How to Write a Good Article
The first question to ask yourself in writing any communication is: Who is my audience? Really take a moment to put yourself in the place of the person who is going to read what you write. What does s/he care about? What does s/he want to know? How much time is s/he likely to devote to reading this article?
The value of asking yourself these questions goes beyond the obvious. It’s how you begin shifting your focus from the me who is writing to the readership your writing will serve. Most inexperienced writers suffer from self-consciousness, which mars their writing and makes them miserable. So getting me out of the way at the outset is one of the best things you can do for your article.
In the case of VIN articles, your readership will be quite diverse. It will include veterans of the non-profit sector, government agents, idealistic young volunteers, and people just like yourself. Therefore, your article should be substantial and informative, but at the same time entertaining and readable. This may seem like an impossible task, but there are some road-tested techniques for accomplishing it. Read on.
What Do You Want to Say?
Before you start writing, make a list of the points you want to get across. Some writers find it helpful to make an outline of the material they intend to cover, and if you’re among them then by all means go for it. But by simply listing the main points, you can track your content and check that you’ve covered the necessary ground.
Keep in mind when making your list that your readers don’t need to know every detail of your VIN work. They will soon lose interest if you try to cover it all. What they want to know is the following:
- What is the relevance of this article to me?
- Why should I care about the information it contains?
- Will it help me know something about VIN that I don’t already know?
- Will that information support my role relative to VIN?
- Can I use it to convey something important about VIN’s activities to someone else?
Once you’ve made your list, arrange the points into a logical sequence. This will help you with your transitions, of which more later.
Tell Us a Story
Everyone loves a good human story, and VIN has many to tell. Whatever your role in the organisation, you will have encountered people whose lives are being directly affected by VIN’s volunteer projects and programs. The father whose diabetes is now under control, thanks to the Jitpur Health Post; the grandmother whose new sanitary toilet means she need no longer deal with buckets of her family’s excrement; the mother who parlayed a microcredit loan into a lucrative business; the college student whose training in her high school children’s club is helping her handle her business management classes.
Wherever possible, start your article with a story. Keep it brief and concise: tell just enough of it to give your reader a sense of the personality involved and to prepare the way for the information to follow. Your story is not the point of your article—it’s a device to seduce your reader into the substance of what you want her to know. So if your article is about toilet construction, for example, begin by introducing the grandmother, giving a brief description of her and her world, and explaining in a single sentence the difference between her previous experience and her current one. Then make the point that she isn’t alone—VIN has built 150 new sanitary toilets in her village (for example). From there, you can get into the story you want to tell.
The story you start with could also be that of a volunteer working in a program—perhaps even yourself. This is a particularly good way to begin an article aimed primarily at prospective volunteers; but if it’s interesting enough, it can work as well as any other story to draw in the entire spectrum of your readers.
Keep It Crisp
You may be bursting with enthusiasm about some detail of your program—and if you can convey your enthusiasm in a way that communicates useful information, it can help you make important points. But again, always remember that you’re writing for the reader, not for yourself. Do your best to assess frankly what will interest that person, and practise letting go of personal interests that don’t ultimately add value to your article.
Refer to the list of points you made before starting your article. As you spin each one into a sentence or paragraph, look for the most concise possible way to convey that information. Use as few words as you can.
Two ways to cut your word count are to (a) avoid using the passive case, and (b) keep a tight rein on adjectives and adverbs.
a) Use active sentences; avoid passive constructions.
Passive sentences look like this:
- A hundred and fifty sanitary toilets have been built in Jitpur by VIN volunteers.
- A microcredit loan has been turned into a thriving business by Aata Jyoti.
- A major contribution was made to the project by the Danish volunteers.
Active sentences look like this:
- VIN volunteers have built 150 sanitary toilets in Jitpur.
- Aata Jyoti has turned her microcredit loan into a thriving business.
- The Danish volunteers made a major contribution to the project.
Passive constructions use too many words and are tedious to read. When you proofread your article, be on the lookout for them and change them to the active case.
B) Discipline your adjectives and adverbs.
Too many writers rely on adjectives and adverbs to convey a sense of what it was like to be there. But these devices are like spice: a little makes the meal delicious, but too much ruins it. Here are some examples of undisciplined adjective/adverb use:
- It was a muggy morning, laden with dark, threatening clouds that hung menacingly over the horizon.
- The pale light was too weak and flickering to do any serious reading by.
- The entire extended family rejoiced greatly when we happily introduced them to their spanking new sanitary toilet.
The alternative to adjective/adverb overload is to choose the right verbs instead.
- Menacing clouds darkened the already muggy morning.
- The inconsistent light made reading impossible.
- The new sanitary toilet gladdened both the volunteers and the family.
When proofreading, it can be helpful to circle all your verbs and ask yourself whether you can find better choices. A “better choice” is one that lets you dispense with unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.
Your reader wants to be led smoothly through your article. When your writing leaps from one thought to another without making an adequate connection, it can jar her into setting the article aside.
Go back to the list of main points you made before you began writing. The points should follow one another so that the overall effect is one of telling a story—in this case, the larger story your article wants to tell.
Although the information you’re presenting may feel sequential to you, it might not to your reader. Remember that s/he hasn’t been there; you have to take her there. To check your transitions, read the last sentence of each paragraph and the first sentence of the following one out loud, as though there was no break between them. Does the information flow? If not, consider:
a) adding a sentence at either the end of the first paragraph or the beginning of the second, or
b) reorganising your paragraphs into a smoother sequence.
If you run into a break in the natural sequence of your article, mark it with a subheading. Make the subheading brief and descriptive (see those in this article for examples).
Calls to Action
Some articles are purely descriptive or informational. Others are motivational: they ask readers to volunteer, give money or other resources, spread word of VIN’s activities, etc. In the world of ad copywriting, this is known as the “call to action”.
Don’t make the mistake of pushing your call to action too hard. Place it at or near the end of your article, in the form of a suggestion rather than of a demand or even a request. Ask yourself what benefit the reader might derive from following this suggestion, and present it from that angle. By responding to any of the calls to action listed in the previous paragraph, for example, your reader can become part of a global family of VIN supporters; s/he can contribute to real quality-of-life improvements for women/children/rural folk; or perhaps her support of an educational initiative can make a substantive difference in a child’s life. People do want to contribute, but your reader wants to know that her contribution will count. It’s your job to show her that it does.
Concluding Your Article
Whether or not you conclude your article with a call to action, you need to close the piece with something that will leave your reader feeling good about having read it. This needn’t be anything glorious; simply ending on an upbeat note will do the job.
As you go over your points, ask yourself what good news arises naturally from the information you’re conveying. It could be something general, such as the fact that the people of Jitpur are living healthier and more satisfying lives with every project VIN introduces. Or it could be something more specific to the topic of your article—the fact that women all over Jitpur have become successful businesswomen—or an uplifting statistic, such as the number of new businesses funded by the Jitpurphedi Cooperative micro lending program.
Finally, it’s best to make your closing statement open ended: that is, have it look to the future. Leave your reader with a sense that the accomplishments you’ve described are driving continued success.
Before You Turn It In
You’ve seen several references in this article to “proofreading”. This is an absolutely crucial part of writing any piece; don’t neglect it.
Once you finish your article, run a spell check. Some writers think this step is beneath them, but true professionals consider it indispensable. The mispelled words and typos you’ve missed over multiple readings will surprise you.
Next, read your article out loud. This is an amazingly efficient technique for detecting technical errors—but most of all, for assessing how your article flows. Too many people use different language to write than they do to speak, making for awkward writing. Your article should sound conversational, as though you were telling someone your story over a cup of tea. Overly long sentences, formal constructions and clumsily expressed ideas are easily overlooked when you’re silently reading your work, but hard to miss when you’re speaking it. And a word to the wise: $50 words that you would never normally use in conversation don’t make you sound intelligent; they make you sound pompous. Change them to something simpler. On the other hand, don’t be too proud to look up words you aren’t completely sure of. Both you and your reader will benefit from the corrections you make to spellings and meanings.
Don’t stop to fix problems you run across as you read: just mark them on the fly, and come back to them after you finish reading. Once you make your revisions, read the article out loud again. Then, when you feel that you’ve given it your very best shot, submit your piece to your editor.
S/he will thank you for having taken this guide to heart.
Volunteer for Buddhist monastery program