Writing can be many things. It can be cathartic, a process of purging where you empty your mind of all the endless thoughts swirling around. It can be a form of activism, or a means to raise awareness.
It can also be promotional, or commercial. Writing can be done on one’s own, or in a group. Writing is versatile, and everyone has their own rituals when it comes down to it. If you’ve decided to sit down and produce an article, ask yourself one question: why?
Figuring out the “why” is, in my opinion, the most important step to start your writing process. What is propelling you forwards, what is your motivation, your incentive? What fuels your enthusiasm? You need to keep this in mind, a mental buffet to feast on; something to return to during the lonely, tedious nights of writing, and rewriting. And rewriting.
Here are a couple of lessons I’ve learned so far – pick them up and put them down as you will.
Disclaimer: this is for more of an in-depth/feature/opinion style piece, not news reporting, and I’m going from the assumption you have a topic to write about.
DO: figure out your “why”, because it will impact your writing style. An article isn’t a stream of consciousness – although this can definitely be your starting point if you’ve yet to really refine your idea – but a narrative story with a beginning, middle and an end.
Your article is an argument, you are convincing your reader, and you do so by setting a scene (contextualise), introducing a problem (and personalising it in a way that is accessible), and then providing a solution (it’s all well and good to use a platform to complain about something, but if you consider journalism to be a means to an end – it should provide a service or improve society – then do the work to find a solution too).
DON’T: be too strict on your “why” (I’m sorry, but when it comes to writing, every rule has an exception). Don’t strangle your creative self with overly rigid structures.
The truth is, sometimes articles change as you write them, perhaps because of the research you’ve done, the people you’ve spoken to, or the fact that you’ve distanced yourself a little from your initial fervour.
I personally always find that I start by wanting to make a rather general point, often one I am passionate about. But the more I learn about it, the more I adapt to new information, I hone and sharpen my stance and am able to incorporate my reader’s needs into the piece, which in my mind means an ability to be more balanced, including multiple viewpoints, etc.
DO: read up in all the things that are connected to your topic. Allow yourself the freedom to go down rabbit holes – reading is one of my favourite parts of writing. It’s when you can give in to your inquiring mind and just follow every weird and wonderful path that is in any way loosely related to what you want to write about.
Your job as a writer is to keep it concise, although the length of your article will define the extent of your wiggle room. However, a well-rounded article that pulls in a variety of influences and perspectives is infinitely more stimulating and exciting than a one-sided, narrow-minded statement. The world is complex, and you should be able to paint it as such.
DON’T: hate me – because what you also need to do, is forget everything I just said and make sure you don’t stray from the topic too much. Referring back to the first point, you need a beginning, middle and an end. Sure, you can sway around a little bit, but come back to your “why”: this needs to be clear cut and understandable. Only include information that emphasises or explains your point, don’t overload your reader.
Ask yourself with every new paragraph – assuming each paragraph is a separate point that you want to make in an overarching argument, a step towards your conclusion – how is this serving your “why”? is it weighing it down, or lending it buoyancy, carrying it forwards? It is not the reader’s job to sift through endless ramblings, trying to figure out what your point is – it’s yours. Make it interesting but stay focused. You can always use superfluous material for your next piece.
DO: decide whether or not you will include interviewees and sort that out ASAP. I always write my articles after interviews, because you never know what someone will contribute. Listen to your interviewee with an open mind, instead of waiting for the perfect sentence, or trying to find how their information will complement your work. Chances are you will miss something, or you might distort what they are saying. You can go in with set questions and an aim, but don’t let it take over what they have to say.
Give yourself enough time for interviewees, because people can agree to something, then change their minds, or have an emergency, or whatever. Try to have a back-up, and consider at least multiple sources. It makes your work stronger and also more interesting if you include several viewpoints.
DON’T: neglect your audience. Remember them when you use language and colloquialisms, when you illustrate your examples, and when you are constructing your argument. Is your article engaging, is it accessible? Does it ask questions? Does it care? Do you?
DO: your research on publications if your plan is to publish, and tailor your pitch to them. This involves asking yourself a number of questions: who is their target audience? Why does your article speak to that audience? Why would they publish your piece, how does it align with their values? What makes you an expert in that area?
A lot of news outlets have pitching guidelines, so check up on that. Following these will make it a lot easier to have your piece featured. If you are reading this because you want to practice your writing ‘voice’ for your own blog, I would suggest asking yourself these questions anyway because they help bring your “why” into focus.
DON’T: leave everything until the last minute (she says, having left this article to the last minute). Different people cope and work differently under pressure, but I always try to give myself time to have a break before going over my work at least once before I hand it in.
Time away from an article provides distance you need to delete the unnecessary, to smooth out your syntax, and to answer any final questions. It can also help to keep writer’s block at bay because the pressure of making every sentence “perfect” immediately can easily lead to a mental shutdown.
Write, accept there will be mistakes, and give yourself the breathing space to go over something once or twice more, perfecting as you go along.
DON’T: reject helpful critiques but do ignore pointless criticism. Critique consists of finding what works, and moreover, helping you find what could work better. Criticism consists of finding fault with something. Find someone you trust and get them to read over your work. They can help point out things you might have missed due to the tunnel vision writing can create. But if someone is just blasting your piece with no useful or workable commentary, leave them to it, and move on.
DO: end your article with a call-to-action. Now go write. (to be quite honest this also depends on your article, but if we’re conforming to an article that involves a solution, I think it provides a good little “oomph” ending. Be off with you!)