15 Tips for Writing Articles

by Michael Dunphy

As an instructor in article writing, travel writing, and creative nonfiction at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, I break a lot of hearts. Students arrive in my class bright in spirit, flush in inspiration, and steeped in the highest ideals of the craft. Sadly, it doesn’t take long for the nitty-gritty of even achieving a part-time career writing for professional publications to wilt their passion, be it investment of time; the restrictions of formats, voice, and word count; or the often-paltry paychecks.

Ultimately, it’s the determination to press on regardless that assures success, rather than any pure writing talent. But knowing what hurdles lie ahead can go a long way to leaping them gracefully, starting with these 15 most common that trip up my students.

1. Shakespeare is dead.

Shakespeare may have ruined more writers than any other writer. In his centuries atop the literary pantheon, the Bard has defined “good” writing as long, intricate flourishes of language that seem drawn from the celestial spheres. As such, it’s extremely common for new writers to ape his style, language, and voice.

Trouble is, Shakespeare is dead, very dead, and his voice seems as out of place in today’s modern media as a chamber pot in the bedroom. Instead, today’s writers speak with the voice of today—raw, short, punchy, and conversational. One of my editors said it best: “Tell me the story as if you were telling it to a friend over coffee.” In other words, if you would never say something in real life, don’t write it that way.

2. Beauty is in the bones.

The beauty of writing is anything but skin deep. Fine words and phrases can indeed add a rosy blush to the veneer of a text, but the true art is in the structure—something newer writers often spend little time building, preferring instead to stare at the screen and let inspiration storm down from the heavens.

At the macro level, structure concerns the logical and smooth unrolling of the narrative from paragraph to paragraph, while the micro encompasses the way sentence forms play off of and enhance each other. For example, if the first sentence is a conditional one, follow with a simple and short declarative. Then perhaps follow that with a rhetorical question. With repetition, energy flickers out of boredom; with variety, sparks fly from the friction.

3. It’s not about you.

Just as selfies have become an unfortunate touchstone of photography, “selfie writing” has achieved the same in composition with many new writers. Here—particularly in first-person formats like memoirs, blog posts, op-eds, and personal essays—the author becomes so much the focus of the article that the topic, angle, and overall main point get regulated to the backdrop and often disappear altogether.

Even when it’s about you, an article should never really be about you. The author is merely a conduit for the experience and meaning, not the sum of it. In other words, the reader should not be looking into the writers’ eyes, but through them. Generally, unless the author’s presence is fundamental to the movement and meaning of the narrative, keep well out of it.

4. Spelling counts.

Want to watch an editor explode in a plume of black fury? Submit a draft that confuses “its” and “it’s.” Better yet, misspell the name of the person or place you are writing about, and for pure spite, toss in a handful of ironic quotes, random capitalization, and typos. Combine them all and earn top billing on the editorial blacklist.

It’s not the errors alone that makes them cardinal sins but the implication that that writer lacks attention, care, professionalism, and even respect. Indeed, some editors value clean writing so much that they’ll sometimes hire writers based on that alone, even if rejecting the pitch. So refresh the rules of grammar and punctuation, and don’t let your clauses dangle.

5. There’s no “one and done.”

It’s wonderful to imagine your editor immediately succumbing to orgiastic throes of ecstasy upon the mere sight of your draft, but chances are, the reality will most likely hover between silent relief and enraged indignation. Indeed, Allen Ginsberg’s credo, “first thought, best thought,” rarely satisfies the precision of media writing.

In most cases, articles grow through many drafts from seed to fruition. For some newer writers, writing an article over and over again demands far more work and time than anticipated and certainly lacks fun. If there’s any “one and done” with your editors, it’s only because six have come before.

6. Thicken your skin.

There’s a reason I always wait an hour to respond to an editor’s critique of my draft, particularly if less than favorable: the heat of indignation never makes for measured language and good diplomacy. But I understand the sensitivity. As an act of creation, an article is imbued with the spirit of the writer, and therefore any attack on the work becomes an attack the author.

But of course, it’s not really an attack, and the tears and anguish of new writers are misplaced. Instead, see your writing as an inanimate product churned out by a publishing machine and not a living, breathing baby sprung from your rib. It’ll soften the blow. Take a breath, reset your feet, and swing back with a new draft that knocks them out.

7. Good things come in small packages.

An article is a remarkably small piece of real estate, with the vast majority of articles coming in at less than 1,000 words, and often less than 500. As a result, new writers must temper their lust for New Yorker-length features and learn how to “write short,” especially as few editors will give a writer 1,000 words until they’ve seen a 100.

The same goes for the scope of an article. Don’t try to cover the entirety of climate change in a single article, as it will be impossible to do so with any depth or quality in a small space. Instead, look for an individual thread and pull, perhaps with a new boat that picks up plastic or an app that increases energy efficiency at home. Keep it simple; keep it small; and both reader and writer can comfortably and adequately get their heads and arms around a topic.

8. Play your ace card first.

Audiences may be captive in the cinema but are anything but in digital media, where attention is perhaps the number one premium. Just consider how long yougive an article before deciding whether to stay with it or swipe left. For most, it’s about two paragraphs, or in media speak: the “lead” and “nut graf.”

So it’s senseless to save that final twist, snazzy quote, or delicious tidbit until the end of the story, as most readers will never get there. Instead, play your ace card first to sink your hooks into the reader. For inspiration, follow the example of Franz Kafka, who beganhis famed “The Metamorphosis” with the main character transformed into a monstrous vermin.

9. Don’t be the sage on the stage; be the guide on the side.

From atop the pedestal of writing, it’s easy for authors to see themselves as enlightened gurus, dispensing wisdom to the uneducated masses, setting up an uneasy relationship between teacher and student. For some new writers, the paradigm can inspire trepidation as well. Indeed, one student told me just last week, “My life is boring. There’s nothing I can write about.”

A better approach is not to consider what you know but what you don’t know. It’s in the gaps of your knowledge that the best ideas for articles can often be found. Plus, chances are that if youwant to know something, many others will, too. The approach also marks a subtle but powerful shift in tone, knocking the writer off the pedestal and onto terra firma with the audience. Now, hand in hand, the two can travel together.

10. You schmooze, you don’t lose.

It was the ukulele that got me one of my biggest gigs ever, not talent. After an hour’s jam session with a lead editor at a major publishing company, assignments began to flow. The fact is, people want to work with people they like,and the same goes for editors. Therefore, nurturing relationships is a key to success, be it swapping cards and handshakes at media meet-ups or sharing articles on Twitter.

Just remember never to ask for work directly. Instead, play to vanity by getting them to talk about themselves, by pumping them with one question after another, each presenting a platform for the person to publicly polish their ego. Chances are, by the end of the conversation, they’ll have a good impression of you. Then wait three days, email how great it was to meet them, and take it from there.

11. Focus on the now and soon-to-be now.

There’s a reason major digital publications pump out vast quantities of content daily. The hope is that at least one post can tap into the pulse of the “now” and go viral. Increased traffic means more advertising, increased advertising means more money. The further you can stay ahead of the curve and “break” the story, the greater the chance of it taking off.

So ditch history and keep your narrative eye on the horizon, whether scanning the digital oracles of Twitter, Reddit, press releases, and whatnot, or, better yet, stepping personally into the undiscovered country yourself in participation or solidarity.

12. So what? Here’s what.

A college professor of mine often used to write on our essays, “So what?” In other words, he explained, “Why should the reader care what you have to say about this topic?” What is your Ayahuasca adventure in Peru to Joe the Plumber in Toledo? That question is equally important for new writers, and the answer fundamental to the presentation of the story. All too often, however, the question draws a blank.

The answer doesn’t need to be complicated and is often achieved with actionable instruction or appeals to the universal themes that unite us all (or most of us), from romantic relationships and raising children to career success and spiritual enlightenment. Without the link to the reader, the article has less use than a napkin.

13. Close your eyes.

As a test, I sometimes instruct my students to free write a paragraph or two describing a well-known place, like Times Square (a few blocks from the Gotham classrooms). Afterward, I ask them how much of the description is based purely on the visual. Usually, the answer hovers around 90 percent.

Sadly, the other senses (sixth included) often get short shrift, robbing writers of key tools in the art of description and power of emotion. Don’t forget, it’s a song that can make us cry, or an aroma that can tap the deepest veins of memory and emotion. Next time, try describing Times Square with your eyes closed and watch it spring to three-dimensional life.

14. The writer is the cause; the reader is the effect.

In a society that relishes and cultivates instant gratification, language has come to focus far more on the product (“now with more flavor!”), not the process. So, too, do the summary judgments of many new writers, who regularly exalt the glory of something without providing any supporting evidence.

Don’t describe the chandeliers as “funky” or the coffee “fabulous,” but describe them in a way that plants the desired impression in the reader’s mind, as if they’d thought of it themselves. Not only does that create a stronger bond with the reader, it makes the effect ring with greater vitality, authenticity, and resonance.

15. Drop the idiom crutch.

Is it really “raining cats and dogs,” or more like porcupines and aardvarks? Few new writers actually give it any thought, as the idioms in the English language have become so ingrained in the collective consciousness that many have become merely pre-fab props to slip in sentences for linguistic support.

But rarely are they actually true, or at least they are dulled over the decades, if not centuries, of use, robbing them of energy, impact, and vitality. It also robs the writer of the opportunity to show off their descriptive powers. Instead of describing the room “as hot as hell,” try “as steamy as a Finnish sauna in a Baltic winter.”

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine