The ongoing chaos caused by COVID-19 means that world football remains at a standstill. Besides a few snippets of transfer news here and there and updates from the Italian government about plans to resume the league, there has been little to write about.
Given this dearth of activity and the limited material to write about, I decided to change the theme of this edition of my monthly review to talk about a project that you all know that I’m working on: my second book called You Say Soccer, I Say Football (first draft, 70,000 words long, is complete and now being edited by my editor).
Specifically, I want to share some insights and tips on how to write books, in this case a book on football. How does this type of writing differ (if at all) from writing articles here at BWRAO and on my website? Where do I get many of my ideas, research, and other inspiration from?
Enough of the questions — you want answers. Let’s get started.
A Collection Of Essays
A person I follow on Quora (also an author) once told me that the thing he likes about writing non-fiction books is that they can essentially be a collection of essays separated by chapter, such that each chapter is simply its own essay. Obviously, the “essays” have to be related; you can’t have one about sea lions, the next about artificial intelligence, and the one after that about the Tour de France.
This is in stark contrast to fiction writing in which the plot, underlying themes, character development, and world-building — think of Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter — all have to be coherently developed all the way from the first word of Chapter 1 till the very last word of the book.
Sidenote: fiction and non-fiction are dramatically different writing skillsets. I would need years of practice to be able to write fiction and I’m convinced that the transition would be very, very difficult.
When the page was blank
Even though my completed manuscript is 70,000 words, it all started with a blank page. (Note: A local journalist has a wonderful tagline about this — “where were you when the page was blank?”) Every book is written a few hundred words a day, day after day, week after week, until you suddenly find yourself looking at tens of thousands of words and a completed manuscript.
But most writers are scared away because they think to themselves “I have to write a book?” No, you don’t have to write a book, not today. Today, you have to write a paragraph. Tomorrow, you write another paragraph. Then next week, you write a chapter. And before you know it, a year or two later (a year and a half in my case), you’ve written a book.
To go back to my first point (and connect it with this one), seeing my book as a collection of essays and focusing on one topic at a time has been a huge part of how I write and plan my writing, both for my first book and for this one.
This is what I did when I started writing, i.e. when the page was still blank. Given that each chapter was an essay and that each essay was its own topic, I simply did a huge braindump (believe me, I tried to find a different phrase to describe this) in which I wrote down every single idea and opinion that I had about football.
Nothing was too crazy and I didn’t self-edit at all; I wrote everything down in a Word document. Like a fine bottle of wine, once that was done I let it rest for a while and came back a few days later. Then, I developed each topic, researched it, added data so that what I said wasn’t just my opinion (very important!), and wrote everything I could on it until I felt that the message was sufficiently communicated to the reader. Ideas that didn’t have any real substance to them were either discarded or posted on my website as a blog post.
A big mistake that writers make is to self-edit during the first draft/braindump phase. Don’t do this. You’re limiting your creativity if you do that. To paraphrase Alan Gannett, you can’t connect the dots if you don’t have dots to connect.
When I say that “no idea was too crazy,” I truly mean that. But allow me to elaborate.
Another way in which writers limit themselves is by staying too confined within their subject matter. Someone writing about science will consider it strange to add sports references to their writing; a person writing about biology will laugh if you suggest references to music and art; and why would a tech writer want to make a joke about Oscar Wilde in his article about autonomous vehicles?
However, this is another big way in which writers hamstring themselves. Given that my book is about how football influenced me and taught me so many lessons about life, society, leadership, and human interaction, I have to make connections between seemingly unconnected areas (and professions) of life. That’s the entire premise of the book.
Here’s an excerpt from my Introduction in which I address this:
In his phenomenal book ‘Mastery’, Robert Greene analyzes the expertise of the most gifted individuals in human history and discusses the keys to their brilliance. One of these ‘masters’ is the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. As Greene writes, Goethe believed that the problem with most people is that they “build artificial walls around subjects and ideas. The real thinker sees the connections, grasps the essence of the life force operating in every individual instance.” Goethe questioned why we should narrow our intellectual interests by placing them in siloes and finding, for example, poetry or art unrelated to science. As Greene eloquently explains, “the mind was designed to connect things, like a loom that knits together all of the threads of a fabric.”
Suspend your disbelief, my friends; every area of life is connected. Football is connected to art, science, literature, leadership, inequality, philosophy, personal identity, and so much more. Dare to make and see those connections.
A huge inspiration for the design of the Macintosh came from Steve Jobs attending a calligraphy class taught by Trappist monk Robert Palladino. This is probably one of the more famous examples of making interdisciplinary thinking.
Great writers are generally very diligent readers (and podcast listeners!). As a result, my research came from a plethora of sources: newspaper articles, books, podcasts, academic papers, documentaries (Les Blues: Une autre histoire de France was incredibly useful for my book), and so on.
A large portion of football-specific information/data came from David Goldblatt’s book The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football, while I also read Eduardo Galeano’s wonderful book Football In Sun and Shadow, which was an extremely rich source of poetic stories and descriptions. Galeano is a master of placing football within its sociopolitical context. I also read Alan Gernon’s Retired: What Happens To Footballers When The Game’s Up for a chapter I wrote on retirement and the challenges of life after football.
FIFPro, UEFA, and FIFA were great sources of data and reports. The first two were particularly useful for macroeconomic data (e.g. UEFA’s European Club Footballing Landscape report and FIFPro’s 2016 Global Employment Report*). Naturally, I used Deloitte’s annual Football Money League as well. I also had to find academic papers that supported the arguments I made in each chapter (e.g. studies on the mental health of retired players). Like I said earlier, I don’t just want to write stuff; it has to be supported with data and research. Thankfully I still have my library card which grants me free access to databases.
*Whoever updated the FIFPro website really botched it. All the links to reports and articles that I used are now 404 Errors.
As you all know, I use a lot of quotes in my writing — so much so that since 2016 I’ve kept a running document of good quotes from all kinds of places. That document is now 44 pages long and is very useful to refer to when I need a good quote.
Lastly, an important part of my research and of being interdisciplinary is to adopt an open mindset. That is, I look at every piece of content of I consume — TV shows, movies, books, podcasts, art — through the lens of “could this be useful for my book?” It’s like the old saying of “when you have a hammer, everything becomes a nail.” When you’re writing a book, everything you see, read, and listen to becomes, well, potential book material.
Here’s a good example. The other day I was listening to the audiobook version of The Coddling of The American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure and the authors referenced a fantastic speech by U.S. Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts (which you can read here). I thought that the paragraph starting “now the commencement speakers will typically...” was absolutely brilliant and was the perfect addition to a chapter in my book in which I discuss the concept of fairness within football.
Looking at it in isolation, you would never understand why it would fit in or connect to a book about football. But because I was listening to and absorbing everything from the perspective of “if I put this in my book, how and where could it fit?” and was in a growth mindset, I immediately connected the dots. It’s the difference between “well, why not?” and “that would never work!”
Stay tuned for more news about You Say Soccer, I Say Football!
If you want to find out more about my upcoming book and receive updates, click here!