How to write an article
Articles are published in the hundreds of thousands every day—in newspapers, in magazines, on the internet. Practically every literate person in the world has read one. But if you think it’s easy to whip out articles on a daily basis, think again. Like any other form of prose, it takes a fair deal of work to write an article, or at least one that does its job.
Having said that, it doesn’t take a Pulitzer winner to write a good article. In fact, article writing only boils down to a few simple rules. Let’s start with the basics.
What makes an article?
To qualify as an article, a piece of writing must have the following attributes:
- Nonfictional. An article tells facts and stories, nothing made up or make-believe. Fictional elements may be included, but your subject must be something real.
- Theme-based. Articles are part of a larger body of work, such as a newspaper or a website, working towards a given theme.
- Freestanding. Although they are part of a group, articles should also be able to stand on their own. They are written so that readers can read just one article and get the full story.
Some writers actually spend most of their time just deciding what to write about. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking; a good writer can craft unique articles from well-worn subjects. Avoid broad subjects such as interior design or mobile phones. Instead, find an angle for these topics that will appeal to a particular group of readers, such as interior design for green thumbs or phone accessories for geeks. Do some research to see which topics are widely discussed and which ones need more coverage.
Once you settle on a topic, it’s time to hit the books. Even if you’re an expert, you need to back up your information with credible sources. Highlight facts and ideas from your sources and narrow down until you’re left with the most relevant items. This is what actually goes into your article—and what you’ll be working on in the next step.
Structuring your article
Most articles follow the same basic format, known in publishing as the inverted pyramid. You start with the most important facts and arrange the rest in descending order of importance. This way, readers get the gist of the article without reading the whole piece. Like other writing forms, you’ve got your three basic parts: introduction, body, and conclusion.
- Introduction. The intro is meant to reel in the reader and give them an idea of what your article is about. This is where you put the most important and/or most interesting bits of information.
- Body. Usually the longest part of your article, the body expands on your main points and provides supporting details for your introduction. This should make up at least half the length of your article.
- Conclusion. Wrap up your article with a strong conclusion that summarizes your main points. Try linking back to a statement in your introduction. This creates a sense of balance and makes your article look more unified.
Of course, this format isn’t absolute. If the article calls for something more creative—and if you’re sure you can pull it off—go ahead and experiment with forms. Just remember that there are still rules to article writing. We’ll get to those in the next section.
The two golden rules
The first rule of good writing is to write for your medium. The second, which is harder to master, is to write for your reader. Once you get the hang of these two, the rest is just a matter of style. Here’s how you can write within the rules while keeping your piece readable.
Writing for your medium
The most common article mediums are newspapers, magazines, and the internet. Each one attracts a different set of readers and requires a different writing style. For example, news articles are straight to the point and almost always use the inverted pyramid. Magazines allow more creative freedom and a more casual tone. Online articles are much shorter, since there’s usually a whole range of media (pictures, music and video) to supplement your text.
In addition, each organization has its own house rules. Remember, an article is part of a larger body, so it has to follow a certain style and tone. Most publications will give you specific instructions on house style. If not, take the initiative and look it up yourself.
Writing for your audience
This is where it gets tricky. It’s easy to learn your medium, but getting to know your readers is a different matter. Your article should contain information that’s relevant to them. Put yourself in their shoes and think of the things you would want to know if you were a reader.
Here’s an example. You’re writing for a baseball magazine about a newly released baseball bat. Your research turns up an extensive record of the brand’s production, which you personally find fascinating. But if you were a typical reader—a baseball fan with just a passing interest in bats—would you be more interested in its production history or its swanky new features?
Language is another way to write for your reader. Write in a voice that your average reader would understand. For news articles, the rule is to write for a fourth grader; most mediums have adopted this rule as well. Avoid jargon unless you’re writing for experts or professionals (such as journal articles).
Some style tips
- Write a strong introduction that makes people want to read on.
- Keep articles short, unless you’re instructed otherwise. Most topics can be covered in 500 to 800 words.
- Create an outline and fill in sections with relevant data. Afterwards, you can simply work them into sentences.
- Leave your draft for a day before editing. The fresh perspective will help you spot more errors.
- Use humor to make highly technical topics more interesting.
- Write conversationally—it’s easier for you and for your reader.