big East last season? If not, then you have no place writing about sports. Right?

As a popular ESPN broadcaster would say, "Not so fast, my friend!"

Clearly, possessing a strong working knowledge of sports doesn't hurt, but a writer doesn't have to be a sports genius or a trivia whiz to gain a decent paycheck and valuable clips from reporting on athletic competition. The fact is that, with a bit of knowledge about the basic blueprints about a sports feature and some determination, you too can score a goal in the field of sportswriting.

IN THE ON-DECK CIRCLE:

This article assumes that you already have a firm grasp on nonfiction and/or journalistic writing. If not, you're fighting an uphill battle when it comes to covering sports, because in essence sportswriting is a mix of journalism and creative nonfiction. Your writing needs to tell a story, just a like a feature, but it also has to have a solid foundation of reporting and fact. Usually, the lead is creative in nature and sets up the central theme or slant of the story. Support that lead with details from the game, statistical performance information, and quotes obtained from players and coaches during a post-event interview.

STEPPING UP TO THE PLATE:

If you're not at least a casual sports fan, then you need to do a little research before diving into the action. Instructional books, such as Joe Morgan's excellent "Baseball for Dummies", are available at most bookstores and libraries. They do an excellent job of breaking down the game. The Internet can also be a valuable too. Many sports sites, including those at About.com (www.about.com), offer short instructional articles covering the basics of their sport, and are willing to answer any additional questions you might have. You don't need to be an expert, but make sure that you at least understand the basic concepts and terminology of the sport or sports you plan to cover.

GETTING ON BASE:

The next step is to find a potential market. As a rookie, you probably won't have the know-how, the contacts, or the clips to land a top-notch assignment right off the bat. If you're serious about becoming successful in the field of sportswriting, your first step should be to contact your local newspapers about becoming a stringer. A stringer is a correspondent hired by a paper to cover events (in this case, sporting events) on a by-article basis. You won't get rich and famous by being a stringer, but the knowledge and clips you gain will be invaluable for the future.

BREAKING FOR SECOND:

Covering your first game can be overwhelming. The important thing to remember is that your readers don't just want to know what happened during the event. They want to know who or what makes it worth the time they'll need to read it. If you're unsure, listen to the other reporters and announcers in the press box. What are they discussing? Who are they impressed with? Why do they think one team or athlete is performing better than the other? Listen carefully, and use these comments during your postgame interviews.

ROUNDING THIRD:

When working on a sports feature article or an interview piece, prepare much the same as you would any other writing assignment. Do your homework. Find a contact within the school, team, or organization whose teams or athletes you plan to profile. Check out past stories on the individual or team, noting things such as winning streaks or performance trends. Also, mix your style of questions. If you know what you're looking for, feel free to be specific. But be sure to mix in a good amount of open-ended questions, especially if you're new or not quite sure what to ask. It never hurts to give a coach or player free reign, and sometimes this type of question produces the best answers or explains something you might not have been clear on.

HEADED FOR HOME:

When you're ready to make the break and try for the big markets, build on your experience as a stringer. As nice as it would be to instantly land an interview with Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, it's unrealistic. Most editors welcome human interest stories and short, lesser-known features -- things like local sports heroes doing amazing things on and off the field, or overcoming the odds to achieve greatness. If you know where to look and who to ask, odds are you can find these kind of stories right in your own backyard. Turn to the contacts you made while stringing. With their assistance, you should be on the road to a lucrative career in the sportswriting field.

© Copyright 2001, Chuck Bednar

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