What Makes Great Writing?

Some of the best literature I’ve read, has been in the Sports Section of a newspaper.

It was issue 340 of 4-4-2 magazine that, in a prelude to the World Cup, looked at the criteria that makes a game ‘great’. It’s an interesting question for a football fan, but funnily enough, it’s just as intriguing a question for a sports literature fan, or indeed, any literature fan: what facets take a piece of literature and turn it from ‘good’ to ‘great’?

It’s an interesting question for any sports fan, but funnily enough, it’s just as intriguing a question for a reader of sports writing (or indeed, any writing).  What facets take a piece of literature and turn it from ‘good’ to ‘great’?  With this in mind, I couldn’t help but see immense similarities in the traits identified for a great ‘game’ and the qualities that prevail in great writing.  Allow me to expand.  What follows is indeed, the criterion presented by 4-4-2 magazine, and then reinterpreted for ablogaboutsportswriting.

1. GREAT GAME. SEXY FOOTBALL.  Great players.  Great football.  Or both.  One for the purist.

1. GREAT LITERATURE. To take this literally, we are talking of the elite calibre of writing.  In general, this mean top tier, proven talent, writing on the big sports events:  The Olympics, The World Cup, the massive Derby games.  It’s like Hardy writing on Somerset as much as Simon Barnes writing on a major moment in sport.  As already highlighted, this is one for the purist and indeed, writing like this has an ease of an unsaid guarantee of quality.  We can read such articles and books by the heavy hitters about the big games, already knowing that we will at the end of the reading experience (no matter how long or short), emerge with a new idea or concept.  And there is something incredibly sexy about that notion.

2. IMPORTANCE.  Was it the final, a grudge match, or a dead rubber?

2. IMPORTANCE: The question ‘Is this an important book?’ remains my favourite question about anything I’ve read.  Pausing to think about the wider significance of one entity or experience, in the context of one’s own life remains something to me that’s special and of course, delightfully pretentious.

When I think about sport, there are so many significant moments that have resonated with the world of sport and beyond to register as important on both a global and a distinctly personal stage.  When Usain Bolt emerged as the lightening strike he is, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I was taking on Bridesmaid duties with an exceptionally dear friend from Uni, at a Wedding Shop in Marylebone.  The 1999 Champions League final inspired me before each of my A Level exams as a punchy sixth form student, and nine years later, when Manchester United  took drama to new heights on a rain soaked night in Moscow, I was watching from an Old Mans pub in Islington with a boy I’d just started dating.  He is now my husband, and father to our daughter.

And so I will be measuring the importance of a book not just against other literature, but also its time and place in my own life.

3. ENTERTAINMENT.  Thrills, spills, goals, gaffes, all round edge-of-seatness.

3. ENTERTAINMENT.  This is perhaps the easiest quality that can be transferred from sport to literature.  Is a book entertaining?  Does an article engage me as a reader from start to finish? Does it have pace, style, a sense of narrative that keeps me guessing?  Put simply, does a piece of writing take me right into the heart of the action?

4. LEGACY.  Some games are crackers.  Others…..

4. LEGACY.  To me, this assessment point sits very close to importance.  However, with writing (and sports) the larger impact of a game, a book or an article can often be measured by the writing that they go on to inspire.  I think asking about legacy means asking the basic question of ‘What has ________ done for ______?’. What has Alex Ferguson done for the art of football management?  What has Hilary Mantell done for Historical Writing? What has Mario Ballatelli done for maverick sportsmen everywhere?  We will look at Legacy through this lens.

5. CONTROVERSY.  Diplomatic incidents, dodgy refs, dirty tricks and the like.

5. CONTROVERSY.  ….Aah, in all literature, controversy is king.  From the mystery of who Shakespeare was and who really did write that huge collection of plays, to the reclusive intellect of Harper Lee or JD Salinger, there is no better place to find living breathing controversy than the literary arena.  In addition to author controversies though, books and commentary have always shown a fearless ability to shake up the system.  Sport writing at times is the perfect place to find such ideas that can make us rethink and reassess where we sit in relation to a sport or an athlete or, ultimately, in our own lives.

Well, these are just ideas, and I hope to have at least shown to some degree the parallels between great sport and great sports writing.

My thanks to 4-4-2 Magazine and indeed, I hope this post has set the stall of this blog, firmly out.

Let The Games Commence!


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