Sometimes being an editor means you have to be heartless.
But this is really just the reality of “the business”. Time is limited, and so is publication space. There’s a certain standard that you set when you run your own website or online magazine, and only those who meet that minimum standard get to have their work published.
I help run an online Malaysian students’ magazine. We get submissions from many hopeful student writers who intend to have their work published online or to become regular contributors. It was only when I was tasked with selecting which writer hopefuls would get their articles published, did I realise and appreciate how difficult it actually is to write good articles.
So I’ve decided to compile this list of the general rules that I stick to when it comes to writing articles:
1. Say more, with less
It sounds cliché, but short, sweet and succinct is really the way to go. They teach you all the wrong things in school, because there you were indoctrinated to believe that the quality of your piece is positively correlated with the length of the piece. As you grow older and proceed further in education, you soon learn that being able to say more, with less, is a gift and an enviable skill.
Unless you are doing so for artistic purposes, avoid the temptation to indulge in using long, flowery sentences. Cut straight to the point, don’t waste words. Readers are likely to be put off by unnecessarily long sentences that don’t add any value to an article but serve only to prolong it.
2. Make your opening paragraph count
As painful as it sounds, as a general rule, if the opening paragraph of an article fails to grab me, it is unlikely that the rest of the article would succeed in doing so. When you’ve grown accustomed to reading others’ work, just from the first paragraph alone you realise that you pick up on the overall flow, tone, and pace of the entire article.
That’s why people say the opening is the most important part of the piece. It either puts readers off or makes them want to read on. It’s like the foreplay that’s supposed to get you excited for the actual sex.
3. Big words don’t always make your article better
Okay. Part of “saying more, with less” means you need to have a decently-sized vocabulary. Why waste words typing “X was being mean to Y just because of Y’s race”, when you can say, “X was racist towards Y”? But this doesn’t give you the license to use every word that you think is cool on the thesaurus or dictionary. Readers can easily tell if you’re using big words just to sound impressive or if you’re using them because they’re actually appropriate – don’t make them think that you’re doing the former.
4. When you’ve chosen your topic, stick to it
Laser-sharp focus on your chosen topic is essential to writing an article. You need to pick one particular aspect and talk about it. You can’t start off talking about human rights and then the next paragraph you’ve jumped to animal rights. Half the battle is knowing what to write and how to expand upon it sufficiently. Keep in mind also that an article is not a blog post. You are allowed to pen YOUR thoughts on the topic ONLY IF IT IS RELEVANT.
Refer back to the original intent of your article – what are you trying to tell your readers? If your article is a guide to scholarship applications for example, it would be relevant to tell your readers how you handled the selection stages, but why is it of relevance as to how impatient you felt while waiting for your turn? Irrelevant information can disrupt the flow of the article and make it extra laborious to read. Your job is to make things as easy as possible for the reader. Stick with the intent of your article and as long as you don’t wander off from it, you’re good to go.
5. Engage with the readers
At risk of sounding like some mythical voodoo doctor here, your article needs to come alive. Somehow, someway, when people read it they need to hear your voice speaking. There is a time and place for articles to be neutral-sounding (i.e. news articles or perhaps research articles whose purpose is to present academic ideas rather than assert a particular message) but opinion pieces are certainly not the time. You have to inject your articles with personality, BUT without compromising on the substance of the article. Your voice as a writer needs to work WITH the content rather than disrupting it. This is a tricky balance but you will master it with more –
Old-fashioned and obvious, but solid advice. The more you write, the better you’ll get. Let’s face it – nobody’s first article is golden. The first time you write something for other people to read, it is going to suck, somehow. But just keep at it. Let other writers read your work – both the new and the more experienced – and see what they think. Absorb the feedback and the advice. Eventually your own writing style will emerge and you’ll develop your own niche and a gallery of articles to call your own.
So now that you’ve come to the end of reading THIS article, open that freaking word processor and start typing out your own. NOW.