Game On: Sports Writing 101 — Wayne Coffey

January 15th, 2009 by Collin Orcutt

Session 2

“My most important piece of advice to tell you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts that people skip.” -Elmore Leonard (Quote on board for today’s session. “It really speaks to the essence of any piece of quality writing,” Coffey said)

“For me, what we do as journalists is all about reacting on the fly,” Coffey said. He was referring to the plane that crashed in the Hudson just hours prior, but it could just have easily been something sports related. He shared the story about the time he came into the office at the Daily News and was told that Magic Johnson had announced he had AIDS. Coffey’s editor told him that he would be writing the story.

“Everything, my whole professional life, got scrambled on spot,” he said.

Coffey also covered the Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

The way to deal with it, he said, is to look inward. How does it make you feel? What does it make you think about?

Using the plane crash as an example, Coffey asked us if we were the editors of a paper and had to design coverage of the event, how would we do it?

  • Main bar: When did it happen? Where was it going?
  • Side bar: Birds in the engine
    • Who would you talk to? Falcon teams at the airport
  • All the people survived!
  • Pilot as a hero
  • Localize the story — New Yorkers on the plane?
  • Fears of 9/11
  • Calm in the cabin
  • Hypothermia
  • Investigate what you do with planes after they crash

Coffey shared another story. A time after 9/11 occurred, Coffey was tasked with finding a way to write about the tragic events through a “sports prism.” He ended up finding a story about a die hard fan who had traveled to the Giants Monday night game in Denver the day before the attacks and was late on his return. His workplace was in one of the towers. If not for flying out to Denver to watch the game, he would have been in the midst of the horror.

Coffey said he though it summed up the randomness of the events.

The point to take away is this: you have to react. Even though at first you may not want to, once you come to grips with the fact that you are on assignment, it can be energizing.

Coffey then began talking about what drives him to write and how he does it. When he wrote his papers in high school, Coffey wrote with a thesaurus next to him, trying to use every big word he could find. One line he remembered writing was “ubiquitous lethargy,” which prompted a written response in the margin from the teacher that sarcastically said, “Ubiquitous lethargy? Wow!!!!!”

He has since decided that it is better to write “lean.”

Today, Coffey thinks it is harder to keep readers’ attention than it was when he started. To avoid this, you need to grab their attention early, avoid cliches, keep the writing tight and avoid using long, drawn-out quotes.

What makes for reader-grabbing stories is the details — the power of observation. Look for things that no one else may notice and write them.

Also, edit your work over and over. It is often overlooked, but the best writers are those that go over their work the most. Whittle away at your words. “Refine and refine and refine.” Great written works don’t come out perfect in the first draft.

Another overlooked aspect, Coffey said, is the technique of interviewing.

“I think interviewing may be one of the must underappreciated parts of being a journalist,” Coffey said.

The more skilled you are at making people feel comfortable and at getting them engaged, the better your story will be. The very best interviews are ones where the interviewee feels like they’re having a conversation with you.

Stories referenced by Coffey during the seminar:

Coffey’s Tips:

  • If a cliche is boring to you when you write it, it’s even more so for the readers when they read it
  • “Make it lean.” Nearly everything, Coffey said, can be made stronger by being condensed.
  • Don’t bury the lead. If you’re writing a story on Usain Bolt’s 100-meter final and you don’t write that he broke the world record, you’ve buried the lead.
  • Watch. Really pay attention.
  • The essence of any good writing is re-writing
  • Don’t overlook the importance of the order you ask your questions during an interview. You can’t start out being hostile. Serve a few “twinkies” early on before you get to the heavy stuff.

3 Responses to “Game On: Sports Writing 101 — Wayne Coffey”

  1. Jack Styczynski Says:

    I couldn’t agree more about interviewing being underappreciated. I think I even mentioned to you about starting off with softballs before you get to the stuff you really want to ask. I see many journalists who aren’t very good at interviewing or formulating questions. If you go to enough press conferences, it becomes obvious. The one we were at last week wasn’t a great example.

    Also, as a researcher, I can’t tell you how important people finding skills become when you get in those “react on the fly” situations. Finding experts, finding witnesses, whatever. It’s kind of a shame I haven’t been able to display all the tools available to journalists in class because the school doesn’t have (can’t get) access.

  2. collin.orcutt Says:

    How deep is your bag of tricks, Jack? Sometimes I get the feeling that Bush’s homeland security act may have been more advantageous to you than anyone else in the world haha.

  3. Jack Styczynski Says:

    Believe it or not, some things were easier before Bush. I used to be able to get Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses and lots of other goodies before some legislation took effect during this administration.

    Damn those Gramm-Leach-Bliley and Drivers Privacy Protection Acts!

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