So you want to write a non-fiction piece for publication as a blog, newspaper article or in other media. Let’s call it “an article”. Where to start? Here.
1. What is your message? A clear message is the most important – and difficult – element of writing an article. If you don’t know what your message is or why you’re communicating it this way, stop right now. The good news? Once you’ve decided your key message, the article is already half-written. Check out this piece, where the message is “if you’re going ski-ing a ski-guide may help you have more fun“. That message must be newsworthy and interesting – are you or the editor confident people will want to read it?
2. How to decide on your message. So what is “newsworthy and interesting”? Two possibilities:
i) a news peg. Something has happened out in the world. People want to know about it. You’re going to tell them. It could be an anniversary, a local or national event, or a personal angle on something people know about. My piece about Berlin traffic-light men, for example, reports on how images designed for East Berlin began to spread into West Berlin in 2005.
ii) a news line. Maybe you have something to say which is newsworthy. Invented something new? Got an announcement to make? Published your new book? Developed a miracle diet? If it’s of wide interest, it could be a good basis for an article. For example my piece about a family visit to Bangkok sets out my view that however fascinating the city may be, children may not like it.
Robert Pimm hard at work writing – anyone know where this is?
3. Remember that a good article will look forward, not back. It will set out why what has happened is relevant to people now and in the future. My article about the Berlin Wall might seem to look backwards; but actually it’s about the situation now, and how it helps you understand Berlin and Germany.
The author in New Zealand
4. Think about readership. Are you aiming your article at a specific audience? You should. Do you know who that audience is? You should. For example, this piece about ecological challenges in New Zealand is aimed at people who might want to travel there, and people concerned about the environment and overdevelopment.
5. Makes sure your subject is relevant to your target audience. Why should the hypothetical typical reader care about what you’re saying? Consider including whatever will arouse their interest – local colour; personal experience; killer facts. For example, my short piece “We’ll all soon beg to fly business” (warning – strong language, but published in the FT) was commissioned for a special airlines feature in their travel section.
6. Focus on style. Check what length is required. Look closely at similar articles in your target website or newspaper. How long are they? Copy it. What is their style – formal, chatty, academic? Copy it. Use plain English; and “let the air in” with short paragraphs and short sentences, rather than big blocks of text. For this piece comparing Club Med and its German equivalent, the FT asked for a light-hearted personal piece about 1,200 words long. That’s what I gave them.
7. Finally, and importantly, study and use a classic structure when you are writing your article. Most newspaper articles use a simple template. I describe it in part 2 of this series, The 4 elements of the perfect article: Nut-grafs and Cosmic Kickers (part 2 of 3). You don’t have to use the template; but you should be aware of it. It makes writing a professional-looking article easier.
Good luck! Let me know how it goes. If you want to browse some examples, check out the ‘journalism index’ of all my newspaper articles, on this site. Part 3 of this series, How to write great Nut-grafs & Cosmic Kickers has two worked examples based on the model set out in Part 2.
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