Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Quotes: Avoid cliches like the plague

As we all know, it’s not over until the fat lady sings (humming won’t do). That’s why we need to follow the games intensely, leaving it all on the floor like the athletes we cover. Each time we head out to write another gamer, it’s a whole new ball game.

Teams that lose always seem to be out of synch, lacking composure to get back on track and leaving them with a tough road to hoe (or even to rake).

Even winning teams have some challenges since no lead is safe. (Just ask the Cubs.) These teams cannot afford to be lackadaisical; instead, they need to go for the jugular in order to blow the game wide open.

Let’s face it: We get an awful lot of these clichéd comments from coaches and athletes. This is not lost on athletes, even fictional ones like Crash Davis, the veteran catcher in “Bull Durham,” who mentors Ebby Calvin LaLoosh on many things – including how to respond during interviews.

Crash Davis: You're gonna have to learn your clichés. You're gonna have to study them, you're gonna have to know them. They're your friends. Write this down: "We gotta play it one day at a time."
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Got to play... it's pretty boring.
Crash Davis: 'Course it's boring, that's the point. Write it down.

But sports reporters should not write them down. Instead, we need to fire off follow-up questions. Too often, sports reporters act more like stenographers, writing down whatever anybody blurts out. We need to more discerning, evaluating whether the words offered are worth repeating. Quotes should answer questions, clarify points, explain a process (like throwing a screwball), or offer insights into some aspect of a game or individual.

Too often, sports reporters ask a few general questions, scribble down some quick quotes, and rush back to write a game story that does not reveal insights into the games just played.

Here are a few tips to consider when you are out covering games.

1. Get in the habit of asking follow-up questions, which allow you to acquire interesting stories, to gain illuminating insights, and to explain points related to the game. For example, imagine a coach just told you: "The Aggies have a great pitching staff. It should be three tough games for our hitters. But our guys are coming around, and we expect to be able to put up runs." You need to ask: What makes the Aggies a great pitching staff? Perhaps, you’ll learn that each pitcher has four effective pitches or that two pitchers regularly throw 98 mph fastballs. Get these details so you can write more authoritatively – and so you can explain the situation to your readers.

2. Don’t ask questions to get quotes. Ask questions to learn about the games, to collect stories, and to verify information. You’ll get more quotes than you can handle along the way. I was taught: You write down about one-third of what someone tells you but you’ll probably use fewer than one-third of these quotes. I’ve found that percentage is pretty high. If I do my job correctly, I probably use fewer than 10 percent of what I’m told from coaches and players after a game.

3. Consider using indirect quotes that paraphrase or summarize what someone said. Indirect quotes can be just as effective as a direct quote. They also enable you to delete wordiness and clichéd phrases.

4. Make sure you speak with players and coaches from both teams so you can get a better perspective on the game. An informed story requires that you speak with players on the other teams as well. This also impresses editors who might want to hire you. This is not limited to game coverage. Your profile stories should also include comments from opposing coaches and players. We’ve talked about that before, but this bears repeating. Be a hard-working reporter. Talk to as many people as possible (and ask the follow-up questions.)

5. Use 'said' for attribution and NOT commented, asserted, admitted, disclosed, implied, added, suggested, remarked, stated, yelled, laughed, screamed, claimed, concurred, argued, acknowledged or proposed, he explained. ‘Said’ is simple and invisible. Said is a word that allows the reader to focus on what was said, not how the words were spoken (Even in profiles and feature stories, said is usually the best word for attribution.)

I read through some college newspapers during the past two days for examples that would show what I mean in regards to quotes. These examples are not meant to demean any of these hard-working college students who are beginning to learn their craft. Rather, I am using the quotes simply to illustrate some points.

“It was a huge wake-up call,” said Roth of the Babson game. “The captains had a long talk with our coaches about what we could do to put ourselves back on track. The team ran the [first part of] practice without the coaches the next day, to remind ourselves that we were in control of our game and that we were the ones who dictated the outcome.”
■ Avoid tag lines in quotes. Make the connection before you add the dialogue.

"He is loyal to the athlete and our staff, and in turn we are loyal to him," he said.
■ Ask for stories. You can then tell these stories more concisely and more interestingly in your own words. Prod people with additional questions during the telling of these tales, asking ‘When did that happen? What was he wearing? When did you know you were in trouble?’ These stories and anecdotes will enable you to show how someone is loyal.

"It is really a diverse sport, it's something everyone can do," said the club's advisor, Wilbur Tate. "Short, tall or even disabled, anyone can participate."

■ Ask for specific details that enable you to explain and describe how a sport is diverse. Sports like archery or lacrosse, for example, need more explanation. Saying the sport is ‘diverse’ really says nothing. How is the sport diverse? Ask the people involved. As a matter of fact, you should ask several people. Then, you can synthesize the information into a summary that includes a quote or two.

Currently around 20 people show up for meetings.
"We are one of the biggest college archery groups," Purpura said.

■ Verify information. Do not just report what people tell you. You should really go to a meeting or two and count people for yourself. This person could have made up this number. Don’t let people use you.

“Nothing against high school coaches, but [the coaches at Bryan] taught me as much as a high school coach can know,” Gradoville said. “Coach Servais had 20-some years experience at the college level, and he taught me the game of college baseball.”
■ What specifically has this coach taught this player? Ask. Show this.

IU softball coach Stacey Phillips said that even though IU has struggled, the season is still not over. “We still have a week left in our season,” Phillips said. “There has been a lot of ups and downs this season. Lots of ups early.”
■ This is a typical cliché quote from a coach. Get specific examples of ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ from the season. Show a few of these. As you dig deeper, you will also mine much better quotes.

“It was a tough tournament for us,” head coach Kim Evans said. “We will go back to the drawing board and regroup. We have a talented group of student-athletes and if we could play in a tournament tomorrow we would. We are putting this one past us and getting ready for the remainder of post-season and are very much looking forward to it,” she added.
■ Wow, this golf coach combined several clichés into one short quote. Dig deeper by asking ‘How specifically was this tournament tough? Can you cite an example or some moments when the tournament seemed tougher?’ Don’t let this coach put this one past you and the readers. Ask the follow-up questions.

"That's a huge win for us," Coughlin said. "This couldn't have come at a better time. We have wanted to play strong throughout the entire season. I would much rather be playing our best baseball now than earlier in the season."
■ How huge was this win? How does this win compare to past victories? Ask how this will affect the team.

Finally, here’s a pretty good quote from a baseball game story, one where the reporter must have asked how the player felt during a key play.

Coughlin made the Bulldogs pay, ripping a towering shot to left center field to extend the score to 13-4. The Bulldogs added a run in the ninth inning off of junior pitcher Aaron Lovett before Lovett recorded the final three outs for his fourth save of the year.
"I went up there and just relaxed the last time up," Coughlin said. "I had nothing to lose and I just went with the pitch instead of trying to do much like I was trying to do all weekend. It was a big-time hit for me and a big-time hit for this team."

So weed out clichés, ask follow-up questions and talk to as many people as possible. This will lead to more informed, interesting stories. Good luck.



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