1. Focus Your Topic. Presumably, you already have an idea for your article in mind; however, it may not be specific enough to give your piece purpose and focus. For instance, my initial idea for this article was the nebulous concept of “giving advice on writing.” This idea is too open-ended to be either interesting or helpful. Instead, it is much more effective to focus your topic so that it can be expressed as a question. It is helpful to come up with a question that your article will answer because it allows you to figure out what about your original idea interested you in the first place. It will also prevent your piece from becoming off-topic because it will remind you that everything you say should relate back to your answer to that question.
2. Decide Your Organizational Structure. It will be much easier to think of how your article will come together after you have refined its driving idea, question, or thesis. If you are trying to explain to your readers how to do something, lists or step-by-step guides (such as this one) can be very effective. If you are arguing for or against a certain topic or simply explaining a concept, you can use the traditional essay structure of an introductory paragraph, several body paragraphs (one for each point), and a concluding paragraph.
3. Create a Working Title. If you are writing a list, the thesis or central idea is in the title because this is what informs the reader on the list’s topic. In a more traditional article, the title is a creative variation of your main idea. Obviously, it needs to refer to your specific topic of discussion lest it be misleading. In addition, it also needs to be interesting in order to make people want to read your article.
4. Write Your Introductory Paragraph. The introductory paragraph is, essentially, an expansion of your title. It should provide a roadmap of the concepts about which the reader will read. If the goal of the article is to argue a specific position, the opening paragraph should contain the driving point of your argument. This main point is your thesis and the most important part of your introduction. It can be one sentence, either the first or last, or it can be the entirety of the introduction. Either way, an effective thesis expresses your stance on the topic and how you are going to address it. The complexity of your topic dictates how clear and unambiguous your thesis statement must be. For instance, in “The Class We Are Leaving Behind” I discuss how lower-income people are effectively losing their speech rights through legislation and a lack of access to technology. Because I was pulling together and explaining several seemingly unrelated ideas, I had to clearly outline a skeletal version of the argument:
“The voter ID laws are a new way in which lower-income people are losing their ability to make themselves heard at the voting booth; but this is not the only way these people are losing their voice in the national conversation. These people are also the class least likely to have sufficient Internet access to enable them to express their political beliefs online. While the poor have speech rights, they are effectively shut out of online communication and the voting booth due to the stagnation of class mobility and a lack of adequate education.”
5. Write Informative Topic Sentences. The first sentences of paragraphs are arguably the most important sentences you will write. Whether it is the catchy sentence that begins your piece, or the phrase that lets the reader know that the article is almost done, topic sentences inform and orient readers as to what you will be discussing. Each paragraph should discuss one idea, or possibly two closely related ideas, and your first sentences should introduce the concepts being covered. It should also either allude to or directly state your position on that idea. After explaining the benefit of topic sentences, most people are easily able to utilize them; however, many times their sentences look like the following:
“I will now discuss the importance of topic sentences.”
Most topic sentences are not this bad; however, it captures the tendency that beginning or intermediate writers have of not actually communicating anything in their first sentences. Based on this sample sentence, we know that the writer is going to say something about topic sentences, but what that will be is unclear. It may be uncomfortable to take a stance, no matter how conciliatory or open-minded, but in order for the reader to want to continue reading, you must state your position in addition to introducing a topic.
6. Body Paragraphs. After writing your introduction and the topic sentence of your first paragraph, you have already written the hardest parts of the article. From here on out, it is a matter of endurance, focus, and patience. The body paragraphs are where you actually get to express how interesting and important your ideas are, so try to enjoy the process. Introduce one part or aspect of your main idea, which is in your thesis, provide an example if it is applicable, discuss how it relates to your primary topic, and provide a lead in to your next paragraph.
Ideally, your paragraphs should not be more than five sentences long. If they are longer, chances are that you began to veer away from what you introduced in your topic sentence. When this happens, find where you got sidetracked and see if what you wrote has value. If it does, simply press the “return/enter” key and make it its own paragraph and move on.
7. Build Upon Your Previous Points. Well-written articles are made up of paragraphs that relate to each other logically. Whether you are editing your article or in the middle of writing it, it is important to make sure that the last sentence of a paragraph not only pertains to its own paragraph, but also relates to the topic sentence of the next paragraph. This can be a bit tricky. When editing a piece I have written, I often see that although I express a great idea in one paragraph and a great one in the next, there is no relation between them.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, the question to ask yourself is, “what is the logical connection between these two points?” Most of the time, you will discover that you are missing a logical transition between your two points, which you can insert at the end of one paragraph or the beginning of the next. However, if you are unable to discern why one paragraph follows another, it may serve you to move one to a different part of your article and see if its purpose becomes clear.
8. Write A Conclusion. The biggest rule about writing conclusions is that a writer should not introduce any new ideas or additional information because doing so would confuse the reader. Typically, the conclusion is the place for you to rephrase your thesis and remind the reader of your key points. If you are feeling ambitious or inspired, you can also use the conclusion to explain, based on preceding paragraphs, why your topic has greater significance. This is not standard for academic writing; however, if you are writing a non-academic piece, putting your discussion into a broader context can answer the question: “So, why should I care about your article?”
Take a look at my conclusion in “The Class We Are Leaving Behind,” which attempts to answer that question:
“While its usefulness is evident, Internet access remains unaffordable, or effectively unusable, for many. The result is that a significant percentage of our population is not moving forward with us into the Digital Age. The Internet does not have placeholders for people who are not online and does not remind us that there are millions of people who could share their opinions and stories. Because of this, these people are at risk of becoming invisible to people online and to those in politics that are influenced by Internet communities. The fact is that the majority of men and women whom this article concerns are unable to read it, and this underscores the tragedy of America’s poor.”
9. Rewrite, Edit, Proofread. Congratulations! You wrote your first draft and are almost ready to share your article with the world. For many writers, the editing stage is where they hone their craft because it is there that they are able to devote their entire mind to improving the mechanics of their writing.
Although I could discuss the rules concerning the mechanics of writing and how to apply them to your article, it is more appropriate for me to refer you to the sources that improved my writing exponentially:
- Strunk & White/The Elements of Style – Arguably the book on the mechanics of writing. (Here is the pdf version)
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King – Funny, inspirational, insightful, and infinitely helpful. (Here is the pdf version)
- Writers you know and respect – It is very helpful to have someone, preferably a professional writer or at least someone whose writing ability your respect, to look over your work and give you suggestions. Once you get over whatever bruising your ego sustains, you will see how much constructive feedback allows you to grow as a writer.
- Electronic readers – There is nothing better to improve the readability and flow of your article than to hear it read out loud to you. There are many text-to-speech programs that either come with your computer or can be purchased for very little or downloaded for free. (Advice from my father, a professional writer.)
10. Tweak Your Title and/or Introduction. By the time you have edited/rewritten your article and gone through it for typos, you may find that either your title or introduction is no longer reflective of your piece. If that is the case, go through your article again in order to reacquaint yourself with your key points and adjust your introduction to reflect them. Then, boil your thesis down into keywords and see if you can turn those into an interesting title.
For example, in my most recent article “Meaning, Morality, and Video Games: the enduring value of RPGs,” my thesis reduced down to the words: meaning, moral decisions, and RPGs. After seeing this, my final title came together.
I hope you find these steps helpful. Feel free to express your own advice, insights, and writing experiences in the “Comments” section below!
Note: A number of readers have asked me for writing advice since I began this blog and they inspired me to write this article. Many thanks to those who have asked for guidance and offered advice and kind words about my own writing. I wish all of you success in your writing endeavors.
- Writer’s Block: Getting Past the First Sentence (asserttrue.blogspot.com)
- Guide To English Grammar and Effective Writing (learnstuff.com)
- Improve your writing on the web (bottledworder.wordpress.com)