“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” That’s a quote from Jack Kerouac’s book, The Dharma Bums. It’s also a pretty good approach to writing an article, although you can rarely afford to think in terms of days as a journalist or copywriter. When I talk about writing an article, I don’t mean writing a traditional news piece. I am referring to feature writing, long form journalism, blogs, whitepapers and ebooks. Those are my specialisms and while they may hinge on news items, they are not news articles per se.
As Kerouac said, a big part of writing an article is finding the right words to say what you need to say. Those words don’t always come immediately or easily but with practice, perseverance, a bit of playing around and thinking time, they do come.
For me, there is usually a lot of thinking time when writing – working out what needs to be said, how best to say it, in what order to say it, who is going to help me say it (in terms of interviewees), which quotes say it best and how to link it all together. Much of this thinking happens before the writing bit starts and then when drafting those first few, critical opening sentences. A lot of it happens before that even – when researching an article, when deciding who to speak to and what to ask them.
Tip 1: Do your research
Given the Internet and wealth of information and resources at our fingertips, there is no excuse for skipping the research bit. Plus, why would you, when what you find can add so much depth, breadth and life to your piece?
Even with very straightforward articles, it’s surprising what a quick search can throw up, information and comment that can inform your piece and make it stronger. It’s always worth the effort. Looking at what research and experts say about a topic is also a good way to challenge your own understanding and opinions and ensure neutrality. It is very easy to make assumptions, but it something you need to avoid. This is a very important part of the journalistic process and is particularly relevant in this age of opinion, fake news, alternative news….
Find the facts and report those. Find opinions and report those. Find conflicting opinions and report those. You can probably find conflicting facts too and report those. It will all add to the credibility and flavour of your article.
Tip 2: Interview people
Think carefully about who you interview, why they would be good for the piece and why they would be interested in contributing. Choose people with contrasting stories or viewpoints so that you get a balanced, informed view of the topic. Be open to what they have to say – they might challenge your own thinking or give you a fresh perspective and angle on what you are writing. Remember the journalistic rule of for, against and neutral. That should form the basis of any journalistic writing and the interviewing process.
Quotes are great. They add impact and colour and bring copy to life. They break up the text and when used well, can add wit and informality. Interviewees can say things you wouldn’t say yourself, as the writer, and they can say it in ways that you wouldn’t say it, either. Plus, if you are quoting someone with a lot of clout and knowledge, that greatly enhances your article and your credibility as a writer.
Tip 3: Establish what you want to say
This is called having an angle or a hook. Whatever the subject matter, there needs to be a hook for the article. It is the central theme, the thread that will run throughout the piece. Often, the hook is something new – a new development, a news story, a new product, a new opinion….
If you know what you want to say then chances are that you will communicate it effectively to your readers. Clarifying it in your own mind helps you to clarify it in theirs. It also helps to make the whole writing process easier – it’s already in your head what you want to say, so all you need to do now is to write it.
Tip 4: Know how you want to say it
There is a lot of planning involved in writing articles. It might sound boring and un-creative, but planning is an essential part of the writing process. Or it is for me – others may disagree. Time spent thinking and planning can make the actual writing process easier and quicker. It also helps with the flow of a piece.
I think of writing articles as being rather like doing a jigsaw puzzle – there are lots of elements, stories, ideas, facts, opinions and quotes that you need to put together to form the whole.
There are some rules about what makes good copy and by and large, you stick to them as a writer. Sometimes they can go out of the window, but it’s good to always remember the basics. For example, the who, what, where, why, when and how part of telling a story. You need to give your readers all the information that they need and not leave unanswered questions hanging in the air.
Like stories and essays, articles have a beginning, a middle and an end. You need to introduce a topic or idea and get the concept out there. Then you need to talk about what readers need to know and develop the topic/idea/story. Then you need to bring it to an end and conclude the article. That’s a very basic summary, but then, it’s a pretty basic concept.
Tip 5: Remember your audience
Always, always keep your audience in mind. This is key to delivering the right copy in the right way. If it’s a business piece for example, who will be reading it? What’s their level of seniority? Their knowledge and experience of the topic? Do they want in-depth analysis? Background information? Tips? Does the article need to be formal? What kind of writing style is appropriate?
Tip 6: Keep it simple
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” However you write your copy and whatever you do, keep it simple. Make it easy to read, easy to understand and easy to follow. Don’t ramble or use long, complicated sentence structures. This isn’t about dumbing down – it’s about writing clearly and concisely, knowing what you want to say and how to say it. You don’t want readers to lose the thread or have to reread a section in order to understand it. Or worse still, give up altogether.
Tip 7: Edit and be ruthless
Keep editing as you go and make sure you do at least one final edit. Check for mistakes, how names are spelt, check facts and check your writing. Does it make sense? Have you expressed yourself clearly?
Cut copy. You may like how a sentence sounds but if it doesn’t add to the piece, cut it. Editing is a very important part of the writing process.
I could keep going, but these are the main points, I think, to writing good articles. Sometimes, it’s an easy process. Sometimes it isn’t. But fortunately, it’s hugely rewarding when the jigsaw is finished and it all comes together.
[Picture credit: MeHe]