Writing the Lead

Here's the "Writing the Lead" section of David Moffit's 1979 guide on how to cover football for UPI.


Now comes the moment of truth.

nothing that you have done up to this time has much meaning if there you sit, 10-20 minutes after the game has ended, frozen in front of your typewriter, undecided about what to say or how to say it.

Unless the outcome of the game was decided in the final seconds, you should have started dictating your lead five or six minutes before the game ended. (You can always make needed changes in score and noteworthy statistics before your dictationist files the story to the wire).

If either team has a decisive lead going into the closing minutes, start filing. A last-minute touchdown, even a couple, have little meaning if they don't affect the actual outcome of the game. You already know the winner -- and the player or players who were responsible for that outcome. (You can always mention that the losing team in a 55-27 mismatch scored three fourth-period touchdowns down near the bottom of your story).

Your salesman will be your first paragraph. That's what will show on the abstract wires...That's about as far as many newspaper deskmen will read as they struggle to dummy in 100 or so football stories into their crowded sports sections.

That first paragraph should summarize all the drama you have just witnessed. It has been said that there are two types of sportswriters -- the Gee-Whizzers and the So-Whatters. The average fan -- the one who will be reading the story -- is usually a Gee-Whizzer and -- within reasonable limits -- your story should reflect that view.

Your first paragraph should say who won, and how, and tell what the score was. The difference between your story and that of your competition will be in how this is told. It is this difference that will mark your story a success or a failure.

As mentioned earlier, frequently it is not enough to write the lead only on what you have seen out on the football field the previous two hours. Often, the unseen makes news. If you know the background of the teams, the players and the circumstances surrounding the game itself, you may have an angle at your fingertips that will leave your competition in the dust.

That may have been Podunk's first victory over State in 20 years. It may have put Podunk into its first-ever bowl game -- or knocked State out of a bowl game for the first time in a decade. The Podunk quarterback may have set a new passing record. There are many possible angles and all should be considered.

Names make news. When Joe Namath or O.J. SImpson has an outstanding game to lead his team to victory, lead writing becomes easy. But sometimes the game hero is not that clear cut. You should try, however, to pick out the one player -- and hopefully the one play -- that was the key to victory.

Sometimes the star can be a defensive player rather than an offensive one. After all, a last-second diving tackle that prevents the losing team from scoring what would have been the winning touchdown can be just as important as a scoring play by the winnere. But the ready is usually more impressed by offensive than defensive tactics so it is better to stick with the offense unless the defense is really that outstanding.

A clever phrase, an appropriate play on words (when Georgia Tech running star Lenny Snow broke his hand UPI wrote "Georgia Tech had tough sledding Saturday, no Snow..."), a well-timed connection with the times or events can make a best-seller out of your story.

But beware time-worn cliches, the old bromides that clutter the writing of the "small time" sportswriter. Be original. Don't be afraid to come up with something that is your own (and hope the desk man has enough wisdom to let it stand instead of reverting to formula).

Often a catch lead provides the headline as well and anytime you simplify the work of a newspaper desk man you enhance your chances he'll use your copy.

No matter how well you write, it is extremely important to be accurate. Any time UPI has to run a correction on your story, you run the risk of having that story wind up in the waste basket. WRITE WELL, WRITE FAST, but above all else, WRITE RIGHT!