This is a style guide I originally wrote for the soccer website El Arte De Futbol
- The Basics: clarity, consistency, and humility.
The first aim for any piece of writing is clarity. You want the reader to understand. You’ve got ideas and opinions to express, so you want the reader to be on your side. And to stay on your side. Of course, you can break all the rules below, but only when you’ve mastered them first.
Secondly, be consistent. Don’t change style or tone during your piece.
Finally, be humble. If it’s a choice between you being funny or clever, or you being simple, clear and consistent, then swallow your pride and go for the latter.
More on all these points to come.
- Write for your audience.
If this site was called Die Wissenschaft des Fußballs (The Science of Football) a prospective reader would be expecting something scientific and technological – rubbing their hands in anticipation of forensic dissection of tactics and statistical analysis. With a blog called El Arte de Futbol, we are leading our readers to expect articles that focus on the flair side of the game, the Latin side, the Beautiful Game, as Pelé called it – O Jogo Bonito.
So does that mean we have given ourselves permission to attempt some lyricism in our writing? I would suggest “no”.
Even if we are trying to describe the heart-pounding moment we saw our first Cruyff Turn, or Scissor Kick, or Ronaldinho Gaucho Snake (Google it), it’s better if it’s done in a simple, clear style. We don’t want to put too many hurdles between our readers and our meaning.
- Writing a feature
Have a think beforehand about what you want to say and make some notes about how you are going to order your piece. There is a standard format for features that goes like this:
HEADLINE: The last thing that should be written – something that sums up the piece in an eye-catching way.
STANDFIRST: The bit that introduces who you are and what you are here to do:
“Writing a football feature is not as easy as it sounds, as Ged Naughton found out when he agreed to put together a list of style tips for El Arte de Futbol.”
THE PIECE: Whatever you write, you are making an argument. You are going to outline a thesis in your article that you want the reader to agree with by the end. In some cases, you are looking for reaction, and you want the reader to disagree with what you propose. Either way, you are stating a point of view and you want the reader to react emotionally.
The first feature I ever wrote at the age of 17 for a music fanzine was a gig review. I thought I had absolutely nailed it, because I had made a note of every title of every single song the band played in order. I was surprised at how little reaction my brilliant review got. Years later, I found the piece again and re-read it. It was just a list. Not even the most discerning reader could have worked out what I felt about the concert.
So, a feature without an emotional point of view is just a list.
- Intro: set out your argument in two sentences. Absolutely no more than 50 words. If you can do it in fewer than 25, and in one sentence, so much the better.
- Description. Go through the points you want to make in order of importance. You might want to start with the most important and finish with the least. Or vice versa. Or you might want to start and finish with your big points, and keep the lesser points in between. This is your choice and can depend on the tone you are aiming for. Building up to an anti-climax can be funny, if done well.
- Keep your sentences short. Only include one idea per sentence. Only one sentence per paragraph, if you want. One of the best things I was ever taught about writing is that when you are struggling to make a long sentence work, it’s probably because you’ve got more than one idea in that sentence. The solution is almost always to split the sentence in two.
- Keep your sentences short – part two. Try not to add too many sub-clauses. It’s easy to lose track of what is meant to be qualifying what. And anything but the simplest punctuation looks messy and puts readers off.
- If you’re offering an opinion, give evidence. If you are stating a fact, give evidence. Anything else sounds vague, and badly-made points detract from the good points you are making.
- Quotes are a good way to express emotions and opinions without evidence. If someone else has made a sweeping statement with no evidence to back it up, feel free to quote it. But be aware that if that original speaker sounded like an idiot, you run the risk of doing the same.
CONCLUSION. Unlike a news story, which is a list of facts laid out with important ones at the top and less important ones the further down you go, a feature can build up to a conclusion. A long feature will often return in the last paragraph to the thesis offered in the first paragraph.
- Kill your darlings
Don’t fall in love with something you have written just because you have written it. If it doesn’t fit, get rid of it, no matter how good it is. It’s the feature-writing equivalent of Barcelona selling Yaya Touré to Man City and it was William Faulkner who said it. (The bit about killing your darlings, not the bit about Yaya Touré.)
For example, American or British English? If you start with behavior and favor, then continue that way. But really, which one should be the language to write about football?
- Read it out to yourself so you can hear it and decide what sounds right.
What you’ve written is always better when you’ve re-read it and corrected it. Especially if you give yourself time after completing your first draft before re-reading it. Aloud (see above).
- Breaking the rules.
While there are some things that make your writing better, most rules can be broken when you know what you’re doing. Some of those breakable rules reflect better the way people talk, and we’re looking for an informal (albeit knowledgeable) style at EADF. So you don’t have to worry too much about splitting infinitives, ending a sentence with a preposition. Or starting a sentence with a conjunction. But if in doubt, stick to the rule.
A few football-related style tips
It’s easy to assume when it comes to football that the way you see it now is the way it has always been and the way it will always be. But that’s not necessarily the way your readers will see it. It won’t always be about Messi v Ronaldo. And Celtic, Ajax, and Benfica, for example, all have huge places in European football history.
- Metaphor/simile or Jargon/cliché/stereotype/vogue phrase.
One way to make your writing come alive is to introduce original comparisons. But be careful not to make them sound too stretched. Also, be careful about reaching for phrases that sound authoritative, because they may be at best jargon and at worst clichés.
Football commentators, pundits and fans love nothing better than a well-worn phrase. For example, “top drawer”, “set their stall out”, “for fun”, “part and parcel”, “in and around”, “albeit” etc
People are attracted to clichés because their familiarity seems to give weight to opinions, but they become automatic and lose any impact they might have had through over-use – to the point of inanity. I once heard a pundit talking about a team winning a lot of direct free-kicks “in and around” the box. Surely a direct free kick “in” the box is a penalty?
Be careful of using any vogue phrases that you might hear in football or non-football life, like: “it is what it is” or “is xxx even a thing?”. These also are phrases that have become meaningless because of over-use. “Going forwards” is also one to avoid because it can be confused with the literally use of a team going forwards in an attacking sense.
And if it’s a cliché in real-life, it’s a cliché in football. Think before you use “at a canter”, “walk in the park”, “bed of roses” etc. Imagine them literally and if the picture is ludicrous, get rid of them.
As Robert Burns once said: “My love is like a red, red rose.” What? Prickly and covered in greenfly?
- Win and loss/defeat
I keep seeing the word “loss” as a noun as the opposite for a “win” (also a noun). It doesn’t sound right to me. I’d say the opposite of “win” is a “defeat”. Eg. “Juventus had only five draws and three defeats on their way to the Serie A title last season.”
To me, a loss constitutes an unforeseen handicap, such as “The loss of their captain to injury after only three games…”
Finally, a few basic tips of spelling and grammar (or possibly syntax. I’m never sure.)
- Subject verb object
It’s not usually this simple, but basically, you can think of a sentence in this way: Ronaldo [SUBJECT] scored [VERB] the penalty [OBJECT]. When you go beyond that, things can get out of hand. The more sub-clauses you have, the more complicated things get.
Make sure the subject and object agree. Strictly speaking, it should be “the team has its best chance of success” rather than “the team have”, but increasingly we see a plural verb with a collective noun, eg “Liverpool are expecting big things this year…” Again, aim for consistency. Make sure all your sentences follow the same rule throughout.
- Get names right.
Your built-in spellchecker will pick up spelling mistakes, so set it to the agreed version of English and it will keep you right. But it doesn’t pick up on names, so if in any doubt, do your own check of the names on a recognised site, like the BBC or Wikipedia. Some players have accents on their names as well, like Luka Modrić or James Rodríguez. The correct spelling can all be cut and pasted from your search engine for accuracy.
Numbers from one to nine are written in letters. Numbers from 10 onwards are written in numbers. Exceptions in our environment come with the numbers players have on their backs. It’s OK to refer to “a typical number 6” or an “old-fashioned number 9” using the digit. You might end up with a sentence like this: “Manchester United have tried six different number 5s in the last two seasons.” Don’t panic. It’s fine.
Use the words for twelfth rather than 12th. With dates, I would suggest going for “July 30, 1966”, or “August 12, 2018”. It’s neat and those little ths look untidy.
- Its or it’s
Apostrophes are a nightmare for any grammarian, and the rule is simple, use them when it’s about possession – e.g. “Messi’s record fifth golden shoe.” Use them when it’s a contraction of “it is”. Don’t use them when it’s about plurals.
But the word “its” is an exception, for example: “The World Cup in its first inception, as the Jules Rimet Trophy…”
There are only two uses for the semi-colon and I would do my best not to get into a position where I had to use either of them. Instead, use commas and full stops, and the ever-handy dash.
- Using the active and not the passive voice
- Less and fewer
Less is the opposite of more, but so is fewer. Use fewer when it’s something that can be counted; use less when it’s something that can be measured. For example: “fewer points…”, “less success…”