Archive for the ‘Tips: Columns’ Category

What the heck’s a balaclava?

October 18, 2009

Love how George Vecsey explains the history of the balaclava in today’s column. He also takes a swipe at night baseball.

That’s right, kids, they used to play World Series games in the sunlight, which is why those times are called the Good Old Days.

I also lament that baseball is now played in frigid temperatures late at night.

Plaschke: Be the Miracle

October 2, 2008
Bill Plaschke has been named National Sports Columnist of the Year, has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and writes some of the best damned stories in spors journalism.

The Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke has been named National Sports Columnist of the Year, has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and writes some of the best damned stories in sports journalism.

There are few (if any) sports columnists more adept at telling stories than the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke, a journalist who reports and digs for stories that nobody else really sees. I recently came across a truly inspiring speech he offered to those attending the JEA/NSPA convention last June. After reading his speech, you’ll want to race for your notepad to report (and to rip out a few pages to wipe away the tears). Plaschke covered sports at a university (SIU-Edwardsville) that had very few sports teams and no superstars, so he focused more on stories about people than about sports. Today, he still may eschew the big events (NBA championships, Super Bowls) to write about a woman who must write columns with her mouth and about a magical water boy who is an inspiration for Southern Cal’s football team. (Good luck holding back the tears when reading these stories.) If, after reading his speech, you do not get inspired (or chills), perhaps another profession would do you good.


Floor your readers with amazing stories

October 30, 2007

Columnists are reporters with an opinion. The best columnists are also keen observers, precise writers, and excellent storytellers. Frequently, we forget that readers love stories. But that is difficult to do in 13 inches or 400 words. We need to expand columns on days when a writer finds a terrific story.

Columnists frequently write opinion pieces, offer notes, or playfully address an issue, but how frequently do columnists tell stories to get their points across? Not enough. That’s why reading pieces by a great writer like Bill Plaschke is a treat. Plaschke’s piece — “Floored” — is among the best column I’ve read in some time.

“Floored” is an amazing story, a column that might have fallen through the cracks had Plaschke not also been a curious observer and a diligent reporter. Ultimately, the column succeeds because Plaschke is an excellent storyteller. Readers love a good mystery, something he clearly understands. Consider the opening:

The name is in giant cardinal letters, stripped across two sides of the new basketball court in this city’s new basketball treasure, the signature on USC’s signature arena.

It will be stepped upon by generations of Trojans basketball players.

It will be seen by millions of Galen Center fans.

Yet it is cloaked in mystery.

Jim Sterkel Court.

“Are you sure?” asks his wife, Joanne Sterkel. “His name is on what?”

Plaschke starts with a simple detail and then pulls us in with the idea of a mystery before adding an intriguing detail — that Sterkel’s wife is shocked. Hmmm. How does his wife not know something major like this? What else doesn’t she know? Tell me more.

Plaschke keeps the story rolling by focusing on conflict at several points. There is the sad moment when Sterkel finds out he has cancer. Then, readers learn that the anonymous donor’s son is also dying. The reader, of course, will want to read further to learn the outcome in both situations

When Sterkel first noticed a lump in his testicles, he told Anonymous, who immediately drove him to the doctor for the beginning of his long and fatal relationship with cancer.

While Sterkel was dying, Anonymous’ young son also contracted cancer. Sterkel wrote Anonymous a poem, sealed it, and ordered it only to be read if Anonymous’ son died.

Plaschke also writes wonderfully, varying sentences as needed. He uses short, staccato sentences to re-emphasize points in longer sentences. He then counters with longer sentences that pack a lot of information within them.

After their senior years, the roommates set upon vastly different courses of life, but never strayed too far.

There’s also this nice passage that summarizes the opening scene:

Anonymous became a business tycoon, while Sterkel became a suburban salesman and church leader, yet they still met for family dinners, fishing trips and pep talks on the phone.

Sterkel was the kind of guy who didn’t smoke, didn’t swear, and would lead his church in services and on its basketball courts.

He was the kind of guy neighbors phoned if they needed a television fixed or pipe unclogged. Giant and bespectacled and always smiling, he was the kind of guy who hugged everyone.

He also says much in the following sentence, a 22-word line of poetry. (Notice, also, how the second shorter sentence leaps out in comparison to its lengthier neighbor.)

A most amazing story in this city of stars, a sports centerpiece decorated in average, laced in ordinary, painted in a nobody.

Or was he?

Plaschke is also a tenacious reporter. He uncovers the name of the anonymous donor but does not reveal it to readers, knowing that detail is unnecessary to the telling of the tale. Just because we know something does not mean we should publish it. Consider how your words impact others. Plaschke speaks with many sources, everybody from Jim Sterkel’s wife and daughter to a former teammate to USC’s athletic director to Anonymous. He digs in to learn as many details about this story as possible from these people.

After so much work, Plaschke then tells an amazing story of friendship, dedication, and selflessness. It’s a lovely story, one that sticks in one’s mind (and heart) for a long time — and one worth emulating.


Satire can result in a swing and a miss

October 29, 2007

Part of my mission is to try and educate. Part of my job is to model activity — in this case writing a column with a strong opinion. Perhaps, I failed in that mission. At least that’s how it appears if you read the comments to my previous blog (below). Nearly every single writer said they did not get the satire, which either means that readers failed to understand it, or that I failed to present it properly. Since no one is defending the post, I can only assume I struck out.

I had thought the reasons I offered in the column would clearly shine through as ridiculous. But I guess there are many ridiculous notions presented on the Internet. I had assumed everybody thought like me — that binge drinking in college is stupid, that missing class is a losing proposition, that athletes should be held accountable, and that drinking and driving is as deadly and stupid as it gets. That’s why, for example, I made the statement below. Who else but the student would be to blame?

After all, it wasn’t the player’s fault that he had inadvertently been arrested twice for driving under the influence of intoxicants.

Based upon comments, though, I found most readers do agree with me on this, thus the comments. What happened is they did not connect with me, a relationship that requires more time. The regular readers of this blog understood what I wrote; first-timers did not. Part of a columnist’s success is this connection with readers. Those who know me understand that I believe in accountability and that drunk drivers should be sentenced harshly. They appreciated the posting. Many others, though, did not. That, of course, is not always the reader’s fault.

I also assumed readers would see through the rather shallow argument below, where I cited alcohol stats to reveal how deadly DUII can be. I had hoped people would understand that driving while intoxicated is a deadly, stupid thing. That’s why I did the research.

It’s not like Luke was one of the 16,885 people who died in alcohol-related driving fatalities in 2005. He had not slammed into anyone, thus he had not added to the 254,000 people who get injured from crashes involving alcohol. One person may be injured every two minutes, and killed another 31, but that’s not Luke’s fault. He would have arrived home safely. So why would a columnist, a person who is supposed to comfort the afflicted, attack this young man? A person with a blood alcohol level of .08 is 11 times more likely to get in an accident than someone who is sober, but that number can’t possibly include athletes with lightning-quick reflexes like Luke. Give this kid a friggin’ break.

Again, this must have been a swing and a whiff.

Finally, I believe the media’s role is to vigilantly watch public institutions, not allow them to blindly do as they please.

I can’t imagine why journalists go to the trouble of writing about misappropriation of funds, illegal defense contracts, rapes that go unreported, and alcohol infractions from young men. It’s not like it will make a difference. People will only get angry.

A columnist’s role is also to get people to react to an issue so some change of mind or policy or action will take place. In this case, I wrote to change perceptions about two things — a tacit approval for drinking while intoxicated and continued attacks on journalists who are trying to reveal illegal, unethical behavior. I had thought satire would be the best manner in which to do this. Apparently, I was incorrect. I had sent a note to John Canzano last night, linking to this story, and to thank him for his excellent work. He understood my column (even seemed to appreciate it), so I felt good about posting it here.

I learned a great deal from writing this column, something I can use to help teach others. One lesson: we can all swing and miss once in a while.

The other lesson: Decorum is gone when one can post comments anonymously. Forget about decorum and forget about disclosure. Instead, many people prefer to call names, wish for the worst, and offer other mean-spirited suggestions without citing their names. It’s easy to attack when nobody knows your name. I appreciated the comments where someone offered more reasoned, careful explanations, pointing out where I had failed. That’s something I can learn from. But I guess this vitriol is something sports columnists face every day. This is yet another reason why I appreciate and respect those that carry on each day despite such attacks. That’s another reason I respect John Canzano.