I don’t watch much in the way of sports, especially professional sports, but I did watch the Super Bowl this past weekend, and I couldn’t help but come away with an observation…although most writers and probably many readers will likely cringe at the comparison I’m about to make. As writers, we’re in the same general business as professional sports. Our job is to entertain, and winning entertains far more than losing. In football, the score at the end of the game signifies who wins the game, but the box office receipts at the end of the season also determine who wins… as do the salaries and bonuses paid to players and, less substantially usually, to coaches.
In a sense, every player on an NFL team is a winner. They’re the professionals, and so long as they perform, they can keep playing and getting paid. In writing, the same thing is true. So long as a writer performs, he or she can keep keeping published and paid. And performing means not only writing books, but also writing them in a way that they sell enough that the publisher makes money – just as players have to perform well enough so that the team makes money.
Just as in football, in publishing there are mega-stars, and there are rookies, and journeyman authors. Every year, there’s a new group of writing stars, acclaimed by the writing pundits, and every year some of them sell enough books, and every year some don’t. And just as some football players seem to have all the talents and all the moves, but never quite make it in the big time, the same thing is true in writing fiction. And then there are the authors who never initially impress the literary pundits, just as there are players who never initially impress the football pundits, but who win, by selling hundreds of thousands or millions of books. But in this regard, football and writing differ. A writer can be an excellent writer and sell millions of books and never impress the literary pundits, whereas a football pundit who tries to sell his column by trashing players who perform outstandingly for a long time is likely to run into a substantial backlash. That doesn’t happen to literary pundits.
Another similarity between writing and professional football is that to be successful, a writer has to execute well and avoid mistakes, especially major mistakes, particularly at the end. If a writer blows the ending of a book, just as the Seahawks blew the ending of the Super Bowl, that book isn’t going anywhere… and if a writer does it too often, neither is the writer – just like a quarterback who throws interceptions at a critical time.
All the hype about style goes out the window if either a writer or a football player can’t execute and finish. Of course, style definitely helps, and if those in either profession can execute well, minimize mistakes, and finish on top in terms of their personal performance, that’s what makes them a professional.
And that’s an aspect of writing that’s all too often overlooked.