Emergency! 21 Tips for Writing an Article Fast

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Oh, no! The scheduled article has fallen through.

Despite the best-laid plans, it occasionally happens. Someone forgets a deadline, or gets sick, or the planned article, for whatever reason, just doesn’t work out.

Now it’s up to you to fill the space. You need to come up with a replacement article fast. What do you do?

Use What You Have On Hand

  1. Pull out that back-up article you keep on hand for just these situations, blow off the dust, and polish it up. What? You don’t have a pre-written back-up article? Doh. Go to number 2.
  2. Finish off a partially written article. Remember those two or three paragraphs you jotted down in a fit of inspiration a few months ago? The ones you’ve been meaning to get back to? Now’s the time.
  3. Start with an idea from your idea file or folder. If you aren’t already keeping an idea file or list of topics for future use, start one now! Just as Martha Stewart would tell you to always keep your pantry stocked for when you’re snowed in or guests drop in unexpectedly, a writer should always keep his/her idea file stocked for writing emergencies.
  4. Expand or continue a previous article. For example, my article “12 More Quick Fixes That’ll Make You Look Even Smarter” was a continuation of my earlier article “10 Quick Fixes That’ll Make You Look Really Smart.” An easy trick: if you’re writing an article and find that you have too much information for the allotted space or that some stuff just doesn’t seem to fit, keep the “extra” information and use it to start a second article.
  5. Re-purpose an existing article (your own or someone else’s). For example, an article about accepting constructive criticism gracefully could be reworked into a “how to critique” article.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s all well and good, but what if…

“I Have Nuthin’!”

  1. Choose a hook/theme. This will help delimit the parameters of your article and help you outline it. For example, if you chose “a rainbow” as your theme, you’d know that your article would have six main points, each based on a color.
  2. Make a quick trip to 7-Eleven, er, Google. If you have even a smidgen of an idea, google it and see what pops up. You might not find anything directly on point, but you never know what will trigger a creative burst.
  3. If you must start from scratch, take five or ten minutes and brainstorm. Write down everything thing you can think of, no matter how silly. Then return to number 7.
  4. If you’re still stuck, procrastinate. No, seriously. Take a short break and let your mind wander while you do something else—preferably an activity that’s more physical than mental. Sometimes that’s when the best ideas surface.
  5. Whatever you do, choose something that requires little to no research. Pick a topic that you’re familiar enough with that once you’ve decided on it, you can sit down and write the article straight through without having to take a lot of breaks to look information up.

So, now you know what you want to write about, but—ouch—you only have a day (or hour) to get it done. This is when the task seems most impossible and the “if onlys” set in. If only I’d known I had to do this a month ago! If only I’d written this article on spec! Well, you didn’t, so no use if onlying it. Instead…

Make the Task Less Daunting

  1. Split the article up into sections and work on it a section at a time. Think back to the old high school essay format: introduction, three-paragraph body, conclusion. It’s a little pedantic, but it’s a good place to start. An introductory and/or closing paragraph or two are never out of place and the body can be adjusted to suit. For example…
  2. Use headings and subheadings. Starting by listing just your headings helps you organize your thoughts and ideas quickly. Once you have your outline, you can go back and fill it in.
  3. Use bullet points. Point form is less intimidating than a straight essay format. Rather than having to keep a single argument going over several paragraphs, you can write a little bit about several different points that are loosely tied together.
  4. Pick a number: “Five Ways To…” “Ten Tips For…” Numbers make your task finite and therefore you’re less likely to suffer from “I’m never going to finish” frustration. Examples are my article “Six Ways To Write What You Don’t Know” and Baker’s article “Seven Writer Resolutions.”
  5. Use a question and answer format, even if you’re not interviewing anyone. Structured like an FAQ (frequently asked questions), this format can be very effective. Questions can double as headings. For an example, see Baker’s article “Been There, Zine That.”

This will give you the skeleton of an article. For example:

The Character Spectrum

Intro paragraph 1

Intro paragraph 2

Red: Protagonist (Nancy Drew)

Orange: Protagonist’s BFFs (Bess & George), who exist to assist the protagonist.

Yellow: Protagonist’s Peripherals (Dad, Hannah-the-Housekeeper, Ned et al.), who support the protagonist, but may hinder her detecting with a) their concerns for her safety or b) their insistence that she show up for dinner on time.

Green: Random characters necessary to keep the plot moving forward, including characters who may or may not be assisting the antagonist with his/her evil plan.

Blue: Antagonist’s minions / sidekicks / associates.

Purple: Antagonist (Dastardly Criminal-du-jour)

Closing Paragraph

At this point, you should be feeling considerably more relaxed. The hard part is done. Now it’s just a matter of filling in the blanks.

Flesh It Out

  1. Don’t be afraid to write out of order. Know how you want to conclude? Write the final paragraph first.
  2. Use lots of examples. Examples can help you explain something quickly and they also fill space. One caveat: if you stick with a single book or series throughout as the basis for your examples, make sure it’s something that most readers will recognize.
  3. A judiciously placed quote can be just what an article needs to make it sparkle. Here, for example, quoting Jaywalke, I insert “a witty and heartwarming inspirational quote about writing.”
  4. Keep each section simple and short. Make your point and move on. Now is not the time to drift off on tangents or try to write that epic piece you’ve been contemplating.
  5. If you get stuck on a point, leave it and come back to it later. If you’re completely stuck, step away from the computer. Even a five-minute break can be enough to clear your head.

And then get back to writing. No dawdling now, people are counting on you.

Banish Doubt!

  1. Use the “just write” principle: finish the article first and then edit. Remember, you don’t have time to re-write your first sentence twenty-seven times. What’s needed in this situation is a competent handling of the subject, not your most eloquent phrasing. Once you’ve proofread your draft, forego agonizing over it, and get it off to your editor as soon as possible.Once you’ve finished your article, take a few minutes to start or add to your idea file before you give yourself a pat on the back. Then next time you’re called on to produce an article at the last minute, you’ll be prepared.

Final Poll Results

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