Archive for October 3rd, 2008

Write like a photographer

October 3, 2008
The Delaware Review's Alex Porro somehow avoided getting trampled when the football team raced out onto the field. That was 1 of many lessons he learned while shooting the game.

The Delaware Review's Alex Porro somehow did not get trampled while snapping this photo last week. That was not all Porro learned while covering the football game from behind a lens.

Writers can learn a great deal about writing from photographers. Really. But you really shouldn’t be shocked. After all, they are journalists who use a camera more than a notepad. And they have a unique perspective on most events. Learning to think like a photographer will help more than you can imagine. Delaware Review sports editor Alex Porro learned this lesson last week while covering a football game with a professional photographer. By watching the game through a lens, Porro learned how to describe the game more visually. It’s a damned fine read. Here’s the lead:

It is approximately six o’clock Saturday evening and I am crouched against the goal posts in the south end zone of Delaware Stadium, my back pressed firmly against the blue protective padding. It has been drizzling for a few hours and the scent of mud and wet grass hangs heavy over Tubby Raymond Field.

The green hedges which outline the field, fading as the weather cools, seem quaint underlining the raucous student section hungry for an important victory. The blue and gold clad Cockpit raps out an indistinct cadence on their Thunder Sticks as a “Who’s house?” chant starts up. My legs are burning from my crouched position and my heartbeat has picked up. In my hands is a Nikon digital camera worth more than anything I own, about $5,000, lent to me by professional photographer Bob Burleigh.

Burleigh, who has been a sports photographer since he was 14, has worked for the university since 1999 and specializes in football. He agreed to let me use his camera for Delaware’s game against Albany to find out what goes into the perfect sports photo. He sets me up in a prime spot to shoot the players storming out of the tunnel before the game.

“Don’t move or you’ll get hit,” Burleigh said.

Porro writes like a photographer – visually, simply, eloquently. Readers can visualize this scene (blue protective padding, green hedges outlining the field, blue and gold clad Cockpit), feel it (legs burning, racing heartbeat, back pressed firmly against a pad, wet grass, cool weather), hear it (students chanting raucously ), and smell it (scent of mud). And that was just in the opening several paragraphs. The lead establishes setting while the second graph offers conflict, the key to any good story: A student-photographer is hoping he does not get trampled by 80 players storming out of a tunnel and, thus, will not break a $5,000 camera.

Sportswriters can learn a great deal by following photographic principles. Last week, I presented a session on this topic at a state journalism conference with my friend and colleague, Brian Poulter, a terrific photographer in his own right. We will also present this session, on Writing Visually, at the College Media Advisers national fall journalism convention in Kansas City later this month. Stop by if you can make it. (BTW, I will present two sports sessions there as well.) In the meantime check out Alex’s entertaining and informative piece. And, oh yeah, the kid can also shoot pretty well.

We are not experts. After years of reporting and studying a sport, sportswriters may gain a much greater understanding about football or baseball or track, but that still does not make us expert, just more informed than the average fan. Coaches, who devote their lives to their sports, know much more than we do about missed assignments, match-ups, and skills. That’s why we cultivate relationships with them. That’s why we cite them. Few readers care about analysis straight from a sportswriter. Really, what the heck do we know? Analysis from college sportswriters typically is perceived as even less informed. Before assessing the football team’s chances this weekend, you should speak with both opposing coaches and your school’s coaches. Want to really impress readers and editors? Then also call a coach whose team has played both teams and ask for a comparison.

Offer examples, specific details and clear reasons to suport statements in analysis pieces and columns. Do not just offer general statements.

Auburn can’t run. They can’t pass. At times they can’t even hold onto the ball.
It’s not fair to a defense to have to carry the team week in and week out — even if it’s as dominant as Paul Rhoads’ squad.

How many yards does Auburn average? How many times do they run the ball each game? What is the team’s completion average and what is the quarterback’s rating? Offer specific plays from games? How many times has the team fumbled – and have players lost the ball in crucial situations? None of those salient points are addressed in this analysis piece. Making unsubstantiated statements creates more questions than answers.

Soccer coverage Arizona’s Daily Wildcat reporter Bobby Stover does a nice job previewing the women’s soccer team’s match this weekend. Apparently, Arizona was twice shut out last weekend. Stover leads with an anecdote at practice, ties that to the upcoming match, includes comments from coaches and players, and includes analysis and key stats.

One key for the Wildcats will be to regain their composure offensively. Last weekend, Arizona barely touched the ball against its Friday opponent, Long Beach State. As a team, the Wildcats were outshot 12-5 with only three being on target.

Check it out.

Fully develop leads. And make sure you connect support these opening statements.

This week’s practices for the Ball State University soccer team have looked a lot like rugby.

After a 3-0 loss to Central Michigan University a week ago, the team’s worst loss in two years, the Cardinals (5-5-0, 1-1-0 Mid-American Conference) raised their intensity to rebound with a 3-0 win against Eastern Michigan University. The intensity from Sunday’s win has carried over to practice this week, which will help Ball State win more games, coach Michael Lovett said.

Unsure how the Ball State soccer team played like a rugby squad here. Did they get into scrums? Did they swing passes out to the sidelines and run down the field? The writer here seems to imply intensity is the explanation, but all good teams are defined by intense, determined play.

And don’t be cutesy (or is that Cute-Z?) Here is a paragraph inserted into an otherwise pretty good soccer column at the Cornell Daily Sun: “It seems they have only two things in common. First, they have the skillz. (They get a ‘z’ on the skills because of just how important they are to this Red team. Chang has already scored two goals, for example, tied with two older players as Cornell’s scoring leaders.)” Please, cross out references like the one above.