Derby Writing 101 – Writing the Recap

This is part 6 of the Writing Derby 101 series. If you want to get caught up, start here.

We are getting to the end of this long series. This is the most important moment; it’s where you are actually volunteering your time, energy, and creativity for the league. Being a ‘derby writer’ is fun; actually writing a recap takes time and focus and can be a bit of a slog. The pointers that I’m going to describe are what have helped me get out of my own head and get words on the screen. Most of them assume that you already know a little bit about writing.

Get Started:

Segment up the bout – You will find that a bout can be cut up into phrases of point-scoring and action. Reread your notes and mark those phrases on your paper. The phrases don’t need names – they’re just to set your mind into focus as you look back at the game. Treat each of those phrases as a paragraph. If you spend more than a sentence or two on any particular jam, you’re going to get bogged down. That’ll kill your momentum.

Time is your enemy – The best time to write a recap is in the minutes after a bout takes place. If you can sit in your chair, pull out your laptop, and write the recap, do it. In truth, this is usually impossible to do. Instead, try to get to the job within a few days. Your memory is not good. In fact, it pretty much sucks.

It will be difficult to remember the big moments of the game if you wait; even your excellent note-taking gets stale after a time. If your friendly contact in the league has already read the earlier articles in this series, you probably have a deadline. Stick to it, even if you don’t write a masterpiece. Do what you can; you’re a volunteer, and there’s always next time.

Set aside space and time – You’re going to write somewhere between 300 and 700 words about each game. Your first few writeups are going to take at least a couple of hours, so give yourself the time that you will need. Have your notebook handy as you sit at your computer. Have something to drink nearby – I like tea. Get comfortable and get working.

Start with the first jam – Most people remember the opening play. Name jammers, talk about the outcome, and move on. Don’t write an introduction to the bout. Save that as the last thing you do. There’s too much to recap right now!

Check out the DNN’s guidelines – A few years back, Justice Feelgood Marshall wrote a great description on how to write for the Derby News Network. Justice’s ideas are an excellent starting point for any aspiring derby hack and I highly recommend reading that short article.

As you write:

The 80-20 rule – One of the truisms of roller derby is that 80% of the players on the track are not scoring points, but 80% of the writing is about the jammers. This doesn’t need to happen if you paid attention during the game. You did a great job of noticing the blockers when you took notes, sohere’s where it pays off. Talk about the blocking craft. A scoreless jam is boring from the point of view of the jammer; from the POV of the blocker, it was the highlight of the night. A nil-nil jam – especially a series of them – allows you to spend a few sentences talking about a remarkable recycling rear blocker or a phalanx of escorts. If there’s a blowout, tell the reader why by pointing out some defensive highlights. Show some love for the packs!

What you saw is important… – If you saw a remarkable hit or juke, have the presence to bring it up. Be bold and mention a big shoulder that stopped a jammer from getting the lead. It might not have been the only thing that impeded that jammer’s progress, but it’s a fair bit more interesting than another sentence of ‘Fast-Fast McGillicudy scored three and called off the jam.’ You can always write about the score in the places where your notes are a little short; where they are not, make sure that you point out the monster plays that took your breath away.

…but don’t report what you didn’t see – I mentioned this in an earlier article. If you didn’t see something and there’s no one around you who can tell you how it happened…don’t write about it. If you have to skip the jam altogether, do it. In that case, revert to scorekeeping for a short period of time by referring to a team’s ability (or lack thereof) to score over a period of minutes (“…the Gardas scored 25 to the Rockits’ 2 over the next ten minutes”). Just don’t guess.

Write in terms of minutes – You wrote down times. Use them. Because jams are variable in length, it is much more comprehensible to talk in concrete units – minutes, seconds, halves – than it is to write about a specific jam number.

What’s more, if you skip a jam because nothing much happened, it’s implicit in the passage of time if you use a notation of minutes. If you write in terms of jams and skip from #13 to #15, the reader may wonder what happened in Jam #14.

Treat a streak of lead jams like an extended jam – This goes along with the idea of phrases in the game.You probably shouldn’t write about a streak of several lead jams in a row by a single team on a jam-by-jam basis. Instead, start by describing the jam that began the streak, talk about what was happening overall (perhaps the opposing side experienced significant foul problems) on the track, and then note the score over that period of time. Make sure you mention how a streak gets broken. That jammer or pack that broke the streak is important because they made something new happen on the track. Write about it.

Who plays for who? – Name the team that the player skates for, whether they’re a pack member or the jammer. You have to assume that the reader is not steeped in the ins and outs of your league, so identify your player’s affiliation the first time they’re mentioned in every recap. After that first time, you can refer to them by name only. Avoid using a number unless the player is the team’s franchise player; not everyone remembers who wears what number.

The referee is always right – Here’s the thing. The call of a referee makes this endeavor a sport. Yes, I know there are sports where the players make the calls; roller derby isn’t that sport. There are rules, and those rules have to be the final word. You cannot outguess a ref on their call, no matter how good you think you are. I’ve gone to the tape when I thought there was a bad call many times. 9 times out of 10, the refs were right. Maybe we just have good refs, but the fact is that they have to be given the benefit of the doubt. Undermining the authority of a group of referees is a GREAT formula for creating bad blood between you and the zeebs. The Striped Ones should be the writer’s best resource, not someone you pit yourself against. That’s a fight you’ll lose.

Finishing up:

Do not write with the DNN as your audience – A major point of using a local writer for your league is to bring your fans and your community into the real world of roller derby. Your interest is at the roots of the roller derby movement – your league, your players, your awesome. The Derby News Network has a focus of following the travels and travails of the ‘big’ leagues, whether banked, flat, male, or female.

Now. Before anyone gets their dander up about me characterizing the DNN in such a way…or before someone says, “ZOMG – I AGREE!!!?! THEY DIDN’T POST MY 3000-word screed on my organization’s bout!” There’s nothing wrong with this. The DNN is a small organization and it’s trying to follow Roller Derby in its current state with a limited editorial staff. Its interest with you is as part of that movement. As a result, writing with the DNN in mind instead of your league’s fans (and potential fans) might be counterproductive for the needs of your league. They don’t need to hear about your new league; your community does.

However, the DNN loves getting articles and will gladly take them and publish them if they arrive in a timely fashion – particularly if they follow their guidelines. Use your limited time for the desires of your league first. Then – if there’s time – start sending reports in from your league to the Derby News Network and get into a dialogue with them about what they want. I’ve worked with them for several years. They’re great folks who you should get to know; they just shouldn’t be your first priority.

The smurf that smurfed smurfs – As you look back on what you wrote, you’ll notice that you’ll probably write the words ‘jam’ and ‘lead’ (and secondary forms of those words) a great deal. This is unavoidable. The words are overloaded in our sport’s jargon. Find ways around this; use modifying words to break up the sameness. This is particularly important when explaining the movement of two opposing jammers.

Let’s use an example.

Bad: “Rockit jammer Harmony Killerbruise and Garda Belt jammer MEDUSA stepped to the jam line. On the jam whistle, the jammers jumped from the jam line. MEDUSA got the lead jam, while Harmony got sent to the box on a back block. POWER JAM. MEDUSA jammed for three grand slams before calling off the jam. Garda jammer Shiva Shank’n then went to the jam line against Patently Offensive, snagging the jammer panty from MEDUSA.”

Thirteen uses of the word – this is a little extreme, but it’s easy to do something like that.

Better: “The Rockits’ Harmony Killerbruise and green-clad MEDUSA took off into the pack at the blast of the jammer whistle. MEDUSA grabbed the lead while Harmony got sent off on a back block. MEDUSA converted the lack of an opposing jammer into a triple slam before calling it off. Garda Shiva Shank’n and Rockit slalomer Patently Offensive then went to the line and blasted through the pack.”

Two uses of a ‘jam’. One modifies the ‘whistle’, one is modified by ‘opposing’. 

This is a tough balance to pull off, I admit. When you read through what you wrote, identify a couple of spots like this and take a few minutes to rewrite the sentence. Your readers will thank you.

Finish with an introduction – Well. You did it. The article made sense of the bout. It’s a tight piece of writing. Finish it out by putting a couple of sentences of summary at the very start. Good story writing demands that you tell the reader who beat who, when, and where at the beginning. Don’t make them search down the article to find out who won! That’s all rude and stuff. By the end of the article, you have an idea of what happened and why. Get some sentences down about how close the game was and what it means in the overall scheme of your league. Then send off your first report and drink that beer you’ve been saving.

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