The college football season will be here before you know it. Camps open up nationwide in about a week, and it's high time that you, dear sportswriter, started to get your preseason preview package out the door.
Like the few thousand other people duplicating this work around the country, you want to give your work an air of authority by not being wrong about much, if anything. You also want to get as many things right as possible so you can crow about your correct predictions in your Friday columns during the season. I know, man. We've all been there.
To help you to this end, I've devised a short playbook for you to use as you write your preview specials. Just make sure you don't slip up and publish this where your readers might see it.
DON'T: Create a Heisman candidate list.
I know, I know. A Heisman candidate list is the easiest thing in the world to pump out for your readers. Just take last year's finalists who are back (Andrew Luck, LaMichael James, Kellen Moore), a couple guys who have put up video game stats in the past (Justin Blackmon, Case Keenum), and add a couple guys you think might break out plus one from left field (Geno Smith, Trent Richardson and, uh, Nathan Scheelhaase?). See, you're done already. That break room coffee machine is calling your name.
Well, the Heisman has fallen out of favor among the most observant pundit class for essentially turning into an award to honor a good player on a national title contender. And that's another thing: to do a Heisman list properly, you have to narrow the field down to include only players on national championship caliber teams. That drastically shrinks the number of players you can include and makes it harder to hit your required word count for the piece. It's better to give the Heisman the stiff arm (see what I did there? Feel free to use that one) and explain how you're totally over it.
DO: Create a list of "ones to watch".
Don't get rid of that grouping of players you just made though. Just take the same guys and make them your "Ones to Watch in 2011". You see, the list of Heisman Trophy finalists that comes out each December is just so, well, definite. Some of your readers will notice that only one of the 20 guys you listed as candidates in the preseason actually got to go to New York. Your longer time readers will then be reminded that you haven't correctly predicted the winner since either Troy Smith or Reggie Bush.
With a Ones to Watch list, you can't possibly be wrong. Some of the players will excel; tell your readers you included them for that very reason. Some won't live up to the hype; tell your readers you selected those guys because of the potential of them flopping. After all, you only recommended that people watch these players. No matter what they do, you can manufacture some kind of story line to justify having paid attention to them. Perfect!
DON'T: Make a list of teams that will do better or worse than last year.
You and I both are jealous of Phil Steele's ability to spout off his laundry list of teams who he correctly forecast as doing either better or worse than the previous year. You would love to be able to do the same. Well, do you have nine different sets of power ratings? No. No you don't. That's why he's Phil Steele and you're not.
The main problem with this approach is that you're setting a quantifiable baseline: last year's record. That means you can be wrong with some of your predictions, and being wrong is not what this whole thing is about. Again though, don't pitch that list quite yet. It can yet be salvaged.
DO: Make a list of teams that will either do better or worse than the experts think.
This approach is much, much better. Just who exactly are these experts you're referring to? I don't know, and you don't have to either. What precisely do these unspecified experts think about the teams you're about to write a paragraph for? It's awfully hard to figure that out without knowing the gurus' identities in the first place. The baseline here is not a solid number. Instead, it's a completely vague benchmark that can't possibly be pinned down as long as you don't want it to be.
But what if one of your teams that's supposed to do better than the experts think goes 5-7? Just explain that you saw some people question whether they'd win a single conference game. What if one of your projected "worse than the experts think" teams goes 10-2? Claim you saw a few people pick them to go undefeated. With as many people as there are putting out predictions, you'll probably be right. If it's just too big of a stretch, like if one of your "worse" teams goes undefeated, just claim that everyone missed on them. How can anyone hold it against you if no one but homers saw it coming? The "no one but homers" defense is most useful here.
DON'T: Write until you have nothing more to say.
You had grand plans for a great feature. This idea promised to be more than enough to satisfy your requirements for that particular piece. Once you sat down to write it though, you realized that the well wasn't quite as deep as you originally thought. You feel you owe it to your readers not to waste their time with unnecessary content. Plus, if you go beyond your areas of expertise, your chances of being wrong increase dramatically. You already decided you don't want to be wrong!
Ending this piece earlier than scheduled might require a battle with your editor, but you think it's a fight you can win. You've got integrity, and you're sticking toBWA HA HA HA! Sorry, I couldn't keep it going any longer. You and I both know this isn't happening.
DO: Convert your previous article into a list that is either three, five, or ten items long.
Nothing pads a feature quite like turning it into a list. Did you end up a couple hundred words short of your editor's target? Just add them in explaining why you ordered your list the way you did. It might not add any actual information that's relevant to your readers, but for some reason it will probably feel important to them as they read it. Just be sure that your list has either three, five, or ten items on it. Internet writers have leaned on lists for years, and they seem to all agree that those are the magic numbers. The only acceptable substitute is making, say, "Eleven [Things] for 2011" or "Seven Things about [player who wears jersey No. 7]".
Here's a real pro tip for you: the less you have to say, the longer your list should be. Three item lists are short enough that someone might actually remember all of the points. People will only remember the first three or four points from a five-item list, and let's be real here: they're only going to read the first two and last two items on that list of ten things about whatever. Remember that rule of thumb and bury your padding accordingly. If you're wrong about something that no one remembers, were you really wrong in the first place?
I hope this helps your 2011 season preview become the best and, more importantly, the least incorrect one you've ever written. Good luck and happy writing!