The Write Stuff: So, you want to write an article

By David Flin


If you’re reading this, you’ll be aware of these blog musings by an assortment of enthusiasts on a variety of subjects relating to Alternate History. Some writers make producing a 1000 to 2000-word article seem almost effortless, and this can be very dispiriting to those who have to work at it, and who aren’t sure what to say, or how to say it.

Articles can vary in structure, according to the writer and the subject, but in general, an article is broken into three sections: there’s the introduction, or teaser, which will typically take about 10% of the word count. Then there’s the main body, which is the bulk of the article, and finally the conclusion, which will again take about 10% of the word count.

Or, if you prefer: First tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then tell them it. Then finally, tell them what you told them. Ten, eighty, ten.

Obviously, that’s very much an oversimplification, and circumstances may be different for different articles, but it is the classical structure of an article.

However, knowing a structure is only one small step. A more important question is how does one actually work out what to say? That’s what I’ll be looking at.

(Note to the Reader. That came in at 204 words. I told you what I’m going to tell you. We now move into telling you it.)

The first part of writing an article is having something to say. I know it sounds obvious, but it is a bit of a necessity. You also need to make sure that what you want to say isn’t too large or too small a subject for 2000 words. Ensure your article length is appropriate. Most people will have difficulty squeezing: “The entire history of the 20th Century for the whole world” into 2000 words. On the other hand, “The role of fashion photography in OTL Anglo-Saxon England, 900-1066AD” is likely to be a bit on the brief side, even for 1000 words.

You also need to make sure that what you want to say is something that the readership might be interested in. For example, I could write a 2000-word article on the differences between the GT26 gas turbine and the GT26 HE gas turbine, but I rather suspect that few people on this website would care.

As you’ve seen from the previous articles here, there is a huge range of potential topics, from the very specific and detailed, such as Paul Hynes’ series on Barbarossa , through to a broader-brush look at a wider topic, such as Andy Cooke’s series on Five xxxx that nearly were. Topics have ranged from detailed looks at history or alternate history, to more general articles about how to improve writing skills.

One of the fundamental pieces of advice given to any writer, especially one just starting out, is: “Write about what you know.” That’s especially true when writing an article intended to inform. It might be about a period of history, or a particular subject, or a person, or an event. For example, the forum member USSManhattan has extensive knowledge on the RMS Titanic. I’ve studied the Battle of Mount Harriet during the 1982 Falklands War, including one of the very first battlefield tours of that particular struggle.

Whatever the subject matter, the next step is to work out what you want to cover in the article. Let’s say, for example, that you want to look at the social implications of a well-known song, reputedly in English.

Oh, lads, ye shud a seen us gannin’ Passin’ the foaks alang the road just as they wor stannin’; All the lads and lasses there, all wi’ smilin’ faces, Gannin’ alang the Scotswood Road To see the Blaydon Races.

The article might then look to see if there was any significance to the date of the 9th of June, 1862. Taking a bus from Balmbra’s may or may not have some local relevance, and perhaps a look at Collingwood Street as it might have been on that day. Airmstrang’s factory is, of course, self-evident, but we might look at how significant the factory was at the time the song is set. The Robin Adair might reasonably be assumed, from context, to be an inn of some description, but this could bear investigation, and why this particular one was chosen, other than for the rhyme and scansion of the song.

When we gat the wheel put on, away we went agyen But them that had their noses broke, they cam back ower hyem Sum went to the dispensary, an’ uthers to Doctor Gibbs An’ sum ta the infirmary to mend their broken ribses.

Who was Doctor Gibbs? Was he an actual person?

One can work through the rest of the song, analysing the social context of each element. Depending on how this has gone, you might want to indicate how it might vary in an alternate timeline, or maybe how it could be used, in a disguised fashion elsewhere. It’s actually a very adaptable little ditty, and with a pace rate of 120 beats per minute, makes a fine marching song.

That gives us the concept for the article. In this case, it’s an article on the value of Blaydon Races in an alternate history. The next stage, if you’re inexperienced in such things, is to jot down a few notes on things you feel worth covering. You’ll quickly find out what you’ve got a lot of notes on, and where your notes are thin. You might have a lot of notes on the sites and people mentioned in the song, and very little on similar tunes of the period. Once you’ve got your notes, you can shuffle them around to make a logical order. You might decide that, because you’ve got a lot on the background details referenced, that is where you’ll concentrate the article.

You’ve got your notes in a logical order. When I do this, I write them on bits of paper, so that I can physically shuffle them around. If I know that Doctor Gibbs and Jackie Broon were well-known personalities, then I might want to link them, even though they appear in different places in the song. You might want to take the trouble to toss in a little joke about the dialect, which is an essential part of the song. For example, you might tell the tale of the Geordie Sergeant with the American cavalry during the days of the Wild West. In the distance, they hear the Apache drums, and the Captain says, gravely: “Sergeant, they’re playing war drums.”

Naturally, the Geordie Sergeant replies: “Playing wor drums? The thieves.”

Granted this is a joke that will go over the head of anyone who doesn’t speak Geordie, but anyone who has got this far into the article probably can at least work it out. Or perhaps I should say: “Work toot.”

That gives us the structure for the article. The next stage is to consider how we’re going to link each section of the article together. At present, we’ve got several blocks of information, and these need a logical link, so that the piece flows naturally from one piece of information to the next. You’ll notice that I put a little joke (Ed: Very little) between the section on making notes on the pieces of information to be covered, and this section on linking these together. It’s there as a break for the reader, subconsciously telling them that we’re moving on.

Now, based on our original word estimate and target of 2000 words, this central section should be around 1600 words long, and we’re at just over 1000 words for it, which gives me just enough space for my final points here.

The next point is to keep an eye on the word count. Some people, like myself, allocate a notional word count to each section. That can change, but it lets me know whether or not I’m running ahead of or behind schedule.

You’ve got your sections. You’ve got your information. You know the flow of the piece. You know how you’re going to link everything together. Now all you need to do is write it. By this point, the writing part is easy. You know what you’re going to say, it’s just a matter of saying it.

The purpose of writing an article is to communicate with the readers. It’s not to show off your facility with vocabulary and clever use of grammar, to demonstrate how superior you are with manipulating language and make people realise that you are cleverer than they are when writing. If you want to do that, write poetry or avant garde literature. An article is to communicate information to the reader. No more, no less.

Use plain, simple words that convey what you’re trying to say in a plain, simple way. The best articles leave the reader thinking that this writing lark must be easy. Granted, you need to be careful to avoid ambiguity, and sometimes context is important. In a science fiction tale: “Her world exploded” could mean that she was badly upset over something, or it could mean that she was Princess Leia watching the destruction of Alderaan.

But the general rule is to keep everything as clear and as clean as possible. The basics of writing very much apply. Don’t try to shove too many clauses into a sentence. Don’t use unfamiliar words unless it is absolutely necessary for precise meaning. As an example of that, in normal writing, stress and strain are almost interchangeable terms. In engineering, they both have very precise and very different meanings.

That means you need to know the readership. Well, obviously. If you don’t know your readership, you can’t communicate effectively with them.

Finally, don’t worry about getting it perfect. It won’t be perfect. That doesn’t matter. If you spend your time getting it perfect, it will never see the light of day. Perfection is the enemy of great. I work to deadlines. I get it as good as I can by the deadline, and then I’m finished with it. Whatever you do, it won’t be perfect. Don’t worry about it.

I notice that my middle section has now hit my word count limit, and I’ve covered all my main points. That means that it’s now time for me to summarise.

The art to writing an article is working out what you want to say; working out what areas you need to cover in saying it. Then you need to organise it into a logical order, sort out the links, and then just write in as easy a manner as you can manage. It really is that simple. If I can do it, it can’t be difficult.

There’s just one last thing; how to close the piece. I think, in this instance, I really need to leave the final word with the Blaydon Races.

The rain it poor’d aw the day an’ myed the groons quite muddy Coffy Johnny hed a white hat on – they war shootin’ “Whe stole the cuddy.” There wes spice stalls an’ monkey shows an’ aud wives selling ciders, An’ a chep wi’ a happen roond aboot, shootin’ “Noo, me boys, for riders.”

Who can argue with that?

In my next article in this series, I suppose I had better look into the use of dialect.

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