How To Write An Article Without Really Trying
| By Renée Henning |
Everyone has a story to tell. However, most would-be authors work a day job. They may have a fascinating idea for an article. Yet, often, if an editor accepts their proposal to write the article, they procrastinate. Since the task seems formidable, they postpone it for years – or forever. According to Washington City Paper, “90 percent of the freelancers who approach the paper to write a story or a review never actually do so …”
Fortunately, there is a way to overcome the psychological barriers to writing, to break things down into manageable chunks, and to finish the entire project within an acceptable time. This technique requires a later completion date than professional writers need (and makes it difficult for the author to pitch the story idea to an editor with a hook related to a current news event), but it does enable a novice to get the daunting job done. I have used the method to write articles before getting editorial approval of the idea (not the preferred approach). However, the method can also work for articles that are not linked to a recent news event and are not time-sensitive.
In the 1990s I kept procrastinating on writing a particular article. Indeed, I dreaded the work. Having already gotten published twenty times, I knew the article would be really tough to write. This was because of the grim subject matter (child abuse and neglect), my desire to compress a lot of information in a limited space without sounding pedantic, my responsibilities as a wife and mother of young children, and the demands of my full-time legal career.
Finally I devised a plan. It required devoting two hours to the project on each of four days of each week. I divided the task into small steps, to avoid the feeling I was actually writing an article.
Using this plan, I finished the job in six weeks. Although many editors would consider the duration excessive, it was acceptable in that case because the article was long and not time-sensitive. Starting in the 1990s, that 2700-word article, “Touching and the Adopted Child,” has been published four times, most recently in 2016.
The plan has five steps:
This consists of typing brief notes on ideas to include in the article and on research to perform. I wanted to discuss two female victims of sexual abuse. One of these children reacted to every man’s presence by collapsing on the floor and lying there the whole time like a puddle. The other child, feral, attacked anybody who came near and terrorized her orphanage. Those notes could read, “Story of the Puddle Girl” and “Story of the Wild Beast Girl.” I also knew I needed information on the question of infants dying from lack of touch. That note could read, “Research on failure to thrive.” The Notes step should take at most two work sessions.
These sessions should be scheduled for a time tailored to the author. For employees who do not get two-hour lunches, that rules out the regular workday. “Roosters” may wish to start the session at dawn, while “Night Owls” may prefer midnight. I consider “Touching” my 5:30 A.M. to 7:30 A.M. article, because that is when I wrote it.
Repeat – I am not writing an article. I am just making some notes.
The amount of research needed for an article depends on its subject matter and complexity. Many articles require minor research, particularly if the author is already knowledgeable about the topic.
There is no free pass. I got so engrossed in the research for “Touching” that I spent extra time in the library on weekends. That did not absolve me from putting in two-hour work sessions on four separate days the following week.
Repeat – I am not writing an article. I am just doing some research.
Preparing a simple outline and organizing the information in it can generally be completed in one work session. For my article, the outline read:
II. Insufficient Touching
III. Different Touching
IV. Bad Touching
V. Where Are They Now?
By putting the outline at the beginning of the Notes document discussed above, I was able to organize the information simply by moving each note into its appropriate spot in the outline. For example, for my article, the complete entry under the “Bad Touching” heading could read:
Research on child abuse statistics
Research on effects of physical abuse on children
Research on effects of sexual abuse on children
Story of the Puddle Girl
Story of the Wild Beast Girl
Repeat – I am not writing an article. I am just doing an outline.
4. Writing a paragraph
This step requires drafting one paragraph, inserted into the outline, during every two-hour writing session. Often this paragraph merely fleshes out and thus replaces a note already in the outline. The paragraph does not have to be the next consecutive one in the article if there is a clear outline.
Again, there is no free pass. Under the plan, writing four paragraphs on the first of the four required days of the week does not excuse the author from producing a decent paragraph on each of the other three days. Any remaining time in the work session should be devoted to composing additional paragraphs or to revising the portion of the article already drafted.
Repeat – I am not writing an article. I am just writing a paragraph.
With all of the paragraphs written and most of them amended during the writing sessions, it is time to improve the entire draft. This includes ruthless cutting and meticulous polishing. It also includes scheduling some of the revision work several days apart, so the author can review the manuscript with a fresh eye. Reading the whole article aloud will help to identify awkward phrasing, repetitive words, and other problems.
Repeat – I am not writing an article. I am just revising one already drafted.
Congratulations! The article is done.
When my adoption articles began getting published in the 1990s, I had no intention of writing a book. However, the five-step plan can, with modifications, be used for a book. For example, “writing a paragraph” would become “writing a page.”
There is even a way the unmodified five-step plan could result in a book. For example, there are now fifteen articles (including “Mystery and the Adopted Child,” “Sports and the Adopted Child,” and “Matchmaking and the Adopted Child”) in my “And the Adopted Child” series. All of them have been published, some three or four times. So, while I never set out to write a book, I cannot help noticing I have already completed fifteen chapters!
I am an attorney and an author (usually under my pen name, R. Dubucs) on various subjects. Articles by me have appeared in books, magazines, newspapers, and newsletters. My written work has been published in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Clips are available upon request. firstname.lastname@example.org | © 2015 R. Henning