Source: Ideas into Words
Whenever you get stuck while writing, stop struggling. Close your eyes, visualize a specific, living, breathing reader, and say to yourself, “What am I really trying to say?” Whatever the answer, write it down. Polish later if it’s needed, but you may be surprised at how trivial the polishing can be.
The first things that you have to do are:
Think about the readers.
Readers come in clusters. There is never only one, though one will be central. When you write, you will address that key reader directly, thereby rousing your social skills. The other readers will listen in and benefit from the occasional aside (or joke, or whatever) that you tuck in for their benefit.
From that viewpoint, your goal in writing is to capture and serve as many different readers as possible, yet stay focused on the core concern shared by the subgroups. You directly address the key reader, offering 100 percent of what that person needs. Then you throw the others a bone whenever one comes to hand.
As you start to think through a piece, imagine yourself as each reader in turn:
- Who are these people?
- What does each one need and expect from you?
- What will each group want to know?
If you meet one particular reader completely, will that do most of the job for the others? Yes, that’s the primary one, the reader. Knowing the reader early on will help you decide how to approach your article, and later it will help you choose vocabulary, examples, and analogies.
Think about the subject matter and mark your material for use in writing.
With your reader(s) held in mind, review all your notes and printed matter so that all is fresh in your mind, seen as a whole. If you are writing a brief news item, such a review may take fifteen minutes. For a major feature, it may take several days.
Write a head and subhead
Good ones, not perfunctory. The process will force you to get precise about both topic and approach.
As a unit, the heads have two jobs:
- To lure the readers in and
- To constitute a fair billing.
Consider pheromones, the chemical signals with which animals (including us) attract mates—moth pheromone does nothing for rutting bucks and vice versa. In the same way, the allure of your headline should speak specifically to the right readers, the cluster of people you are talking to.
Make a plan
Following the advice once given by Alexandre Dumas père for three-act plays:
- The beginning (first act) should be clear, clear, clear;
- The middle (second act) should be interesting, interesting, interesting;
- And the end should be short, short, short.
Your written plan may be very simple, especially for something short:
- Head and subhead,
- Idea for the opener,
- Idea for the closer,
- Plus a list of three to five major points you want to make in between.
Structure your piece in such a way that, when your train of thought comes to an end, its caboose just happens—of course not, but it should feel that way, natural and inevitable— to be a good place to leave the reader. That place might be a scene, a new insight, a question, or simply a final image that encapsulates the major idea. Often, the conclusion enlarges the picture, and it may well bear on the reader’s eternal question, why anyone should care.
If the grand finale of your article is clear to you but the structure is not, try a more “logical” approach: Start your plan from the end. Whatever your grand finale, back up. Ask yourself, what does the reader need to know to really get this final part? Good. That material belongs in the penultimate section. And so on. Just keep backing up toward your opener till you get there (or perhaps to a better one yet).A shape should then be apparent—or at any rate present, even if you don’t yet see it.