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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:
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.
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
- 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 ..."
Another way to define your topic sentence is to turn it into the
question that would be asked by the reader. For example:
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:
- How can I introduce my child to the sport of hiking?
- What is "skeleton" and how can I get started in this sport?
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.
- 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?
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:
An article on whether to refinance one's home might include:
- How to make a trip enjoyable
- How to make a trip safe
Each of these subtopics may lead to more logical subtopics.
- Circumstances in which refinancing is a good idea
- Circumstances in which refinancing is a bad idea
- How to get more information
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.
- 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.)
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
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.
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