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Facing the First Draft
by Moira Allen

Return to Polishing Your Prose · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Few things are more intimidating than the blank page (or screen) when you have a deadline. You may have known exactly what you wanted to say when you wrote your query, but now, perhaps, you have a stack of research notes and no idea how to get started. Or, perhaps you're stuck on the first sentence. This doesn't just happen to "new" writers; it happens to us all. Here are some ways to get that article going.

Step One: Identify Your Subject

The first step is to ask yourself whether you know exactly what your article is supposed to be about. Now that you've done your research, your brain may be stuffed with all sorts of information, and you're having trouble "sorting it out." It's time to go back to the basics.

Make sure you can state the central concept (or "thesis") of your article in a single sentence. Make sure, as well, that this sentence has no more than one "and" in it. For example:

TITLE: Your child's first hike
Market: Family-oriented travel or hiking publication
Good Topic Sentence: "How to introduce your child to hiking safely and enjoyably."
Bad Topic Sentence: "How to introduce your child to hiking, and what to pack, and where to go, and a look at my own experiences taking the kids on hikes, plus a look back at my first hike when I was a child ..."

TITLE: Discover the new Olympic sport of skeleton!
Market: Winter sports publications
Good Topic Sentence: "What 'skeleton' is and how to get involved."
Bad Topic Sentence: "What 'skeleton' is, how to get involved, profiles of some notable skeleton athletes, a history of skeleton and the Olympics, and places where you can learn how to do it, plus some of the risks ..."
The purpose of a topic sentence is not only to help you focus on the central point of your article, but also to limit you. Everything in your article should relate to that topic sentence. If it doesn't, then it doesn't belong in this article, no matter how interesting it may be. A tightly focused topic sentence will keep you on track; a rambling topic sentence will get you lost.

Another way to define your topic sentence is to turn it into the question that would be asked by the reader. For example:

  • How can I introduce my child to the sport of hiking?
  • What is "skeleton" and how can I get started in this sport?
By turning your thesis into a question, you know exactly what your article has to "answer." Here are some other sample questions that would make good "core concepts" for articles:
  • Should I refinance my home?
  • How can I learn to crochet?
  • How do you cook chestnuts?
  • How can I communicate more effectively with my spouse?
  • What do I need to know about "natural" vitamins?
  • Where can I stay in New York for less than $100 a night?
  • What are some romantic things I can do for less than $20?
  • How can I keep the kids entertained on a rainy day?
  • What would be an ideal gift for my mother-in-law?
Not every article idea can be expressed as a question, but you might be surprised by how easy it is to turn MOST ideas into questions. From there, the process becomes much simpler: Your goal is to ANSWER the question.

Step Two: Identify Your Subtopics

Once you've defined your topic statement, identify subtopics that support the original thesis. For example, your article on a child's first hike might cover:

  • How to make a trip enjoyable
  • How to make a trip safe
An article on whether to refinance one's home might include:
  • Circumstances in which refinancing is a good idea
  • Circumstances in which refinancing is a bad idea
  • How to get more information
Each of these subtopics may lead to more logical subtopics.
  • Child's hiking trip --> Safety --> Risks: Common trail hazards, including sunburn, dehydration, toxic plants, insect bites, animals/snakes, injuries such as cuts, bruises, sprains.

  • Child's hiking trip --> Safety --> Precautions: Warning your child about hazards, things to pack in case of hazards, how to protect against sunburn, etc.

  • Child's hiking trip --> Safety --> Remedies: What to do if any of the hazards are encountered (e.g., how to treat poison ivy, snake bite, etc.)
If you have too many subtopics, remember that you can always pull one out and use it as a sidebar. The key is to make sure that everything you're trying to cover in the article directly relates to your core topic. If it doesn't, save it for another piece.

Step Three: Identify Your Audience

Besides establishing the question your article will be answering, you also need to know who will be asking that question. If, for example, your article is covering "How to plan for retirement," you need to know who will be reading the piece. The questions asked by a 20-year-old single woman would be very different from those asked by a 40-year-old man with children about to enter college, or a recently divorced woman, or someone who is self-employed.

Going back to our "child hiking" article, you would want to know whether you're writing for experienced hikers, or a more general magazine whose readers may not be that experienced. You'll have to explain many more basic concepts to the latter audience, while the more experienced audience might be more interested in high-tech equipment suitable for kids, or the best hiking trails for kids in a particular region.

Step Four: Identify Your Limits

Be sure you know how long your article is supposed to be. You have only so many words to allocate to each "point" in your article. The more points you want to make, the fewer words you can budget to each point. The fewer points you need to cover, the more "in-depth" your coverage can be on every point.

While there is no hard-and-fast rule about how many words you should devote to a single subtopic, I feel that for an in-depth article, you need a budget of at least 300 to 500 words. A 2000-word article would give you room for four major subtopics.

If you need to cover a larger number of subtopics, your article will become more of an "overview." Overviews often work well as "list" articles. For example, you might write an in-depth piece on "how to keep your children entertained on a rainy day" -- or, a list titled "Ten ways to keep your kids entertained..."

Step Five: Identify Your Structure

Next, determine the best order in which to present your information. Often, once you know the question, a logical "order" for the answer may be intuitively obvious. You may also have defined this order in your outline. Here are some typical ways to structure your article:

  • Logical Order. What comes first, what comes next, what comes after that? What is the first question a reader would ask, the second, the third, and so on?

  • Chronological Order. What happened first? What happened next? What happened after that?

  • Instructional Order. What should the reader do first? What does he do next? What is step one, step two, step three?

  • List Order. Lists work well for articles like "Ten ways to entertain your children on a road trip" or "Twenty ways to clean up stains and spills." Shorter lists work fine without numbers; longer lists often benefit from numbering. Your number can also become your title.

If all else fails, try what I call "sculpting." Just write down paragraphs, at random, based on your research information. Don't worry about putting them together in a logical sequence, or polishing them; the goal is to get something on the page. I call this "sculpting" because it reminds me of the process of throwing wads of clay into a pile that will eventually become a sculpture. The first step is to simply get all the clay in the right place. then you can worry about shaping and smoothing.

Find Out More...

How to Sit Down and Write an Article, by Dawn Copeman

The Outline Demystified, by Moira Allen

Copyright © 2003 Moira Allen.
Excerpted from Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer.

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
All materials on this site are the property of their authors and may not be reprinted
without the author's written permission, unless otherwise indicated.
For more information please contact Moira Allen, Editor

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