By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)
There comes a time in most every writer’s life when you want (or need) to write a short nonfiction article. Maybe it’s because you have a (brilliant, of course) idea for an article. Maybe it’s because you’ve been asked to contribute an article to a particular publication (go you, all sought after for your writing skilz). Maybe it’s because your writing resume is looking a bit thin, you want to bulk it up, and writing an article takes considerably less time than writing a book. Whatever the reason, how do you get started?
This is not the time to be all emo about writing. When you’re writing an article, you’re not writing for yourself. Or, I should say, you’re not writing only for yourself. You’re writing for yourself (always!) and others. Hopefully you already know yourself well. It’s the others you need to take the time to learn about.
What are the “writing for yourself” aspects of writing a nonfiction article?
Voice and style. Just because you’re writing an article doesn’t mean you should adopt a snooty tone or take on an uncomfortable style. When I’m teaching, I tell students to write like they talk—to use their own vernacular, not that of an imaginary academic. And you should write the way you normally write. Readers who are familiar with your style should recognize it in the article. Don’t think that you have to put on a suit of fancy words in order to sound authoritative. Your authority comes from being yourself.
Choosing a topic. As I tell students, always choose a topic you’re interested in. Readers can tell if a writer is really interested in their topic or if they just chose it because it’s trendy or because they thought it would be quick and easy. But it’s not enough just to pick a topic you’re interested in—it also has to interest the rest of your audience. And that’s where this article comes in.
This article will take you through six steps to developing an article with your audience in mind. If you already have an idea (potential topic) for your article, great; if you haven’t yet come up with one, that’s ok, too. You can start working through the steps with or without a specific topic in mind.
1. WHERE will you be submitting the article?
My answer: This is an Absolute Blank article for Toasted Cheese.
If you’ve been asked to contribute to a publication, you know specifically where the article is headed. But even if you don’t know for sure where your article is going to end up, you often have a good idea of the first place you plan to submit it: you read the publication and think your work would be a good fit or you’re responding to a call for submissions. In this case, tailor your article to your target publication, but also have one or two alternates in mind in case the first doesn’t work out.
If you don’t have any idea where you’re submitting: do some research and find some publications you like that accept submissions of articles the length/format you have in mind. Start with two or three potential markets. You want to give yourself some options, but at the same time you don’t want your article to become too generic.
If you have a potential topic in mind, consider whether your idea will work for your target publication. If it’s a general or broad topic, start thinking about how you can tailor or focus the article to suit the publication.
If you’re topic-less (or you’ve decided the one you initially chose won’t be a good fit): peruse back issues of your target publication and its website. Start brainstorming potential topics based on what you find there.
2. WHO is your audience?
My answer: TC’s audience consists of writers of all ages, including young writers.
You know what your target publication’s general theme is—maybe it’s writing or science or celebrity gossip—but do you know who actually reads this particular publication? A publication focused on writing might have a general audience of adult writers or it might be aimed at new writers, young writers, writers of particular genres (e.g. science fiction), or those who study or teach writing. Sometimes the publication will explicitly state who their readers are; other times you have to read between the lines. Here again, browsing back issues and the website can help you determine who will be reading your article. In this case, however, social media might be even more effective: head over to the publication’s social media pages and see who’s following them. This will give you a peek into their real audience.
If you have potential topic: revisit your topic and make sure it’s a fit with this audience. If the topic fits with the general theme of the publication, you’re probably good, but you may have to reframe your ideas for the particular audience. For example, an article on writing careers aimed at teens deciding what to major in at college/university would be framed differently than one aimed at middle-aged adults thinking about changing careers. (But keep in mind that once you’ve written your article for one audience, you can adapt it to suit a different audience.)
If you still haven’t pinned down a topic: continue brainstorming. Build on and refine the ideas you came up with in step one.
3. WHEN will the article be published?
My answer: This is going to be the February 2013 AB article.
If you’ve been asked to contribute or you’re answering a call for submissions you may know when your article will be published. In other cases, you may not know. Either way, you need to work with the information you have. Articles come in three basic types: timely, cyclical/seasonal, and timeless. Timely articles have a limited shelf-life. These are the kind of articles written in response to a current event. In today’s news cycle, articles on some topics are dated within twenty-four hours. Cyclical (or seasonal) articles are the ones that are appropriate at specific times of the year or every X years (e.g. leap year or election-themed articles). If you’re writing this type of article, advance planning is a must. Timeless articles are ones that could be published any time. They’re not going to have the zing of an article published twelve hours after the latest social media foofaraw, but they’re less stressful to write and easier to place. You can even stockpile them.
If you have an idea and you know when your article will be published, make sure the idea and its publication date are compatible. You may want to customize your article to look like it was tailor-made for that slot. If you don’t know when your article will be published, you’ll want to do the opposite: make sure that it’s not too focused on a holiday or event that will make it harder to place.
If you’re still mulling over ideas, knowing when your article will be published can help you narrow the ideas you’ve brainstormed. Maybe some will work for that date and others won’t. If you don’t know the publication date, same idea. Eliminate the ideas that are too tied to a particular season and focus in on the timeless ones.
4. WHY are you writing this article?
My answer: This article provides a step-by-step process for developing an article, with the goal of demystifying how to choose and frame a topic.
Here I don’t mean “why are you writing an article?” the answer to which may be “because someone asked me to,” “because it’ll look good on my resume” or “to get paid.” No. I’m not asking about its extrinsic value.
What I’m asking is why this article. What’s its intrinsic value, its significance? What’s your goal in writing it? What do you want to achieve? In other words, if someone came up to you and said “Why’d you write about that?” you should have an answer. The answer will depend on everything you’ve thought about up to now. The rationale for an article about the Oscars written for a pop culture blog that’s updated several times a day might be to gossip about Oscar night faux pas or dish about the dresses (goal: to provide amusing commentary on a current event) whereas one written for the Journal of Popular Culture, an academic journal published six times a year, might be to analyze the content of Oscar winners’ speeches cross-referenced with their career trajectories (goal: to unpack strategies employed by celebrities to maintain/increase/recover their status).
By now you should have a good idea of what you’re going to write about, how you’re going to frame it, and why you’ve made these decisions. If you’re still unsure about your topic choice, it’s time to pick the one that seems most promising, take it back to the beginning and run it through the steps. When you get back here, you should have an answer to “Why are you writing about that?”
5. WHAT is the one thing you want readers to take away from your article?
My answer: audience, audience, audience. Know who you’re writing for.
Of course, you are going to make more than one point in your article. Otherwise, it would be really short. But if a reader remembers just one thing from your article, what do you want it to be? Like the one-sentence synopsis or “elevator pitch” familiar to veterans of querying, your “one thing” encapsulates what your article is about.
Your answer to question four was your general rationale for writing your article. Your answer here is the specific thing you want readers to take away from it. If you’re dishing about Oscar dresses, it might be “sequined dresses are so last year,” which if readers absorb it, will pop into their head every time they see a photo of a celebrity in sequins, leading them to wonder if the celeb or their stylist is to blame for making such a dated choice, what repercussions will befall person-to-blame—and perhaps avoid making the same sartorial faux pas themselves. Your goal is to provide your readers with a succinct piece of information that they’ll remember—and can use and extrapolate on themselves. Like my example, your “one thing” might seem to be silly or superficial at first glance, but if you’ve chosen wisely, it will guide readers to make their own connections and discoveries.
If you don’t know what your one thing is, your idea might not be focused enough yet. Or maybe you’re not seeing the forest for the trees. Run your idea past a friend and ask them what one thing they think it’s about. If you’re protesting, thinking to yourself, “but, but, but I have six things I want readers to take away,” think again. What do your six things have in common? Consolidate. One thing.
6. HOW are you going to structure your article?
My answer: I chose the classic five Ws + one H (who, what, where, when, why, how) information-gathering approach. Because I envisioned these as steps, I decided to present the questions as a numbered list.
Will it be a question and answer format? Numbered or bullet points? Essay-style with headings? Something else? A combination? Often the subject matter will point you in one direction or another, e.g. if you’re interviewing someone, structuring your article as a Q+A makes sense.
Once you’ve decided on your format, construct the frame or skeleton of your article. Generate your interview questions, create your list, decide on your headings. Sometimes this step will require some research. If you’re doing an interview, for example, this would be a good time to research your subject so you can tailor your questions specifically to them. Other times building the framework of your article is easy (you know the points you want to cover) and any research you need to do can wait until you start to fill it in.
Now you’re nearing the end of this article and you’re thinking: but I haven’t written anything yet! No worries. You know where you’re submitting your article, who your audience is, when your article will be published (or you’ve ensured it will be publishable any time), why you’re writing it, what one thing you want readers to take away from it, and how you’re going to structure it. Filling in the details is the easy part. If you find yourself drifting, circle back to the six questions. And always remember who you’re writing for.