These writing tips are based on personal experience and might not work for you, so be careful when trying to use them.
Please note that I'm talking about writing for others. As a professional writer I need the reader to keep reading. In the case of a long article, keeping the reader focused is often complicated, and that's the reason why I use these tips an tricks. A lot of them were taught to me by Thomas Cusseau, the former chief editor of Gamekult and by my old friend Franck Extanasié.
Also don't forget that as with everything, the more you write, the better you write.
Is the subject worth it?
First of all, anyone can write about any subject and potentially, any subject can be interesting.
But that doesn't mean every subject is interesting. Some of them don't deserve your time and. If they are still written they can be informative, but are they really interesting to read? Was that time well spent?
The quality of the subject (and thus the pleasure you as a reader will get from reading it) is determined by the context surrounding it. The subject is just the trigger, the context is the story and that's the main thing we want to retrieve as a writer.
Here's the most easy way I determine if a subject is interesting: if, after getting a hint about a it, I find myself asking questions about it and I need more context to get answers, then it might be worth writing about it.
This very page follows the same process. I was hinted that my process of writing and its result are interesting to others. So I ask myself questions about my own practices, I stepped back to get context and tried to find answers.
All this combined helps me build what Thomas Cusseau called the angle of the article.
Just like in the cinematographic sense with camera angles, the way you position yourself as the writer to emphasize the context around the subject will change the perception and feelings of the reader. It will also tell him a story, even if there's no dialog. It means that even if the subject, context and answers are interesting, you now have to determine how to write about them to create feelings. Joy, excitement, curiosity.
Now this is where my methods can differ from other's. Each cinematographer as its own ways of filming and that's the same for writers. Of course the subject and the target audience will influence how the writing will be done. If I'm writing a fiction centered around a single character and it's emotions, I might go with a first person point of view and not care about being totally understandable. If I'm writing a more informative article for a larger audience, I will probably try to make it as accessible as possible ; disappear and let the context that I organize in a logical way do all the work. It's all about the writer and the desired outcome.
With experience, writing habits tend to emerge and will make the process of assembling the angle (subject, context, answers, form) more easy. Still, it's often good to re-evaluate our habits to avoid being to complacent.
My most used process, that I apply mostly in non-fiction writings, work as follow.
- I openly ask a question about the subject.
- I invite the reader to look at the subject from a new perspective that I provide.
- I raise the reader's understanding of the subject by delivering context in a logical chain of ideas.
- I deliver a conclusion that answers the question.
The question is not actually a question!
It's more of a problematic that you want to answer and openly share with your reader. It has to strike a nice balance to make the reader curious without being overly dramatic or click-bait. It has to be super short (around 150 characters), be the first text after the title, directed at the target audience, provide the initial context we are in and why we are questioning this context.
The hint for my 2020 review was:
2020 was one of the best years I experienced in recent memory.
Let's analyze this for a bit:
- 2020 is the main context. Everyone knows 2020 was as bad year. You might think Ugh, here we go with 2020 again, so depressing.
- Best years in recent memory when combined with 2020 creates the problematic. I want to create a Whaaaaaaaaaat moment!
- I experienced is a hint that I am the perspective. This page is a personal journal that will guide you through my journey.
This phrase will be my main guideline while I am writing the rest of the text. You can think of the question as a pitch. Or as the phrase you wrote at the beginning of your philosophy dissertation in high school! The click-bait titles you see everywhere on the internet are just this, but with rock-bottom effort in subtlety, because of a lack of time and context.
But please respect yourself. Never use a question mark inside a title or your problematic. They are obnoxious, too easy and often drives the reader away.
Right after the question, I try to give hints about why I wrote it. This is often the introduction part of the article, where I state facts that help the reader understand why this text was written in the first place.
The goal is to embark him into my own journey, making him revive my cycle of question, context, answer by shifting his perspective with mine. The only difference between us are:
- I already know the answer, he does not.
- I have the full context, he does not.
So my goal now is to deliver him the full context so he can understand my conclusion.
The context delivery
From this moment I am in the core of the article. This is often the most difficult part to write.
My goal is to split the context that makes the subject interesting into smaller parts, in order to deliver them in a logical way. You can think about it as a bullet list where each element leads to the next. Each one needs to have its own inner-subject, context explanation, logical conclusion, and transition to the next part.
This is especially hard to write while making it interesting and not being excessively verbose. Summarizing things is hard. Going to the core of an information is harder. It's where there is a good chance that the article goes into a tangent. Since I am giving context and that one things calls for the another, it's super easy to derivate into the context of the context, thus leading to something that is related but not related to the subject of the article.
Using metaphors when dealing with technical aspects can be useful but if they are not quick, clear and obvious, they can lose the reader. Images and quotes are useful to create breaks. It allows you to make a logical connection from one context to the other in the same part. It also allows the reader to breathe.
Even more difficult are the transitions. Each parts needs to end with a hint about what the next one will be about.
Plan or go with the flow?
There are two schools about writing this context delivery part. One advises to plan everything before writing the different parts. This way you know where to start and where to end each one. The other method is to simply go with the flow and detect when to stop and transition to another part.
Of course both methods have positives and negatives.
Planning everything is good but sometimes, one part can be too long and needs to be cut in smaller ones, breaking the plan. Sometimes when writing, the realization that the plan is not good happens. Or the question changes or get refined, thus breaking the plan. But plans are useful when dealing with very intricate articles. I personally use them more for technical writings. When I am not 100% sure about my understanding of the context, having a plan is also a good way to stay focused.
Going with the flow obviously makes it easy to change the question and flow of the article, at the risk of going into tangents and irregular sized parts. Going with the flow often leads to more deletes of entire paragraphs. I even had cases where I deleted everything and started fresh, as the existing text was not good and trying to format it to another plan was a nightmare.
My advice would be: the more you know your subject, the more you can go with the flow. The less certain you are, the more you should plan. To create a plan more easily, write all you context elements on small pieces of paper and regroup them by inner-subject.
The conclusion is also part of the context delivery phase, but it doesn't conclude it's own part, it concludes the whole article. If I wrote well enough, the reader has all the contextual keys to understand why I brought the subject in the first place.
If the article is long, it might be a good idea to rewrite the question. With the context the reader gathered, he should be able to get to the conclusion by itself at this moment. Still, write the answer to the question or the problematic. More often than not, it's good to finish with a catchphrase that either closes the topic once and for all, or opens it so the reader can continue to think about it.
It always feel good to have a AH, I GET IT moment, and that's what I aim for my conclusions.
Various tips and tricks
- The main rule all writers know is that after finishing an article, you remove 50% of it. Because you wrote too much. You went into tangents. You overdid it. Don't hesitate. Delete. Rephrase.
- After long periods of writing, everything seems to be blurry and hard to read. That because you almost memorized your text and you aren't actually reading it anymore, you are thinking about the purpose of each phrase. That's how you miss typos, long phrases that could be shortened, etc...
- When it's too hard, let it rest for a few days before continuing. The blur will disappear and you'll be fresh.
- When it's done, let it rest for a few days before publishing. The blur will disappear and you'll be able to see the monstrosities you wrote.
- When doing interviews, the most interesting things are often the tangents. They provide off-script context that would normally not be part of the subject. Write hints or subjects mentioned and go back to them later. When doing interviews with people in a marketing campaign, always ask a generic question first so they can do their own job and spit their marketing bullshit, then do your thing.