How to write

Unfortunately for would-be reporters, thousands of people hanker after jobs as sports journalists. This can make the task of getting work in sports journalism (and ultimately making the transition from interested and knowledgeable fan to inspired and respected sports writer) extremely difficult.

Most frustrating of all, there are plenty of people around who are happy to work for nothing, just to get their name in print or to get a break in the profession. In the low-budget world of local newspapers, these people will often be doing the work. Since local newspapers are traditionally the stepping stones to national journalism jobs, it does make life difficult. Added to this is the fact that jobs come up very rarely. You will often find that the same person has been doing the local hockey reports for the past 10 years and that he has become something of a local institution, making it difficult for anyone else to ‘muscle’ their way in.

However, don’t despair! Every year, hundreds of new journalists join the profession. The media generally is expanding all the time, making room for far more writers and broadcasters. 
So how do you do this? Obviously luck and good timing can play a part. If you happen to send a letter off to an editor just as the newspaper is looking for a freelance football writer, you may find it the easiest move in the world to start your career. But luck and good timing are in the hands of the gods - what is in your hands is the opportunity to make sure that you have done all you can to prepare yourself properly before you set out. This is where this book will help you.

If you are already a journalist or writing a great deal in your current profession, then much of this chapter will contain information you are already familiar with. If, however, you are starting from scratch with no experience in the profession, it’s worth reading through to give yourself an idea of what will be expected from you, and the different ways in which you can acquire the necessary skills to get started.

There are lots of criteria for judging whether a sports journalist is good or bad - no two journalists are the same, they all have very different attributes (indeed, it is often individual flair that marks a journalist out). But the following characteristics are common among all sports writers, whether freelance or full-time, and whatever area of the industry they are working in.

These skills are best remembered by the acronym: WUCKNUPA, which stands for:

  • Writing skills
  • Understanding your publication and the market that it exists in
  • Contacts
  • Knowledge of your chosen sport
  • Nose for a good story
  • Uniqueness - do you stand out from the crowd?
  • Passion for the sport
  • Accuracy, fairness, responsibility and reliability

Obviously, journalists divide according to which of the above skills they specialise in. Someone who really understands the market-place, writes well and has an enormous passion for the sport may well end up with a senior job on a specialist publication; whereas those writers who have great contacts and can always spot the angle might work as reporters. If your writing skills are not great but you have a passion for a sport and great contacts, you might end up as a researcher on a specialist sports television programme.
We will take the above skills one at a time and look at them in more depth:

Can you write?

This seems like an obvious question to ask someone who wants to be a sports journalist. Of course you think you can write, or you wouldn’t be reading this; but have you ever tried writing a match report or doing an interview with restrictions on time and space? You may have been able to reel off wonderful essays when you had a week to write them, but what if you’ve only got an hour? And what if your piece is for millions of readers and not just one teacher?
Being able to write is the most obvious asset for a sports journalist, or indeed any journalist - but it’s amazing how many people think they can become sports journalists simply because they enjoy sport and read a lot about it.

You don’t have to be Shakespeare to write match reports, but you do have to be able to write coherently and logically. The first step is simple: have a go at writing something and see whether you can do it. An easy way to start is to choose a local sporting event. It can be anything at all, but it’s vital that you watch the whole event and that the local paper also covers it. Then watch the event with a pen and paper and make notes throughout. Write up a report afterwards (see later sections for help in structuring a match report). You can then see exactly how your report compares to the one that appears in the papers. Obviously, if the paper you are monitoring yourself against is the one you are keen to write for eventually, this is the best test of all.

Try to write within set time-scales like the journalists on the paper do. If you give yourself hours and hours to put it together, it won’t be realistic. Chances are that if it’s a Saturday match, the journalists will have to file their reports first thing on Sunday morning. Those writing for Sunday papers obviously have to send them in within seconds of the whistle. It’s therefore important that you don’t leave the writing too long - put it together when you’re as fresh as possible, and can remember clearly what happened.

Writing is an intensely personal occupation, and it can be difficult to be honest with yourself and unbiased about what you’ve achieved. At the end of the day, however, you have to look at what you’ve written and make an honest judgement. Try to work out where you’ve gone wrong and how you can improve. Are all the facts right? Are all the names spelled properly? Have you told the story accurately? Is the report interesting? It’s much easier to read someone else’s match report and think you can do better than it is to write the thing from scratch yourself; so have a go at writing a report from the beginning, and see how you cope.

If you can’t think of a local event that would be suitable for you to experiment on, but would quite like to have a go at writing up a match report, then you could try reporting on a live event on television. Make sure you turn the sound down so that you’re not influenced by the commentators’ views and opinions. Take notes throughout the match, then write up a 800-word match report afterwards and compare what you have written with what appears in the papers the next day. It may help to give you an idea of what your writing skills are like, and how you cope under the pressure of writing a stated number of words by a given time. Many local newspapers coach their new reporters by sending them to events with a trained reporter, getting them to write up a story afterwards which they then compare with that of the experienced reporter. It can be a scary feeling for the new journalist, and it feels very much like ‘sink or swim’; but it does give you an instant impression of how near the mark you are.

If you’re full of confidence about your writing ability, you could go along to a local football match and watch, then write up a report. If you submit it to a local paper and request any comments, you may find some kindly soul who remembers what it was like when they first started and who is willing to help you by giving you key pointers. 

The only way of knowing whether you’re on the right track is to read other journalists’ reports. You need to read everything...get to know the different journalists and their different styles. Which reporters do you enjoy reading? Why? Who stands out? Read everything you can and analyse your own work as carefully and dispassionately as possible.