The Making of a Great Article

The basics of storytelling don’t change much, no matter what you’re writing. Granted, celebrities may be more fun to write about than, say, the history of concrete — but there’s always a way to make a topic unique, engaging and helpful. And like any ability, writing well comes by practice and persistence. So what are the differences between a so-so article and a great article? Let’s see…

Legwork
Some questions to consider before the writing process begins: Who’s the target audience? What’s the objective? What needs to be researched?

A reader should get the feeling that the writer, expert or not, is informed. The same goes for awareness of the target audience. The age, ethnicity, income, gender and location of the audience usually impact the message. An article about diabetes for medical staff at a hospital will be different than an article about diabetes for their patients.

Before you start typing, think about the story’s structure and key points. Jotting down a list of ideas and concepts the old-fashioned way, with pen on paper, helps you stay poised and develop a clear message. If writing on a well-known topic, try to find some interesting facts that aren’t commonly known. Gathering information from multiple sources will unearth those little-known nuggets.

Fundamentals
Accuracy, clarity and style are what great writing is all about. Lies and spelling errors tend to turn off your audience. Readers who go “huh?” aren’t going to stick around. Inconsistent style looks sloppy and unprofessional. Clean style means sticking with the same tenses, referring to subjects by last name and following uniform rules for capitalization, abbreviation and numbers.

Transitions are equally important. Each paragraph should flow from the last and set up the next. Transitions done right aren’t obvious; they seamlessly and logically push the story forward. Reading should be easy, not painful and stiff.

Another key fundamental for becoming a better writer – read. Seeing how other stories are structured will seep into your brain and make your own writing better.

The Kickoff
Stale, ho-hum, cluttered, mechanical…these are not desirable descriptions of any lead. A lead should motivate a reader to keep going, so use the best stuff up front. Appeal to people’s interests through common surroundings and situations. A little creativity goes a long way.

The first three to four sentences should clearly tell the reader what the story is about. As grade school as it sounds, readers truly do want to know the who, what, when, where, how regardless of the topic. This isn’t a trip to the movies — readers won’t stick around until the end to find out the point of the article. Anticipate the questions readers may have and answer them up front.

Pruning
The fastest way to confuse someone is to use fancy language and never-ending sentences. What’s easier to read: a concise feature story or a law textbook? When in doubt, go with brevity and plain English. When the article is finished, go back and trim long sentences and paragraphs where the reader may struggle. One trick is read the story aloud. Writing should be as close to verbal storytelling as possible, minus the natural ers, ums and repetitious phrases.

Try to delete words and phrases that don’t add meaning. For example, quotes should propel a story, not halt it. And don’t use big words when small ones will do: “Use” instead of “utilize.” “Lives” instead of “resides.” “If” instead of “in the event that.” Long words don’t necessary sound intelligent; in fact, they can come across as arrogant. Plus, they’re less likely to be understood.

Avoid using the same word over and over again. Thefreedictionary.com is a wonderful comprehensive source for definitions, synonyms and phrases to help expand vocabulary. Mixing things up creates a more interesting read.

Feedback
Not many people can sit down and churn out an error-free document. Self-editing is a must-do step, but it’s not enough. Having an outsider seriously review the work is the only way to make sure it’s clear and logical. Editors find the problems that writers’ non-objective eyes miss. As the old adage goes, there’s no good writing, only re-writing. Honest criticism will only make the article better.