From time to time, people write to me suggesting ideas for an article. If I think they have merit, I put them on what I call my "short list" (the quotations are because the short list is anything but short these days). One topic that's been on my short list for many years is a column about writing columns. I've been the author of Making Magic since 2002 and I wrote multiple columns as well as many articles in The Duelist for many years before that, so it's definitely something I've had some experience with.



So for my article today, I am going to talk about the dos and don'ts of writing an article. For those who are interested in writing, this hopefully will give you some things to think about. For those of you who have no interest in writing, you can consider this a behind-the-scenes article on Making Magic. I plan to share some of my tricks along the way. That said, let's get started.



Here are some things you need to think about when making an article:



#1: Choose a Good Title



Let's start at the very beginning. Your article should have a title. The title has basically one job. That job is to convince people to read your article. Your article can be awesome but if no one reads it, it won't matter. I have the luxury of having a column, which means that many people come here each week having no idea what the column is about and reading it anyways. Nonetheless, I am trying to get every one possible who visits DailyMTG.com to click on my article, so my title is important.



#2: Use a Thesis Paragraph



See up above. Those first two paragraphs of this column are what we call a thesis paragraph. They start the article by explaining what it's about. (Why did I have two paragraphs and not one, so I could have a single thesis paragraph rather than two thesis paragraphs? I'll get to this in a minute.) The thesis paragraph is important because it helps set up the structure of your article.



Your audience comes in cold. Your readers don't know anything. Okay, hopefully your title gave them a hint (see above). You need to transition them. This is true not just of writing but of teaching as well. One of the things teachers are taught is that the first thing you do is explain to your students what you are about to teach them. The same is true for writers.



Material is better absorbed if the audience can self-prep. The goal of a good article isn't to confuse readers but to guide them through the material. To do that, you have to make sure they understand what it is you are talking about.



#3: Be Conscious of Physical Presentation



Some of writing is art and some is craft. This lesson is a craft one. One of the most important things you can do to make your writing approachable has nothing to do with the words, but rather with how you present them. The trick to this section is understanding two things: mental load and aesthetics.



Mental load is how much a person can mentally process at any one time. If you try to make people process more than they are comfortable with, the most common response will be for their minds to shift to something else. When reading an article, mental overload tends to lead to people either skimming or leaving your article all together.



Aesthetics has to do with the mind appreciating what is being presented. The mind has certain preferences that lead it to favor certain qualities over another. Aesthetics becomes important here because it is another factor that has to do with whether or not a reader becomes comfortable with what he or she is reading. Discomfort will lead to readers stopping, and, as a writer, that isn't the impact you want your article to have.



#4: Stick To Your Topic



You begin your article by explaining what you are going to be talking about. The next tip is quite simple—talk about that subject and only that subject. This might sound simplistic, but one of the biggest mistakes novice article writers have is a lack of focus. Good writers might make the words sound organic, as if they are thinking them up as you read them—but behind the scenes, each word choice, each sentence choice, each paragraph choice needs to be carefully thought out.



In my screenwriting class, my professor taught us that "No line is worth the scene, no scene is worth the movie." What that means is that even if you have the best, wittiest, most memorable line, you don't put it into a scene if it doesn't work for that scene. Likewise, you might have the most heart wrenching, the funniest, the most amazing scene you have ever written, but if it doesn't advance the movie, it has to go. Writing articles is no different. You need to stick to your topic and every element of your article needs to advance that article. If the piece in question can be removed and the article works without it, remove it.



Yet another quote from one of my writing professors: "Writing is hard. Rewriting is brutal." After you finish writing your article, you have to rewrite it. It's during this rewrite that you have to be critical and second guess every decision you made during the initial writing. The key to rewriting properly is to always keep in your mind what it is your article is about and cut anything that isn't advancing that agenda.



#5: Connect Your Topic to Your Reader



Whenever there is a major news story, what does your local news outlets do? They try to find local angles. They find a citizen of your city who might have been there. They try to figure out what impact that event will have on the city. The get local reactions to that event. Why does every local newscast do that? Because they understand the point I'm about to make.



People care more if the thing in question has some personal tie to them. Things that happen to other people are not as compelling as something that could happen to them. Article writing is no different. If you want your readers to care more, you have to figure out why what you are writing is going to matter to them. An important part of your job as the writer is to find a way to make the topic resonate with readers.



Take this article, for example. I know by the very fact that you are reading this that you read articles. When I start breaking it down, I am giving you all an insight into a process I know you participate in. Even if you are not a writer, it's interesting to see behind the scenes in how something you are involved in comes together.



No matter what the topic, there is some way to find the universal truth in it. That's what good writers do. They take the topic at hand and make sure that it is something the reader will be able to identify with. In fact, the key to being a good writer is having the ability to understand what it is about your topic readers will want to invest themselves in.



What this all means is that when you are writing an article, you have to always ask yourself why the readers will care? What is it about the topic at hand that will connect your topic to your audience? If you do not know that answer, you need to keep looking until you figure it out.



#6: Understand Your Tone



Not only should your article have a single topic, but it also needs to have a single tone. What do I mean by that? When you write an article, it's not just what you write but how you write. The words do not exist within a vacuum. How you choose to string your words together will create a context. What mood are you trying to create? How do you want to convey what you have to say? What is the response you are hoping to evoke from your readers?



In communication school we studied a man named Marshall McLuhan, a philosopher of communication theory. He is probably most famous for the quote "the medium is the message." What the quote means is that the means by which you communicate is as much what you are communicating as the message within the communication. "How" matters as much as "what."



What this means is that you have to think not just of what you are trying to say but you have to care about how you say it. I will use my column as an example. Let's say, one week, I want to talk about a serious topic, perhaps a big change coming to Magic. The next week, I want to share stories about Magic R&D from the wild early days of the game. The way I want to write each of those two articles is very different.



The first article requires a very serious tone. I don't want to be cracking jokes or making a lot of asides. I need to use very precise language and be straightforward in my presentation. The second article wants to be more informal. I'm telling stories, so I want to be conversational, and having a lighter tone will enhance the article. The word choice, the sentence design, the paragraph composition, the overall structure of the article, the images, the examples, the takeaways (I'll get to this one in a moment)—all of these will vary greatly from week one to week two because the tone for each article will be very different.



This lesson is just saying to make sure that not only do you need to figure out your topic ahead of time, but you must also figure out your tone. How are you going to convey the subject you wish to write about? The answer to this question will shape many decisions you make while writing.



#7: Make Use of Examples



The metaphor is a very powerful tool. Why? Because it is what is known as a bridging tool. I have something I want to explain to you but I'm not sure if you'll understand it. So what do I do? I find an example of something I believe you do know and then explain the new thing through the lens of the old thing. The metaphor bridges the new with the old.



Examples in your writing serve the same purpose. You are trying to explain things in your writing and often your readers will not be able to connect. The key to making this connection is to bring in examples. For instance, notice how I started this section. I had to explain something, so I used an example to explain it. I knew most of my readers would be familiar with metaphor so I used it as a tool to make my point.



Don't be afraid to use examples. Don't be afraid to use more than one example. Don't be afraid to use pictures. Don't be afraid to use any tool in your tool bag to make sure that your audience gets the point you are trying to make. Remember that the number one goal of an article is to communicate with your readers. To do that, make use of the tools available to make sure they understand what you are talking about.



It doesn't matter how eloquent you say what you have to say. If the reader doesn't understand what it is you are saying, it is all for nothing.



#8: Have Takeaways



Here's a metric that I think every author should have when writing an article. Did your readers leave with more than they came with? Did the act of reading your article imbue them with something that they can apply to their lives? Are their lives any different for having read your article?



Note that it doesn't have to be a big thing. I'm not saying you have to make your readers reevaluate aspects of their lives, but I am saying that you should be able to offer your readers something tangible to take away from the read. It could be an idea. It could be a suggestion. It could be a tip. It could be something to stew on.



The issue here is that if you want your article to make an impression, you have to offer something readers can apply to their own lives. The professor who taught me this (if nothing else, this article will demonstrate I took a lot of writing classes) called them takeaways. Every piece of writing, she said, should give your readers something to take away to their own lives.



The reason this is so important is because it elevates your writing. If your readers are able to leave with a takeaway, you have done something very important. You have managed to use your words to impact another person's life. That is indeed a noble gesture and something every writer should aspire to.



Remember that I'm not saying the takeaway has to be a great revelation. Just give your readers something to think about. It is human nature that they will then take that and apply it to their own lives. And trust me, there is no greater compliment you will receive as a writer than when someone explains to you the impact your writing has had on them.



How exactly can you make a takeaway? Let me gives some examples:



You can give them information they did not know before.

You can teach them how to do something.

You can help them reexamine something in a new light.

You can introduce them to another source of enlightenment, such as a book or a movie.

You can share with them something in your own life and explain how you dealt with it.

You can make them remember a memory.

You can tell them a joke they can tell others.

You can share a story they can share with others.

You can make them think.

There are so many ways to add a takeaway to your writing. Doing so will elevate your writing from something the reader interacts with to something that affects them.



#9: Use Yourself



What is the one thing you have as a writer that no other writer has? You. The one thing you bring to the article that no one else can is your own unique perspective. You should try to make use of this advantage.



Another way to think of it is this: If you can take an article you wrote and scratch off your name and no one could recognize that it was your article, what are you doing as a writer? The goal of each and every article is to write something only you could write. That means using your perspective and your voice and pulling examples from your life.



When you sit down to write an article, don't just think about what the article has to say. Think about what you have to say. Why are you writing that article? What purpose does it serve? Why are you the one to be writing it?



With this lesson, I want to say to every writer out there—step up. If you're going to write, make it something not only worth reading about but worth writing about. The best writing comes when writers put themselves into their writing.



As an example, I have written about all sorts of things from my life—my dating foibles,



my time in Hollywood, my courtship with my wife, my wedding, my kids. I've walked through life lessons, resolutions, my highs, my lows. I've shared a lot. Why? Because I wanted to make a connection. I wanted to write something that no one else could and share it with all of you.



I firmly believe, as a result of those risks, I've managed to connect with a lot of readers, some of whom have been reading this column for over ten years. I am confident the day I hang up the pen, I will be able to do so knowing that I wrote because I had something to say, something to teach, something to share. I will know that I poured my life and soul into my writing and was a better person for doing so. If you're going to write, please aim no lower.



#10: Write A Concluding Paragraph



You always want to start by explaining what you're going to say and always end by reminding them what you said. While the middle gets to wildly vary from article to article, your start and finish want to most often (there will be special reasons to break the structure—such as this and this and this) be consistent and expected. Never underestimate the importance of a comforting structure.



For any writers reading today's article, hopefully, these ten lessons will have an impact on how you think about your writing and possibly give you a takeaway or two for the next time you pick up the pen (or more likely the keyboard). For the non-writers reading this, I hope today's article gave you a little better insight what I'm up to week to week.



As always, thanks for joining me today. I am particularly interested in your feedback on today's article, as it was a little bit different. You can email me through the link at the bottom of the page, respond in the thread to this article, or talk to me through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram). I am extra interested to hear what you thought of today's article.



How To Write An Article Writing Is Thinking
How To Write An Article
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2014-10-01