How to NOT Write an Article

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I’ve been writing this article inactively for about two months. Actively, I’ve been working on it for two solid weeks. I’m not going to finish it. I’m going to miss my deadline and let everyone down.

Or, I could stop now and cut my losses and write about how I’m not writing this article.

Background Image: Jack Zalium/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Don’t wait until the last minute.

I could have, and should have, signed up for and started this article in January. That’s when the editors get together and start prodding each other to come up with ideas. There are many of us, so we can pick and choose when we’d like to work on something. This year, I waited until everyone else had chosen because I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to write about. I should have simply signed up first, then decided on what to do. I would have had months to decide on something, work on something, and polish something. Instead, I stared at a blank page, forcing my writer mind down paths it didn’t want to go simply because I’m out of time.

Choose a wide topic.

My original topic for this article was choosing simple words and phrases. I have a writer friend who fancies herself a language expert. She has four dictionaries close to hand and uses them all in daily communications such as emails and blogs. Her writing is impossibly complex, archaic, and trouble for anyone without four dictionaries nearby. I decided this would be a great article, passing on the wisdom that most readers will put the book down if they can’t understand it—if reading it is work, not joy. But all I really had to say I could sum up in a few simple words, as evidenced by this one paragraph. I couldn’t think of anything else to say once I’d gotten the basics on the page. The article simply fizzled out.

Ignore the distractions.

Once you start writing your first draft, don’t stop. Don’t get up and make pancakes, don’t turn the TV on just for a minute, don’t play with the kitten, and leave the email box alone. Writing inspiration is very flighty and it can leave as quickly as it arrived. Sit down and stay down until everything you wanted to say is on the page.

Plan ahead.

This is different from not waiting until the last minute. I had a minor day surgery I needed to have done and it was scheduled just a week before this deadline. Before the surgery, I managed to write two paragraphs and couldn’t get anything else out. I was focused on the event itself and couldn’t see too far beyond it. What I should have done at this point was plan for my failure and ask someone else to write a backup article. They would have been more than happy to help, considering the circumstances. I should have planned a backup article as I planned my ride home from the hospital.

Don’t be afraid of change.

If something isn’t working, stop working on it and start working on something that will work. This article is coming to me much easier than the original. I know already that this article is the one that will be printed. The other will go into the ‘archives’ on my computer to wait until the light of inspiration slices through my head and I can finish it.

Find your voice.

I notice that this article sounds just like me. I am not as concerned with sounding like a “professional” writer as I was in the other. The other article I sounded far away, as if I was writing it from above you somehow, imparting sage advice from the side of the mountain. This time, I sound friendly and personable, frustrated and pained about my writing and myself. I know you’ll all be able to relate to my struggle and my personal issues, so I’m writing it that way. It’s a lot easier to write this time because it’s my voice and not the voice I think you would listen to.

Listen to your muse.

I’ve known the other article wasn’t working since I first began actively writing it. I complained about writing it. I complained that I couldn’t think of anything to say. I complained that I was running out of time. I complained in my blog and to friends. One fine friend even told me to write an article about procrastination since my original topic wasn’t working. I didn’t listen to her, or to myself. I simply kept putting off writing at all. Once I did listen, I found I had a complete article.

Once this article is edited and put up, I’m going to volunteer for another for next year. I’m going to think long and hard about a topic. I’m going to start early and plan for distractions. I’m going to assign a date to sit down and write a month before the deadline. I’m going to start a draft and finish that draft in one sitting. I’m going to listen to my voice and to my muse.

I’m going to meet my deadline.

Final Poll Results

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?

Background Image: Jason Verwey/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

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