Friday, August 31, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 16 of 21)

Shorten those sentences.

Grumble if you like, but terse-and-clear is the mark of good writing. 

Whether or not you think a sentence is too short, in order to write well, it probably isn't too short at all.

Read that 22-word sentence again. You can cut words. Whether implies or not. At all is redundant and you can cut in order. I'd suggest you make the sentence read this way: If you think a sentence is too short, it probably isn't. Not only is the revision shorter, but it's clearer and more readily understood.

When I first started to write, the late Charlie Shedd taught, "Never make a sentence longer than 15 words." His words were a bit arbitrary, but in those days 50 words wasn't too long for a sentence. Yet I vigilantly limited my sentences so I didn't exceed than that number. After a time, however, I realized that 15 makes choppy writing.

Here's how I say it today: "Let your sentences average no more than 20 words." Good writing doesn't demand a word limit on a sentence. Take as long as you need to express a thought. Afterward, go back and ask if you can eliminate words or perhaps make a long sentence into two.

If you write succinctly and clearly, you're one rung higher on the good-writer ladder. You can figure out the antithesis of that statement. Antithesis is a good word, but it may be beyond the vocabulary of some readers. Why not say the opposite? That's another tip.

Good writers cut ruthlessly. 
I am becoming a good writer, so I cut ruthlessly.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 15 of 21)

Revise and polish your article.

Call it editing, revising, or polishing, it means you work on the article until it's the best you can do.

As I wrote earlier, I wrote 18 full drafts of my first article. After that, I revised each a few times. Perhaps 15 on the second article (I no longer remember). By then, I had gained knowledge on how to write. I continued working to improve.

I still write occasional articles and I go through the same steps, but I write fewer drafts. I rarely go beyond the third draft. Even on the third, it really is polishing and not editing.

Here are a few hints on polishing your work.

* Look for awkward or laborious sentences.

* Seek ways to cut unneeded words. Get rid of adjectives and adverbs that don't enhance the writing.

* Sharpen your focus (if needed).

* Look at the number of times you use the same word in your article. If you use a word 12 times, that's too many. Look at a thesaurus for synonyms (but don't use one unless you know what it means). 

My article is never good enough 
until it's good enough for me to say I can't improve it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 14 of 21)

Slant your article.

You can write your article two different ways. The common method is to write an article and search for a magazine or ezine to publish it. That often works—but it's not efficient.

A better way is to slant the article to fit the needs of a particular publisher. That's called "knowing your markets."

For instance, I don’t like put-down jokes and I decided to write an article on the subject. I aimed it at parents so that they could set the example for their children.

I sent the article to a magazine and their guidelines stated that staff wrote 90 percent of their articles. I had studied the magazine enough to know my article fit their scope and style, so I sent it. Three weeks later an editor wrote to say she liked the article and that it was exactly the kind of material they wanted. (I felt affirmed by that comment.)

The problem was that they didn’t see how they could use it for at least a year. "This isn’t fair to you," she wrote, "so please feel free to sell it elsewhere. If you have not sold it within six months, please send it back and we’ll accept it for publication."

I didn't want to wait. I changed three sentences to focus on adults in general, gave it a new title, and sent it to a different magazine. They bought it and also paid more money than where I sent it first.

In my early days of writing I wouldn’t have known how to do that. Despite my changing the slant for a second magazine, the principles of writing articles still hold. I started my article with one basic thought, illustrated my point, told about the harm of put-down jokes, and offered suggestions on how to avoid that type of humor.

Slanting is part of the craft I learn. 
It's more work to slant my writing for a specific publication. 
It's also a sign of professionalism.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 13 of 21)

Two Qualities Every Article or Book Needs

I've previously mentioned the need for uniqueness. That is, what can you say that hasn't been said endlessly and probably better than you could?

One major method I used in my early days is what I call the yes-but concept. When I read what others say on a topic that I'm interested in, I mentally argue with them. I read their presentation and say, "Yes, that's true, but. . ." That is, I try to think of what the author isn't saying or I raise my own questions.

The second quality every article needs is universality. Whatever idea you have, you need to show readers how it applies to them. Your premise must be important enough for readers to say, "Yes, that's something I need to read."

If you want to talk about coping with an illness that only one person in 40 million people face, you'll have trouble marketing that idea. But you could write about the mental and physical anguish of coping with a debilitating illness and use your experience to illustrate your premise.

When I write for publication 
I remind myself of uniqueness and universality. 
My writing needs both.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 12 of 21)

Ignore the manuscript for a time.

Many writers feel exhilarated or relieved when they write the final word and want to get it to the editor or agent. Resist that urge. Look at it again critically. Does this sentence make sense? Did I explain it thoroughly? Did I over-explain?

After I close the file on a manuscript and leave it a few days, perhaps as long as a month, I've always improved it. I use the absolute always because I mean without exception.

When I return to the material, I read it with new insight because the material has been churning in my unconscious mind. (I intentionally put the previous sentence in the passive voice. I could have written: My unconscious mind churned the material, but the emphasis was on the action (churning) and not on the actor (my mind). This is an extra tip.

I write to get the story written; 
I rewrite to improve the quality.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 11 of 21)

Don't distract readers.

Let's look again at reading two magazines. As you focus on each article, here’s another question to ask: Is there anything that distracts me from a single focus? Less experienced writers tend to provide too much information and thus divert the power of the message.

Once you have a single-focused idea, you can state it in one sentence. Here are examples:

* If you’re considering adoption, here are seven things you need to know.

* People see the patient, but the caregiver becomes invisible.

* I didn't want to forgive Betty, but Betty forgave me.

If I can't reduce an article, scene, or chapter 
into one statement, 
I probably haven't focused.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 10 of 21)

How do I write the first draft?

My answer is simple: Go wild. Don't censor yourself. Vomit on the page. Let it flow. Remind yourself you can always go back and delete. You'll certainly be able to go back and improve.

If your first draft contains paragraphs that don't fit the topic, delete them. However, you may have stumbled on to the idea for a follow-up article.

Write the draft and don't worry about grammar or style. No one has to see the draft but you. You may be one of those logical, analytical writers who thinks sequentially. Let it flow. If you're the other kind and your mind jumps around and you end up with a first draft of 5,000 words and you need only 1/5 of the material, that's all right. Don't censor yourself.

The too-many words writer needs to learn to cut, cut, cut. I call that the fat writer. By contrast, I call myself a skinny writer (I am thin, but that's not the reason).

As a skinny writer, even when I let it flow, my first draft reads more like an outline than a full article, but I've written my concepts and major thoughts. If you're a skinny writer, you'll have to add details or information to bring readers into your way of thinking.

When I write my first draft, I vomit on the page. 
I will go back later and clean up the mess.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 9 of 21)

Two ways to outline your article:

Here are two methods, both of which provide a helpful formula. I'm not a formula-type writer, but both methods have proven beneficial to many.

#1Train Method: (Visualize the old-fashioned freight train with the snowplow, locomotive, boxcars, and caboose.)

1. Snowplow or Cowcatcher: You grab attention, carry readers into the article with a quote, anecdote, or question to rouse curiosity and keep them reading.

2. Locomotive: Write the theme or purpose that sets the direction and establishes your focus. It's a concise statement of your viewpoint.

3. Boxcars: They carry the evidence that supports your premise. This is the heart or substance of the article and you arrange it in logical sequence.

4. Caboose: You end the article so that readers feel they are at the end and you didn't merely stop.

#2 Guideposts Method: This is the basic formula used by Guideposts magazine for their articles.

1. Hey! You grab attention.

2. You! This is the theme or reason the article is important to readers.

3. See! You show your viewpoint or purpose. This is the body of the article.

4. So? This is your conclusion. You haven't finished until you show readers the relevance of the article to their lives.

Because I want to learn, 
I seriously ponder the two formulas.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 8 of 21)

Focus your article.

Before you write, plan where you’re going. If you start with a single concept or idea, you decide on a beginning or introduction and bring in evidence to support your point.

If you have a distinct focus—a single idea—that's where you start. I strongly recommend a written outline. It helps you know where you start and becomes like a map to get you to the end.

Once you know you have the material structured, begin with an illustration or a statement that points readers in the direction the next six pages will take. The story can be either negative or positive—its purpose is to bring out the problem you want to resolve in the article. (This holds true with fiction: You start with someone having a problem.)

Ask yourself questions. Answer them in logical order so that each fact or incident naturally leads to the next.

For example (and those two words are a logical transition from the previous paragraph), you want to write about learning to forgive. The most obvious way is to set up the problem and it can be done in a few words or two paragraphs.
I can't remember when I began to detest Maynard. Was it in grade school when he played his stupid jokes on me? Was it the time he stole two dollars from my wallet? Or was it when he started dating Gina because he knew I liked her?
Now I have the problem—the obvious next thing is to resolve the issue. I don't like Maynard, but I need to get those angry, bad feelings out of life and forgive him. How do I forgive?

Move from setup to the logical steps you followed to forgive. Or you can point out that all of us have times we need to learn to forgive. You tell them the five things (or seven or three) they need to do. Use your story with Maynard to illustrate the steps.

I focus on a problem or situation 
and then show how to arrive at a solution.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 7 of 21)

Gather your material.

Once you know what you want to write and you've decided on one idea for the chapter or article, gather the material. That's called doing research.

Learn everything you can to make your manuscript complete and include all essential information.

If it's a personal-experience, search your memory and ask others who were involved. If it's historical or factual material (even if you write fiction) read widely. Find the one or two best sources—preferably the original sources quoted by others.

Always learn more about a topic than you plan to use. Years ago I wrote a scene in a novel that included a woman's visit to a field of pyrethrum, a natural pesticide. By the time I finished my research, I could have easily written 5,000 words on the topic. In the novel, I wrote one paragraph and used 93 words. That's all I needed for the story.

When you research carefully, you provide accurate information. Keep records. Footnote your writing if needed. If you use on-line sources, verify the information before you quote.

Decide on the anecdotes and illustrations you want to use. Think of those word pictures as windows. If you have only narrative statements, it's like a building with only walls. If you illustrate with research, you create windows for your readers. You enable readers to see inside the structure and they understand your statements.

I work hard as a writer 
so I can make it easy for readers.