Andy Barrett shows how to put your personal interests aside and write an informative and engaging article on (just about) anything.
Ever been asked to write an article on a subject that didn’t particularly inspire you? Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Most articles are written by people with no personal interest in that topic. But with the right attitude and approach, you can make any subject your own.
In the heady world of investigative journalism, the intrepid journalist will have a flash of inspiration, smell a rat or be given a lead from some Deep Throat whistleblower spilling the beans. A pursuit of information, sources and verifications will follow, and all the while the whiff of a Pulitzer hovers over every word. Nice work if you can get it.
Most article writers, however, are handed a topic and ordered to make something readable from it. The lowlier one is, the less likely anyone will want to write it, let alone read it. But this doesn’t mean you can’t show off your skills and write something that pulls the reader in. More importantly, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it your best shot.
The following five-stage process will help.
1. Embrace the subject
It doesn’t matter what the subject is. Believe me. We have all, at some time, read a piece about a subject we have no interest in, but then surprised ourselves by reading through to the end. This is because the writer has pulled you in, established points, argued them and concluded in a flowing style. It’s not necessarily that the author was especially good, but rather that he or she has treated the subject with respect.
Whether delving into the world of waste water management, announcing to the world the latest retail legislation and how it affects sales of white goods, or attempting to make the dullest middle manager in a frozen fish company appear dynamic and innovative, the methods are the same. Your subject is your subject and you should treat it with as much reverence and care as you would an interview with a head of state or an A-list movie star.
Make the subject your own, make it your central focus – get into it.
2. Do the research
This is the bulk of the work. It can be laborious, but the more research you do, the easier the writing will be. While researching the subject, you will have ideas as to your angle (the perspective or direction of the article), how you will open your piece (the all-important opening paragraph, essential for hooking your reader), and how you will conclude (a satisfying ending can produce as many endorphins as a good run or meal). Make note of these as you progress.
Research is about fact finding: statistics, anecdotes, quotes, references, history, and position in the contemporary world. It can also lead to other interesting, less quantifiable elements, such as influence and inspiration, desire and drive – whether from the point of view of the subject, or in the wider industry or world.
Research can include interviewing the subject (if your subject is a person). In this case, make sure you have completed sufficient research before the interview. It might not always be possible, but it is good to know (or have a good idea of) the answer before you ask the question. We will look at good interviewing in a later blog post.
Once you have a good handle on what (and/or who) you are talking about, order your research findings into a running order. This can be as simple as listing your findings chronologically, or there might well be an order of importance. Whatever your method of ordering, you will have at this point the raw outline of your article.
Remember: enjoy the process.
3. Think of your audience and write the first draft for them
First of all, for whom are you writing? Targeting your audience accurately will make a huge difference when it comes to getting people to read your article through to the end.
You need to take on board fully the audience to whom you are writing. Are you writing for professionals in the same industry? Laypeople? Predominantly male or female? Predominantly old or young? These factors should influence your writing style. If writing for professionals (i.e. people in the know) then you might feel comfortable using industry jargon, but laypeople will need definitions for such terms or phrases (should you choose to use them).
That done, there are essentially three ways to write your first draft: start with the opening paragraph (your thesis/point/message/argument), start with your closing paragraph (your conclusion/returning to your point/message/argument), or start with the body (the bulk of the presentation of your research).
Many writers prefer to get the body into some sort of order before writing the opener or conclusion, as it is this, more than anything, that lends credence to your angle, but don’t feel constrained by this. If your opener or conclusion is self-evident, then let this guide the body.
Somewhat contradicting the above, the important thing on a first draft is to get it finished. Don’t spend too long on it. It is only a first draft. There is a lot of work still to do.
4. Commit a spot of murder
This is where the real article begins to appear. A crucial element here is word count. If you have been properly briefed, you should know how long your article is expected to be. This will have been in your mind from the beginning, but up to now, it has been more important to get all of the information on to the page.
From here you will be expected to kill a darling or two… or three… or more.
With experience, article writers grow to love a restrictive word count, as it is the simplest way to hone a sprawling feature into a sharp, insightful implement. As you go through with the (now virtual) red pen, cutting out swathes of unnecessary adjectives, pompous, overwritten sentences, and dodgy grammar, you can varnish the piece into a seamless entity where no-one will see the joins.
Editing also gives you the chance to consider whether you are being too heavy and serious, or too lightweight and flippant.
Is there anything missing? Is there anything extraneous? If the answer is ‘yes’, go back and rewrite the flawed sections.
Does the body of the article support the thesis and conclusion? Does it flow? Am I writing for my audience? Have I fulfilled the brief? If the answer is ‘no’, go back and rewrite the flawed sections.
5. Read it aloud
Once you are happy with your second (or third, or…) draft, read it. Read it aloud. How does it sound when spoken? Does it flow? Does it sound like something someone would say? Does meaning get lost anywhere?
If you notice anything that doesn’t sound right, go back and rewrite it. The editing and reading stages of writing an article can be endless. You edit, you read – it doesn’t sound right. You edit again, you read again… and so on.
It should go without saying that you will need to proofread the piece… It should, but it is too important an issue not to mention. Proofing should be done as you write, as you rewrite, as you edit and as you read… but it is still important to have someone else look over the article for errors. No matter how many times it is read, no matter how many eyes scour the words and punctuation, errors will always get through. The important thing is to make sure as few of them make it to the final, published document as possible.
As a fine songwriter once said: a song is never finished, it is simply eventually abandoned. Such is writing an article. You will either hit your deadline and have to hand it in, or you will be driven to distraction and hopelessness and throw your arms in the air, exclaiming: “I can’t do this anymore!”
That’s ok. You’ve probably done enough. Time to move on to the next one…