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The de Lisle guide

Editorial tips

When Wisden.com sprang into life a few years back, Tim de Lisle, the editor and a well-respected journalist, wrote the following editorial guide. It is semi light-hearted but extremely informative and well worth a regular re-read as a reminder of general good practices.

Brackets
Use sparingly, and only when avoiding them would mean losing a train of thought.

Brackets and full stops
If a sentence starts in a bracket, it should end in the bracket. (not like this). Punctuation outside the bracket behaves as if the bracket was not there.

Brevity
is not just the soul of wit, it is the heart of all writing. Especially on the web. Keep it tight; don't waste words. On the other hand, try not to be staccato, except when compiling style-books.

Brilliant
Fine in conversation, tired in print. Try one of its friends and neighbours: sparkling, scintillating, outstanding, excellent, fabulous.

Colour
Rare is the cricket report that has too much colour in it (honourable exception: the collected works of R Steen). If in doubt, bring out those crayons.

Colons and semi-colons
Colons tell you that the two halves of a sentence are logically related: they explain what you have just said, or amplify it. Semi-colons tell you that two thoughts exist in parallel; they may well not be connected; there may even be more than two of them. Semi-colons can be a sign of intelligence -- in Money, Martin Amis doesn't let his narrator John Self use one till the very last sentence, because only then has he become cultured. But they should be deployed sparingly. If this sentence has one, the next shouldn't. Never underestimate the power of a full stop.

Commendable
If a competition were held to find the worst word in cricket writing, this could well be the winner. Drab, grey and deadening, it is the ultimate schoolmasterism (qv).

Endings, floppy
The most important part of a piece is the intro. The most important part of a sentence is the end. Floppy bits, dull bits, slices of bread and butter should go in the middle somewhere. 'Gough said' is a good example -- stick it in the middle of the quote, not at the end.

Elegant variation
Q. What is the quickest way to tell the world you are a second-rate sportswriter?
A. Litter your copy with phrases such as 'the chunky left-hander', 'the flop-haired speedster', and so on. No one ever uses them in conversation, except Bob Willis. Repeating the name is a far lesser sin. If the name is in the sentence already, then you either need to settle for a pronoun (him, her, them) or clarify the thought.

Exclamation marks
are almost banned -- they are too like laughing at your own joke. Exceptions can be made when you are genuinely exclaiming, or consciously adopting a different voice. Simon Hoggart does both in this paragraph on Ann Widdecombe in the Guardian, June 20 2001: It was magnificent. How we are going to miss that woman! She claims that she will be more effective from the backbenches, but that's meaningless - nobody is more effective speaking at 8.45pm when all their colleagues are having dinner and getting drunk. We have lost her from the high seas; no more will we gaze at the billowing sails, the ensign fluttering proudly from her poop deck! This came in the course of a superb sustained metaphor. See full piece at http://politics.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,9115,509133,00.html - (it's worth it).

First-ever
Battle has raged over this one for about 20 years, and the purists, as usual, have lost. But handle it with care all the same, because the thing about the purists is, they probably read Wisden. There are always other options: try 'first' or 'very first' or 'first [noun] ever'.

Formulas and stock phrases
Before describing Graeme Hick as an enigma, ask yourself if he really is one, or if he is merely a front-foot thumper who was found out by Test bowlers. Before classifying someone as a seamer, ask yourself if they are in fact a swing bowler.

First person singular
Use it when it is part of the story ('Harbhajan told me the other day'), not when it is not ('Personally I think he was wrong'). For the perils of avoiding it, see the autobiography of John Arlott. For the perils of embracing it, see the complete works of AA Gill.

Flourishes, literary
are fine when they pull their weight, as the collected works of F Keating amply, ruddily, life-affirmingly demonstrate. They should be avoided when they don't add anything. Prime offenders here are our old friends amongst, whilst and amidst. The last two letters are pure flab.

Foreign words and phrases
Feel free to use when there is no English equivalent. No italics required.#

Garner
Great fast bowler, dreadful verb.

Ghostwriting
Five tips for ghosts:
(1) Ask short questions. That way, you avoid putting words into the interviewee's mouth.
(2) Stick close to the original words, within reason. If your man says 'a little bit' 36 times, keep at least two of them in.
(3) Create a voice and stick to it. It doesn't have to be the person's real voice, but it has to be believable, and the flavouring should be as natural as possible.
(4) Get them to say things that fans or reporters can't. They have a unique point of view, and we are paying them to use it.
(5) Check their facts - many players get things wrong.

Jokes
Crack them.

List pieces
are an even better idea on the web than in print.

Libel
A huge subject, which you should make some effort to master. Sportswriters are often covered by fair comment -- the defence that you were merely giving your opinion. A rule of thumb: don't say anything hurtful that you can't back up with evidence. When covering match-fixing, stick to what is on the record as having happened, or hitch a lift from an official enquiry: Wasim Akram was adjudged to be unsuitable for the captaincy by Judge Qayyum.

Look and seem
are weak words, which readers can easily use for themselves ('Adam Gilchrist looks in great form'). Wherever you can, replace them with 'is', 'are', etc. As a compromise, try 'come across as'.

Metaphors and similes
They were good enough for Homer, they're good enough for us. But they are not all equally good. Some come across as comical, others pallid. Metaphors from sport are hardly metaphors at all in a sporting context, and should be avoided. Where possible, take a leaf from Homer's book and draw your inspiration from everyday life. Stewart handled Warne like a man who had dropped the soap in the bath.

Models, stylistic
The best book I know of on how to write English is Put It In Writing by John Whale, a slim volume which is incisive, genial and easily absorbed. It is available from Amazon for 5.59 and could be the best 5.59 you ever spent. Contemporary writers who follow his precepts one way or another include Martin Amis, Melissa Bank, Matthew Parris, Matthew Engel, Simon Barnes, Patrick Barclay, Barbara Ellen, Anthony Lane, Allison Pearson, Marcus Berkmann and Julie Burchill (who should be read strictly for style, not substance).

Must have
Gilchrist must have been disappointed to get out after playing so well. He must indeed. And therefore it's not worth saying -- the reader could perfectly well say it for himself. Either tell us Gilchrist was visibly angry with himself, which turns a piece of woolly guesswork into hard evidence; or rephrase -- Gilchrist threw his wicket away when a matchwinning hundred was there for the taking.

News stories
A feature exists to assemble facts. A think piece exists to express an opinion. A news story exists to disclose a new fact or facts. That new fact will nearly always be in the opening paragraph. The editor of Wisden Online has resigned following a blazing row over elegant variation. [New paragraph.] Tim de Lisle, 39, flounced out of Wisden's luxurious west-London offices when he discovered three variations in a single player profile. A news story is a string of sausages: it can be cut from the bottom. A feature is a salad; so is a match report. A think piece is a soup (see 'A salad, not a soup', by the same author, circa 1997).

Notes
Take 'em; you never know who may be able to see you on the telly. And keep 'em for at least a year; you never know when that libel suit will land.

Paragraph length
Shorter than WCM, but not as short as Reuters or PA. One-sentence paragraphs can be used for effect.

Pictures
are not just supplied by photographers. Think in pictures, write in pictures., put pictures in the reader's mind. Show and tell -- not tell and show.

Quote marks
Quote marks are for quotes. Either use a word wholeheartedly, or don't use it at all. If you want to emphasise that the usage is not one you go along with, try 'so-called'.

Reader, addressing the
Never use the plural. It is patronising, because the reader thinks of herself (or himself) in the singular. And it is distancing -- it breaks the intimacy of the medium.

Schoolmasterisms
There is a tradition of cricket writing which has adopted the vocabulary, pomposity and reactionism of the retired prep-school master, sitting in a cottage in the Home Counties in a pair of tweed slippers, wondering what the world is coming to. Whether you want to be part of this tradition is of course entirely up to you.

Sentence length
Vary it.

Sentences without a verb
Allowed.

Sport
Never forget that cricket is one. Getting excited is not a crime.

Tone
Our tone of voice should be crisp, confident, clear and elegant -- conversational, but enhanced conversation. If in doubt, err on the side of modernity. And individuality. We shouldn't all be singing from the same hymn sheet.

The web
is a forgiving medium. You can make a terrible howler, and correct it half an hour later. So if in doubt, play your shots.