Derby Writing 101 – your first bout (Getting ready)

You’ve just been told that you’ve been selected as the league reporter for your local bunch of hard-working women that like to turn left and skate fast. Congratulations. You are now on the hook for making somewhere between one and four teams look awesome in print…and you’ve never actually written an inch of sport copy. Don’t panic.

My wife and I had followed roller derby when I got recruited to be ‘Garrison’ in 2008. Suddenly, I had to concern myself with figuring out how I was going to write enough notes to make a good article. I wasn’t exactly terrified. I came with writing materials and an audio recorder…but still, I had a learning curve which I had no idea the scope of. Roller derby is an intense sport that moves very quickly when you’re taking notes. While you can understand 75% of the game as a fan, you start watching analytically and you soon realize that you don’t really know what just happened out there.

Don’t panic.

The very first bout that you go to as a writer for your league is going to feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and stressful. That’s ok. If you’re brand-new to the league, there will be time to get to know the players. Bout night is probably not going to be that moment. You’ll start understanding the nuances of play soon and you can memorize every version of the WFTDA rule set later…but bout night is not that moment. It’s chaotic, loud, and busier than you can imagine. Just remember that you are there to bear witness to the score, to the best that the teams have to offer, and to the crowd…and then you will turn it around into a short piece of writing. Nothing could be simpler. Let’s get you equipped.

Bring a notebook. My current style of working is frankly a little nuts. I use a tape recorder, an edited video feed, and numbers and insight from the Minnesota RollerGirl’s own World’s Most Dangerous Stats Team. However, the single most important piece of equipment I have is a paper notebook. If everything else goes to hell, you must have your own notes that you can depend on. Friends and colleagues in derby CAN flake out. If you depend solely on other people’s work and they screw something up…you’re the one with nothing to show for it, and your league doesn’t get to tell the story of that bout. That sucks.

About that notebook. Double-sided, 8 1/2 x 11 (A4 if you’re living in metric land), college-ruled. No exceptions. You’re going to need a lot of writing space to stretch out. If you have a sixty-minute bout to cover, you can have well over twenty jams in a half. If each page is half of the bout, that means you might run into trouble with a wide-ruled notebook as you run out of lines.

As for writing utensils, I suggest mechanical pencils or very narrow-width pens. You’re likely to write tiny.

Unless you have God’s own laptop screen with touch interface and a handsome, hand-made Google Reports system, don’t do this with a laptop. You can get a lot more information written on a single line if you organize your thought process properly, and you never, ever have to worry about tabbing into the wrong table or hitting the delete button at the wrong time.

Write down your rosters. Before each bout (or before a doubleheader gets started), open your notebook. To the left of the wire binding, write down the rosters of the teams that you’re about to watch. Name and number. If you’re doing a doubleheader, do the same on the page where you’ll start the following bout. You do this to remind yourself of who you’ll be seeing. It’s part calming exercise, part familiarization with the team. If you can actually get the real rosters, so much the better; otherwise, just use the team rosters in the program.

Why not just walk around with the program? You always have your notebook with you, while a program can get lost. Whether you like to walk around during a bout or sit in the stands, you’ll start running out of hands quickly with another bunch of paper to keep track of.

And what goes on the right side of the binding? That’s the subject of the next article.

Keep your head. Keep your focus. Don’t drink booze. Your job is to see everything you possibly can, and a tasty hopped beverage will distract you. Likewise, keep your eyes on the game. You might not be getting paid for this, but a bunch of very, very nice people have asked you to write about them. They’re risking life and limb; least you can do is to plan your piss break between halves.

One last, strictly optional piece to your writing arsenal.

A digital audio recorder is awesome. At my very first bout, I brought pencil, paper, and an old tape recorder. I had no idea what method of note-taking would stick. What I found at the time was that I could not write efficiently enough at the time to get the story of the game. I believe the method I’ll be laying out in the next article will be enough for you to write about the bout afterward. If you want to be sure, get a hand-held audio recorder – something like this one. It can be worth its weight in gold, and you will get a far better ‘view’ of the game than i

If you go this route, make sure to put fresh batteries in it every time and make sure you press the record button. Then sit down with your notebook, place the recorder in your off-hand, and start talking. Talk about everything you see. Be a funnel between your eyes and your mouth – always make sure to name the jammers and who’s heading to the box (whether blocker or defense). Afterward, you will listen to it and start transcribing…but we’ll talk about how to write the bout later. In the meantime, talk at the game. If you’re sitting next to stats people, they will almost invariably catch on and start giving you interesting stats (side note: thanks to A-Wow, Smear’em, Flip, Karl, and Scouros from MNRG’s WMDST for all that information) that will get folded into your writing later.

So you’re all set. In the next article, we will talk about how to watch the game and take notes.

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