How to Craft a Great Article, Part I: Structure, Focus, Unity and Flow
by Dawn Copeman

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Ever wondered what makes some articles succeed? Why sometimes you pick up a magazine and can't stop reading one piece, whereas another piece has you turning the page before the end of the first few paragraphs? More crucially, ever wondered why your query was accepted but the article rejected? Well, the secret is in the article's structure.

You see, there is more to writing an article than putting words down on paper. You have to choose an appropriate structure; write an engaging hook; match the target magazine's house style; keep the writing tight and on focus; ensure it ends in a way that satisfies the reader; and deliver everything you promised in the query.

This is a lot to take in, but over the next few months I will guide you through each of these areas and show you how to write a successful article.

Let's start by looking at article structures.

Structure is another word for format. An appropriate structure will enable you to fit the facts of your article into the right slots to make an engaging and interesting read. There are five main types of article structure to select from.

The Inverted Pyramid. The Inverted Pyramid is the one that journalists often use. It developed in newsrooms when stories would often have to be cut to fit the print space available, especially when a better story came in that needed more coverage. In this structure all the important facts come first, followed by less important facts so that if the editor cuts the bottom off the story, the story would still make sense. You see examples of the inverted pyramid in newspapers every day: "Local woman Elise Margoldt (65) runs her first marathon to raise money for cancer charity. Elise, who has recently recovered from Kidney cancer, ran the marathon on Sunday and raised $2045 for a national cancer charity. Elise first developed cancer at the age of 62," etc.

The Double-Helix. We all know the structure of the double helix from DNA -- picture it in your head. In double helix-structured articles you have two sets of information to get across, two strands that dance around each other while they perform their own inverted pyramid. It goes something like this:

  1. important fact from source 1,
  2. important fact from source 2,
  3. next fact from source 1,
  4. next fact from source 2,
  5. and so on...

Let's say you were writing a piece about the recent World Cup in Germany and you wanted to write about the England v Portugal match and a profile of a Portuguese doctor working in a busy A and E department. (A and E is the British equivalent of ER.) The actual story could be: Dr Pelegros was having a good shift in the A and E department until England player Wayne Rooney was sent off. With England down to ten men the game gets hard and the mood in the waiting room begins to deteriorate. England hold out but eventually lose on penalties. When the final whistle blows and England have lost the game; Dr Pelegros is attacked by a group of angry England fans in the waiting room.

Our story thus has two strands:

  1. Narrative of the England/Portugal Match
  2. Doctor Juan Pelegros' shift in the ER room during the match

So the structure would look like this:

  1. After over 100 minutes of play, a valiant but heartbroken England go out of the World Cup, losing on penalties to Portugal
  2. As the whistle blows Doctor Juan Pelegros from Portugal heads off to get stitches in the cut above his eye.
  1. Rooney being sent off and the effect this had on the England team.
  2. How patients treated Doctor Pelegros after this incident
  1. How England were playing up to that point.
  2. The atmosphere in the A and E waiting room at the start of his shift.
  1. Overview of how England got this far in the World Cup
  2. Why Doctor Pelegros is working in London, his history

And so on.

The Chronological Double-Helix. This is similar to the structure above in that it begins with the main facts of the story from each strand, but once the main facts have been introduced, it reverts to a chronological telling of the events.

In this format the above article would have the following structure:

  1. After over 100 minutes of play, a valiant but heartbroken England go out of the World Cup, losing on penalties to Portugal
  2. As the whistle blows Doctor Juan Pelegros from Portugal heads off to get stitches in the cut above his eye.

  1. Overview of how England got this far in the World Cup
  2. Why Doctor Pelegros is working in London, his history

  1. How England were playing until Rooney got sent off.
  2. The atmosphere in the A and E waiting room at the start of his shift

  1. Rooney being sent off and the effect this had on the England team.
  2. How patients treated Doctor Pelegros after this incident

The Chronological Report. This is stating things in the order that they happened. Let's take our Charity Marathon Runner again. In the Chronological Report, we would have: "Elise Margoldt was a healthy, active, 62-year-old records clerk in the DMV at Hudsonville when cancer turned her world upside down. Elise had been feeing 'a little bit off color, nothing major. I just kept on getting colds and feeling weak. I took myself off for a check-up knowing I just couldn't have cancer. Cancer makes you lose weight, I'd heard and if anything I was putting weight on.'" This structure would then go through diagnosis, treatment, recovery, the marathon.

The Storytelling Model. This is where fiction and non-iction meet. In fiction you often get an event, then some back story, then another event and so on, with the intention that you need to keep reading to find out what happens next, or why something that's already happened, happened.

In the storytelling model you place your reader right in the middle of the action and then, when you've dragged them in, you continue with a chronological report up to the dramatic event you opened with and beyond that to what happened next.

"In the packed A-and-E department of St Oldrid's Hospital, London, on a hot Saturday afternoon in July, Dr Juan Pelegros is creating extra waiting time for his patients; he is having stitches himself following a vicious attack by a patient."

The Storytelling model would continue with how and why Dr Pelegros came to be working in London, his hopes, how he's been finding the job here, the day of the England/Portugal match, what happened before he needed stitches, and what happened next.

Which structure to choose? That's entirely up to you. Unless you're working in a news room, avoid the inverted pyramid. But all the other structures have a place in article writing. Play around with them and see which one reads best for the article you are working on; you might just be surprised.

Focus

Okay, so you've found a topic you want to write about and maybe you've even had your query accepted and an editor wants to see your piece. That's fantastic! But now the real work begins. You see, not every accepted query leads to an accepted article. As I said before, there are many reasons for this, such as failure to meet the house style and failing to deliver what was promised in the query, to name but two. But one of the main reasons an article is rejected is due to its lack of focus.

What is focus?. Focus is what makes your article unique. It is what makes it readable, enjoyable and worth publishing. Focus also takes work. Focus involves looking closely at exactly what it is you want to write about and making sure you write only about that aspect of your topic. This can be harder than it sounds, especially if you've done a lot of research on your topic before deciding on the angle it would take: it can be difficult to leave a lot of that research out. Similarly, if you've interviewed someone in connection with your piece, it can be hard to discard some of those hard-earned quotes when you realise they don't actually fit in with the focus you've decided to take. But you must be ruthless when you are constructing your article and put in only those elements that fit within your focus.

How to find your focus. First, choose your topic. For this example I'll use one I've written about before: food allergies. Now this is an exciting topic, one that is evergreen -- that means it can be used at all times throughout the year -- and a topic that affects a growing number of the population. So, it should be quite easy to write an article about it? Well, yes and no. For a start, this topic is too broad. As Moira Allen puts it in her excellent book, How to Write for Magazines, you need to 'zoom in' to find the focus.

There are six ways of finding the focus of your piece:

  1. Zoom in on one aspect of your topic that you want to write about.
  2. Combine two separate ideas to make an unusual slant.
  3. Take an unusual stance: find an angle that is unique and new and develop it.
  4. Look for Chalk and Cheese. See if there are any perceived conflicts or contrasts between your topic areas.
  5. Answer a question in your article.
  6. Finally, test your chosen focus by seeing if you can write a title based on it.

So, for this topic our focus could be any of the following:

Stay focused. When you've found your focus, stick to it. Ruthlessly discard anything that doesn't fit the focus. Read your first finished draft carefully. Does it stick to the focus? Does it deliver what it promised to do? Does it go off on a tangent anywhere? If it does, then take that bit out and start again.

If, for example, you've chosen to write an article on food allergies in adults, you shouldn't put in anything about food allergies in children or teenagers, because they don't belong in that focus. Going off focus to introduce an interesting (to you) fact would be jarring to the reader. The flow of the piece would have been lost and your reader will become disconnected with your piece.

Remember, you can always use your research to produce another article on this topic with a different focus. Last year, for example, I was asked to write an article about Teatime in Britain for TimeTravel-Britain.com. In the course of my research I found out lots of facts about tea: tea history; types of tea; the history of the major tearooms in Britain; tea dances: when they began, what they were, where you can do them today; and the major British tea manufacturers. I 'zoomed out,' to borrow another of Moira's terms, to find out all I could about tea and teatime in Britain. Then when I'd done my research I had to 'zoom in' again to find the focus of my piece. My focus was the traditions of teatime in Britain. I used all the facts that were relevant to that focus and filed the rest away for potential use another day.

No research is ever wasted; it's just another article waiting to be written. But don't make the mistake of trying to cram all your research into one article; it won't work and it won't sell.

Unity and Flow

Once you've chosen a structure and settled upon the focus of your piece, it's important to make sure that you follow through with unity and flow.

Unity means making sure that everything you write down contributes to the article and that nothing you have written detracts from the flow. An article has flow when the reader can read through your article from beginning to end as smoothly as possible, without ever having to stop to reread a paragraph or get something straight in her mind. An article with flow and unity is read to the end. Without it, your reader will give up and read something else instead.

So how do we achieve this? Well, it's best to start with unity.

Unity

In its simplest form, unity means that everything you put into your article contributes to the point you are making and does not go off on some interesting but unrelated tangent. If you have worked out the focus of your piece, then keeping the unity of the article should be easy.

To check the unity of your article, ensure you keep in mind these two simple commands:

  1. Leave out unnecessary facts
  2. Keep the same style throughout

Leave Out Unnecessary Facts: Let's take our article about the cancer charity marathon runner Elise Margoldt. The focus of this piece is her run for charity and why she did it. If I were to suddenly go off and talk about the fact that she has also now left her job at the DMV and set up her own scrapbooking business, then I would be off focus and the article would not have unity. The readers would be wondering why I'd put that in. They might wonder whether I was implying that all people who recover from cancer go on to completely change their lives.

Therefore, although this information is interesting, it does not fit within the focus of this piece and it must be taken out. If, however, my focus was "cancer as a force for change," then this information would be relevant to the story and would add to its unity.

Unity is very closely linked to focus. Check your focus, write to your focus and you shouldn't have to chop any sections out of your first draft.

Keep The Same Style Throughout: For a piece to be unified, it must have unity of tone, voice, and point of view. Is it written in the same style throughout? Does this style match the intended publication's house style? Did you start off writing in a friendly, chatty voice and then switch to a more formal one? Did you start writing in the 1st person and switch to 3rd or vice-versa? Have you used the same method of referring to people throughout?

It is okay to start by referring to someone as Mrs Elise Margoldt, or Elise Margoldt and then to refer to her as Elise or Margoldt. You don't need to use the full name every time she is mentioned. What you need to watch out for, however, is unity in how you then refer to her. You cannot refer to her by her first name in one paragraph and then by her surname in a subsequent one.

Once you have checked the unity of your piece, you can work on the flow.

Flow

When an article has flow, it is an easy, seamless read. To check the flow you need to read through your article and check the following.

Does your lead work? A lead should entice the reader into the article and make them want to know more. Does yours? Take the lead out of your story. Does the story still work? If it does then your lead wasn't doing anything. Re-write it.

Is your lead a red herring? Is your lead sensational and attention-grabbing but not actually relevant to your article? I could write an article on food allergies with the lead "Are You Serving Poison at Your Kid's Party?" But this would be a false lead. Food allergens are not poisons, at least not to most children. And by the time the reader has realized what the article is about, they might well feel cheated by the false promise of the lead. This isn't an article about hidden poisons, but allergies.

Do your readers have to jump gaps? Read these two paragraphs:

In pagan Europe eggs were decorated in spring colours of red, yellow and green and given to friends as part of the spring festival to honour the spring goddess Eastre from whom we get the name Easter.

The Romans invented the Easter Egg Hunt and a game called the Easter egg roll: whoever rolled his or her egg the furthest without it breaking, won. In Switzerland today, families roll their eggs down the mountains.

There is a transitional gap between the first and second paragraph. These facts are related, but not that closely. The reader has to stop a second to get back on track with where the article is going. They thought they were reading about the pagan origins of Easter and suddenly they're reading about Easter Egg Hunts.

Now read this version:

Easter eggs have been around a long time. The ancient Britons used to give each other brightly decorated eggs at their springtime festival called Eostre. And for thousands of years before that the ancient Egyptians liked to give and receive eggs too.

The Romans in second century Britain took the pagan festival and turned it into the Christian celebration of Easter. They kept the eggs and used them to invent the now-traditional Easter Egg Hunt. They also invented another Easter Egg game, the less popular Easter Egg Roll: whoever can roll his or her egg the farthest without the egg breaking is the winner.

This time, there are no gaps for the reader to jump. The paragraphs have been linked by the repetition of the 'eggs' theme and, as a result, the piece flows better.

If you find any 'gaps' in your article, try re-arranging the paragraphs to see if that closes the gaps. If that doesn't work, re-write the paragraphs to make the transition smooth. Or try using a different article structure; you have plenty to choose from.

Now, this might seem a lot of work to do for one article and it is. But once you've learned the secrets of a good article -- the structure, focus, unit and flow -- it will get easier. And when you have written an article with a good structure, focus, unity and flow, it will stand a better chance of being published.

However, to really ensure your article gets read, you need to give it a powerful hook. And that's what we'll do in Part II!.

Related Articles:

How to Sit Down and Write an Article, by Dawn Copeman
http://www.writing-world.com/grammar/dawn01.shtml

How to Craft a Great Article, Part II: Hooks, Leads, and Endings, by Dawn Copeman
http://www.writing-world.com/grammar/dawn07.shtml

Copyright © 2006 Dawn Copeman

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Dawn Copeman is a UK-based freelance writer and educator who has published over 300 articles on the topics of travel, cookery, history, health and writing. An experienced commercial freelancer, Dawn contributed several chapters on commercial writing to Moira Allen's Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (2nd Edition).

 

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