Writing an Article That Sells
by Shirley Kawa-Jump
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Before you write, be sure you are thoroughly prepared. First, type up your notes from interviews and other research so that you won't have to waste time puzzling over your handwriting during the writing process. Then, position your style guide close by as a ready reference. Finally, sit down and briefly analyze the articles in your target publication. Gauge the tone of the articles, and see how much emphasis they put on research, how heavily they use quotes and statistics, and what length the sidebars are, if any. Keep these points in mind as you write, referring to the publication as necessary to refresh your memory and to look at particulars--the headlines, leads, etc.--as you work on those portions of your own piece.
The Parts of an article
Articles are generally composed of four parts the headline, lead, body, and conclusion. The headline and lead introduce the article and define its focus, while the body backs up the premise. The conclusion ties all the information together into one neat package.
|Helpful Hint: The best articles are circular, meaning that the conclusion reflects the message of the headline and the opening paragraph, literally bringing the reader full circle.|
While your headline--the title of your story--may not end up on the finished piece, it's important that you write one anyway. Besides giving you and the editor a working name for the piece, the headline will also serve a larger purpose. By encapsulating your entire piece into a few words, the headline pinpoints the theme of the article. If you feel your writing wandering, you can use the headline as a reference to judge the relevance of each paragraph.
A good headline is kept to seven words or less and uses strong, active phrasing. "Criminal Was Put in Jail Last Week for Ten Murders," for instance, is far less effective than "Serial Murderer Sentenced to Life Times Ten." When I say that the second headline is more effective, I really mean that this headline acts as a hook, pulling the reader in. A good headline also reflects the tone of the story, which in this case is solemn, but may instead be humorous, irreverent, or upbeat. Some headlines are followed by a colon and a subhead that more clearly defines the subject of the piece. Like the headline, the subhead should serve to entice the reader to continue.
There is nothing more crucial to the success of your article than the first few lines. If you don't give the reader a compelling reason to get past the headline, you haven't accomplished your goal as a writer. While the headline may briefly hook the reader, the opening paragraph, known as the lead, has to pull the reader in and inspire her to read further.
The lead also has to provide enough information to outline the story that follows. It's a sad fact that few people read the entire text of newspaper and magazine articles. Most read the opening paragraphs and skim the rest, or read just the points highlighted in the sidebars and bullets. Therefore, your opening paragraph should present the basic premise of your article, but in a concise, engaging manner.
|Helpful Hint: If you're having trouble with the lead, write the parts of the article with which you feel comfortable, and then go back to the beginning.|
Don't feel you have to be Shakespeare to write a good lead. In fact, as a general rule, stay away from esoteric language. Remember that readers want information they can absorb quickly and understand easily. Try to write in an appealing style that seems natural and unforced, and doesn't cause the reader to grab a dictionary just to get past the first line.
A good lead isn't bulky. It doesn't try to compact every fact in the article into two or three sentences. Provide enough information to get the story moving, but leave the reader wanting to know more.
To determine what your lead should be, go back to your original notes and query. What is your reason for writing this article? What point did you want to prove or make to your readers? That is what you need to convey in this opening paragraph.
Now, look at the material you have accumulated. Do you have a great anecdote, statistic, or quote? These kinds of openings can be powerful if they capture the essence of the article.
Also analyze the style of the particular publication and see if the opening sentences of its articles share a common thread. "One tactic used in many e-zine articles is to make the first sentence a question. A question demands an answer, and it demands the reader's attention," writes Michael Southon in "How to Write Ezine Articles That Get Published," an article in Bright Ink News. This kind of opening paragraph is somewhat unusual and, used sparingly, can be an effective means of drawing the reader's attention, no matter what kind of article you are writing.
|Helpful Hint: Don't mislead the reader. Don't open a serious piece with a humorous lead, and vice versa. The tone of the lead should be similar to that of the article as a whole.|
In the above instance, the twist on words works because it isn't overdone and it grabs the reader. But don't worry if you can't come up with a clever lead. If you have one, use it. If not, try another approach.
One common mistake made by new writers is to bury the lead too far into the copy. Look at your writing and see if you have made this error. A good clue that you have done so is an overload of history and supporting information early in the article. Remember that the point of the lead is to leave the reader wanting to know more about the subject. Piling on too much information early in the piece will undermine your intent.
When you write a lead, try to use powerful verbs and vivid phrasing. That's not to say that you should wax poetic in the opening lines, but do critically examine the verbs you have chosen. Does "investigate" work better than "look at"? How about "ambush" instead of "surprise"? My thesaurus has served me well in crafting stronger sentences. Make sure that you have yours ready and waiting when you sit down to write.
If you are having trouble writing the lead, don't worry. Stressing about an assignment is a sure way to keep your computer screen blank. If the lead proves to be a stumbling block, try writing another part of the article first or brainstorming five or six sample openings. Read other articles in the publication and analyze their opening paragraphs.
|Helpful Hint: Don't worry about being clever. Just write enough to give readers a taste of the article to come, leaving them hungry to read more.|
As its name implies, the body of the article is the main portion of the piece--the meat. It is there that you provide solid information, answering the reader's questions and illuminating the subject of your work.
If you used any other kind of lead besides a summary lead, the first paragraph of the body should provide the essential points that the article will cover. This paragraph is referred to by many different terms, including the billboard paragraph, the theme graph, and the nut graph. When the reader reaches this paragraph--which we'll refer to as the nut graph--she has already seen the headline and read the lead. She now wants to know why she should read further.
This brings up an important point. Most people are interested in reading about issues only to the extent that these issues affect them. A retiree might be concerned about stock market fluctuations due to trouble in the technology industry only because of the market's impact on her monthly investment income. A young couple buying a home, however, might care only about the market's effect on interest rates. And someone working for a tech company might care only about keeping her job. Decide who your reader is and make the nut graph speak to her, showing her how the article is relevant to her life.
|Helpful Hint: If you're having trouble with the nut graph, think about how you would tell the story to a friend. What's the most important fact you'd want to convey? This should you help you define your article.|
The analysis you did of the publication before you sat down to write should come in handy now. If necessary, look at the publication again, pick out the nut graphs, and see how they're handled in various articles. If you're having trouble finding it, ask yourself the nut question "So what?"
|Helpful Hint: Don't use three or four words when one or two will do. At this point in time is too wordy. Opt for now. As a result of is less effective than a simple because.|
Internet access is available at virtually every public library, but patrons aren't necessarily making use of it. The American Library Council saw circulation numbers drop in 1999, an alarming trend that gives credence to doubts about the need for library accessibility as more and more people stay home to research. One library is reversing this trend, however, with an innovative program.What this paragraph does is first state the problem Patrons aren't coming in to use the Internet, after all the work put into making it accessible in public places. Then it summarizes the main points of the article Circulation numbers are dropping; people aren't researching away from home as much; this is what the librarians feared would happen. And finally, it gives the "so what" An innovative program at one library demonstrates ways in which librarians can get people out of their houses and back into the library.
Whatever information you put into your nut graph will need to be supported by facts in the subsequent paragraphs. So after the nut graph, begin substantiating your statements. Remember all that research you did? All those great interviews and quotes you gathered? Now is the time to work them in, but be careful not to overdo it. A quotation can be powerful, but keep in mind that long quotations can diminish the impact of the piece. For example, let's look at two different uses of the same quote. If you were interviewing a welfare mother, she might say the following:
"I had no money to feed my children and had to stretch to make the electric bill and the telephone bill. They were threatening to evict us. I couldn't find a job that would pay enough to cover day care and rent and all the other bills. When John Smith, my caseworker, came to my house, it was like a miracle walked in the door."
|Helpful Hint: You don't have to print every quote verbatim. You can cut or use part of a quote for more drama. You can also insert a word or two--placing the inserted material in square brackets--if the speaker dropped a perposition or qualifier when she spoke to you. Be careful not to lose the speaker's meaning, however. Distorting a quote's meaning is against the law.|
The lights went out on Tuesday. The telephone was dead by Thursday. For dinner that night, all six of them split one can of chicken noodle soup and went to bed dreaming of the free school lunch the next day. Everyone except Jane Doe. She spent the night pacing the floor of her run-down apartment, worrying about the eviction notice in her hand and hoping for an answer to come knocking on her door. It did, on Friday morning, in the form of a caseworker from social services. "When John Smith . . . came to my house, it was like a miracle walked in the door," said Jane.While the second paragraph is longer, it paints a far more vivid picture of what Jane was experiencing on the day John showed up. Instead of "telling" the reader, it "shows" her--an important tactic in good writing. I'm sure you could think of fifty different ways to approach that same paragraph, and that's fine. All writers should try to carve out their own approach, voice, and style so that each article becomes their own. Just make sure that the final words have the impact you intended.
Before you write the conclusion, check your article to see if all the sections hold together and if everything you've included is relevant to your article. New writers, especially, frequently throw in every fact they've gathered, even if the information is extraneous to their article. Once you're sure that your article is on track, you'll be ready to craft your conclusion.
You've done it. You've created a great article that proves the points you made in the opening. Now you have to write the conclusion. While this might seem like a time to skate through and write whatever pops into your head, it's not. The conclusion of an article is just as important as the lead. If it's done well, your reader will remember your article long after the page on which it's printed has begun to yellow.
As stated earlier, the best kind of article is circular, meaning that the conclusion returns the reader to the points you made in the opening sentence and delivers a whammy of an ending. Sometimes this isn't possible. In the days when I covered school board meetings, there were often times when nothing controversial happened, no big decisions were made, and thus, no news was created. My articles ended up being recaps of the minutes, and weren't exactly powerful pieces of writing because the subject didn't allow for anything unique. These articles incorporated a standard summary conclusion. In this kind of ending, the writer wraps up the main points made in the article in a couple of sentences.
However, when you are writing about a provocative topic, you can make your readers remember your words simply by writing a great conclusion. And if you have kept the reader's attention all along and she's read everything else you've written, you owe her a wonderful summation paragraph.
How do you do this? First, go back to your lead paragraph. Read it once, read it twice. No go through all of your notes and see if you have a powerful quote that makes a nice ending for the story. If that great quote is already in the body of the article, see if you can pull it out and put another quote in its stead.
Now read over the rest of the article and list the points you've made. The conclusion is essentially a reflection of the whole piece and should quickly reiterate the main points. Let's return to our story on the welfare mother. The conclusion of that article might read as follows:
After a month on the job, Jane's life is much more secure. The bills are paid, the children are no longer hungry, and the savings account she dreamed of is finally a reality. The intervention of John Smith, one man in a bureaucracy plagued by red tape, made all the difference in Jane's life. "For me, it's been like day and night. A month ago, the future seemed dark and hopeless. Now I see days bright with possibilities."Again, you might write that entirely differently. You might want to end on a darker note, possibly with a statistic about how many people are still in Jane's boat. Or you might mention the impact of upcoming federal legislation on the welfare issue. Whatever you write, make sure it solidifies your message and makes the reader remember you.
© 2002 Shirley Kawa-Jump. All Rights Reserved. Excerpt reprinted from How to Publish Your Articles: A Complete Guide to Making the Right Publication Say Yes with permission from the publisher. Any copying or reproduction whatsoever is prohibited.
**Shirley Kawa-Jump received a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Massachusetts, and went on to be a highly successful freelance writer. During her twenty-plus year career, Ms. Kawa-Jump has written over 2,500 articles for national and local magazines, trade journals, and newspapers. She has also lectured extensively on the topic of freelance writing. You can visit her website at writingcorner.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org