Writing an article

One of the great joys I have obtained from writing articles over so many years is the opportunity it gives me to vary my style (or my “voice”) according to the journal I am writing for. When I started article-writing in earnest, my day job demanded that I communicate with clients in the formal style beloved of my employers. So I felt a wonderful sense of freedom when I stepped away from writing on behalf of my employer and experienced the chance to be me – and to explore different versions of who I might be.

In some important respects, writing an article can be a little like public speaking – but without the fear factor. It’s still essential to engage the audience’s attention very quickly and hold on to it throughout the delivery. But, unlike public speaking, the writer isn’t usually present when their work is consumed by the audience. So we don’t experience their reaction to it. (I do, however, recall once sitting on a train and noticing the passenger opposite surreptitiously look up from her newspaper and gaze at me, several times. After a while I realised from the page visible to me that she must be looking at an article accompanied by a photo of me.) 1I also recall a different train journey, not long afterwards, when I found myself sitting next to a captain of industry. He was with a colleague, engaged in animated conversation. So I sat quietly reading my copy of the Times. I continued like that until I reached one of the centre pages which mentioned my travel companion in very current terms. I put the paper down, turned to him and said: “My newspaper tells me that I should wish you a Happy Birthday.” He grunted, neutrally, and we spent the rest of the journey paying no further attention to each other.

Over time, I detected another similarity between articles and speeches: several of the techniques I like using to end a talk can be applied equally to closing-out an article. More on that below.

What’s motivating your article?

I began this website describing how I learned to recognise when it is important to get straight to the point – using the Question & Answer Technique to tell my audience as soon as possible what they want (or need) to know – and when to do something different, using my “FBI” mnemonic. All those techniques work equally well for articles. Let’s re-visit them, with examples for each of the various techniques.

The Question & Answer Technique (plus)

The Question & Answer Technique is a good bet for any articles providing an update on recent developments (perhaps for an in-house magazine or an industry journal). It is not unlike a technique used by journalists, called the inverted pyramid, and it will deliver similar results. One could, of course, learn the inverted pyramid and apply that, instead. But the QAT can be used for ordinary, everyday purposes as well as for articles and I see no need for anyone to master both techniques unless they’re planning to take up journalism professionally.

The QAT also works very well for articles designed to explain, rather than update. If you haven’t yet taken a look at the legal advice I re-wrote using the QAT, now might be an opportune moment.

One hurdle I had to overcome when using the QAT for an article was that I found it could easily lead to a draft that was so very efficient at getting my explanation across that it often lacked any of the style that I would use when writing for a mass audience. I quickly learned that, if I wanted my readers to enjoy what I had written, as well as being informed by it, I would need to re-visit my words and add something extra. (For the avoidance of doubt, all my articles have required many drafts. I have never, ever submitted something for publication without racking up a good number of versions along the way.) Here is an example from the Times – one that I wrote around 20 years ago – which I might describe as “QAT-plus”. If you download it from the link, you will see:

  • a copy of the published article
  • the underlying QAT structure
  • 300 words that very efficiently turn the Q&A into prose – and do nothing more than that
  • the text of the full article (530 words), colour-coded to show you how I embellished the QAT material to arrive at a result that I felt was good enough to put before the editor of a national newspaper, without losing any of the gains from starting out with the QAT.

If you are submitting to a professional publication, expect the title to be written by the publisher itself. (Apart from anything else, the title will need to occupy the right amount of space in the page layout.) If it’s a news piece, they may choose to embed the key point in the title, just as a newspaper would do in the headline of a news item. But, if it’s a comment piece, the title may aim for style over substance. In my Times article, they chose to make a play on footballing metaphors. That’s not entirely surprising as a way of signalling what the piece was about. But I have always thought their choice of “Simon Carne goes for goal”, in the second line of the title, demonstrated a complete lack of imagination.

Following the emotions

There are numerous reasons why an article writer might want to hold back the conclusion. I could list them, but I think many of them boil down to one thing: wanting to take your readers on an emotional journey. It’s not necessary for the readers to know what that journey is or to see it mapped out but you, as the writer, need to know what your start- and end-points are and the waypoints in between.

For example, if you’re writing a campaigning article, the emotions might be anger and hope: anger at the status quo and hope for a better future. In my own work, humour, intrigue or surprise are the more typical emotions that I aim for.

One frequent device used to kick-off an article of this type is to use an anecdote to set the scene or to evoke the initial emotion that the writer is seeking to elicit. It’s important that the anecdote fits in with the theme of the article that will follow. Otherwise, it’s just an off-piste ramble and the writer has to find a way to get their readers back on the right track.

The sequence of the rest of the article and the emotions it evokes need to be in sync. Usually, I decide on the emotions first and develop the sequence from there, but sometimes it’s the other way around. Here are some examples of each from my own portfolio:

–   This first example was written to celebrate the conclusion to a most wonderful season for my football team. I used emotion to drive the story, albeit with my tongue firmly in my cheek. The moral of the story was “love can change even a hardened football manager”. The piece began by painting a portrait of a flawed man and then revealed how he had transformed over the course of 12 months. This was followed (in flashback) by recounting how he met, and developed a relationship with, the young man who – in my telling of the story – transformed him into something altogether more endearing. [Just so we are clear. I have no idea whether my take on events has any validity whatsoever. It was all just a piece of fun – as you will see, I’m sure, if you read the piece.]

–    I mentioned this second example on a previous page. Ostensibly, it’s the tale of incompetence by my mortgage lender. But I wove the piece into an allegory of marriage and divorce. The idea was not only to make the piece more enjoyable to read but also to add a sense of emotion (frustration, mainly) to the tale. In this case, the chronology of events drove the story. I doubt that I could have done it any other way. So the challenge was to construct the allegory in a way that enabled the emotions to evolve in parallel with the events I was describing.

The article appeared in the personal finance section of the Financial Times and wasn’t (as the editor told me at the time) typical fare for that section of the paper. So I needed to get my readers in the right mood from the outset. To achieve that, the piece began by directly referencing my own emotional state at the outset. I’m sure the cartoon added by the Financial Times helped considerably to evoke a suitable tone. But I didn’t know they would do that when I wrote the piece.  

–    This last example is very short (just 200 words). It’s a play on words – or, rather, a play on swearwords – and had to be written with a liberal use of asterisks. The primary emotion was humour. If the reader didn’t end up seeing the funny side, I was wasting my time (and theirs). To make the joke work, I not only had to get the reader to know what w****r represented (which was pretty obvious) but also ****** (which wasn’t). I recall going through more drafts than usual in my search for a sequence that lined-up the storyline with the ****** reveal, just in time for the punchline.

Hiding the bottom line

I don’t write murder-mysteries – or any form of mystery, really – but there are times when I have wanted to delay revealing something crucial until the end of my article. That’s because I quite often write material that is designed to challenge popular preconceptions. And I am only too well aware that, if I write an article that is designed to convince readers of a view which they won’t easily accept, I can’t expose that unwelcome opinion at the start of the article without a real risk that the first sentence might also be the last sentence my readers choose to read! Something else is required.

Here is an example from the Financial Times, written just a few weeks after the example above from the Times and on a fairly similar topic. Both pieces are about companies taken to task by the authorities for unfair competition. But, unlike the Times article, I very deliberately steered clear of the QAT for this one because I was advocating a view that was widely derided at the time. Instead, I built up the argument in stages. My aim was to persuade readers to agree with each step along the way so that they might arrive at the same conclusion as me. I don’t know if I succeeded in persuading anyone (the article was published before readers could comment online), but the view I supported certainly won the day, eventually,2It is now generally recognised that Microsoft was guilty of multiple instances of anti-competitive behaviour and that innovation in the IT sector suffered until the company was taken to task by both the US and the EU competition authorities. But, when I wrote my article for the FT in 1999, the first court case was widely perceived as an attack by the Democrat administration on a company, purely because it had been outstandingly profitable. Not many FT readers would have been well-disposed towards my argument that Microsoft’s business practices were unlawful. and I would feel more comfortable using the QAT if I needed to express the argument today.

The article didn’t just have a potentially unpopular conclusion. It deployed an argument that was fairly intricate (some might say torturous). To hold on to the readers’ attention, I built in a succession of conflicts: a conflict between Microsoft and the Department of Justice; between my hypothetical world and the real world; and even between good and evil. Conflict is good for keeping people interested. Most people have an innate desire to know how conflicts turn out. I was also very open, at the outset of the article, about the complexity of what was to follow. I was hoping that a weekend FT reader – I knew the article would be published on a Saturday – would want to rise to the challenge, not be put off by it.

Readers of a comment article will typically be more patient with a writer than they will be with a news article. So it’s quite alright for commentators to delay their conclusion to the end, so long as the writer finds a way to retain the readers’ interest. The writer might use humour, emotion, conflict – a conflict of ideas, not necessarily an actual fight – to help build towards the delayed (or surprise) conclusion. 

Instructions

Articles of instruction vary from the most basic type of teaching guide to stories with a lesson built-in.

The internet is full of the first type, written in the form of step-by-step articles. You can find online examples easily: there must be gazillion or more of them at the wikiHow website, for starters. (You might like to check out How to Change the World, unless that’s something you have already mastered!) The sequencing is, of course, determined by the actions the article-writer is recommending. A step-by-step article doesn’t need to contain – or evoke – any emotions. Any sense of satisfaction or elation that the reader experiences once they have achieved a successful outcome should flow from their success in following the directions in the article, not from reading the words.

On the “toolbox” page of this website, I said the Question & Answer Technique can replace a step-by-step approach when you are writing for an experienced reader. If you want to apply the technique in a published article, you would need to be confident that your readers have the requisite experience to cope with high-level guidance. If you are explaining how to use a minor software upgrade to people who you know are already skilled in applying the existing version, you might well decide just to explain, in overview terms, the features which have changed. But, if the new features involve completely new skills (or if you want your explanation to be understood by readers who don’t know the existing software), that won’t work. You will need to adopt something more detailed and, most likely, presented as “follow these steps”.

To see examples of the opposite – articles which are stories with a lesson built in – try googling phrases like “lessons learned in love” 3You need to include the word “learned”. When I tried searching for “lessons in love”, Google took me to a 1980s song by Level 42 (or lessons learned in college”, or “in business” etc).

When you get to the end

The end of an article doesn’t need to be signalled in the way that a speech does. You’re not expecting a round of applause from your readers. And, besides, it will be clear from the page (or webpage) when there are no more words to read. Nevertheless, the readers’ experience can be enriched with a finely-crafted ending. I include below examples of some endings that I have aimed for in my own work.

Any of the closing styles and structures used for a speech can be turned into an ending for an article. If a conclusion is appropriate – or a call to action (with or without contrast) – the need for it will probably be obvious to you as you reach the end of your writing. A thematic expression can be very satisfying for the reader. It usually requires a fair bit of advance thought early on in the writing phase, but I find it exceptionally satisfying when something suitable arrives in my head.

Personally, I would rarely choose to end an article with a summary. That would feel too clunky for my liking. If there are some essential take-aways that I want the reader to remember, I would usually put them in a “box” or some other graphic. But if a graphic is not possible – perhaps because it doesn’t fit with the publisher’s house style – I wouldn’t be snooty about closing with a summary.

An anecdote can work well at the end of an article, but rather than trying to close-out a piece with a new story, you might place the anecdote at the start and invoke a brief call back to it at the end. And, just as with a speech, a title-close creates a real sense of closure () by signalling that everything has been building up to this.    

An article written using the Question & Answer Technique doesn’t require an ending. By the very nature of the technique, you have taken the reader to the point where everything has been said. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that one might use one of the above approaches to end with a flourish.

Here are some examples, as promised earlier:

  • Conclusion: In the Microsoft example discussed above, I ended the article, very simply, with the conclusion to my argument
  • Call-back: I hadn’t realised, until I started looking for examples, just how much I have deployed the call-back in my writing, albeit with variations:
    • Simple call-back: In this tale of incompetence by my mortgage lender, woven into an allegory of marriage and divorce, I ended with a simple call-back by closing with an expression that is used in the context of divorce.
    • Call-back to an opening anecdote: This comment on failed forecasts combines an opening anecdote with a closing call-back to that opening anecdote.
    • Call-back to the title: In this love story, the call back used a riff on the title of the article.
  • No ending: And, finally, in my discussion of competition for TV rights, the Question & Answer Technique took me to the point where I felt there was nothing more to say and so I said nothing more.
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