Category Archives: Write regardless!

How to write excellent articles

TypeKeysFilledTHERE has never been a time when writers have more opportunity to put work in front of an audience hungry for information and entertainment. Publishing has become a simple matter of processing words and clicking a button. Nevertheless, I am passionate about keeping writing standards high.

Here’s some of what I have learnt about writing and editing features for the past ten years, some of them even published on paper!

Get to the point

Readers are fast and fickle. Good articles pose a question very quickly and get straight to the job of answering it. Even an essay on a complex subject matter will benefit from getting to the point nice and early. Readers can click away as fast as they found you. Engage from word one.

Add to the public record

One of the hallmarks of good journalism used to be standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. While the giants may now be in short supply, there’s no excuse for rehashing existing media. It’s a form of plagiarism, really. Reference what has come before, sure, but adding to the story will impress readers who know more about your subject than you do.

Let the reader connect  

Readers love to feel smarter than writers. While you may be able to construe every well-honed argument on your subject, your reader may feel bludgeoned by your intelligence unless you give them something to use their brains on. TV quiz shows always give viewers more time to answer the questions than the contestants. It makes the audience feel smart, and keeps them tuning in. Leave a few loose threads for your readers to connect.

Watch out for your writing patterns

While they usually serve us well, often our unique writing patterns suppress great subject matter with an overbearing style. Throw yourself off sometimes. Make your third paragraph your first, and see what happens.

Keep it simple

Feature writing is not fiction. Keep the adjectives at bay and don’t set the scene too much. You’ll generally be writing about someone else’s truth, not your own, so keep the language less flowery and more factual.

Stick to the facts

In Australia, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has a handy code of ethics some journos have been following as long as others have been ignoring it. It’s just about establishing the truth, truthfully. If your work ever gets picked up by media outlets, and you haven’t fact-checked it already, it, and you, are likely to get dropped like a hot potato. Commenters will rip you apart.

There’s always an angle you just cannot take

Almost every story I have covered has revealed a really interesting angle, what I’d call the ‘real story’, but, for various reasons (usually linked to advertising) cannot be published for fear of offending someone. People are fascinating, we have endless layers of secrets and lies, but if you’re only there to do a write up on their garden (because the sales reps owe them a favour, and you got the unenviable task), you’re hardly going to reveal the reason the garden is so amazing is because it was built on abundant political kick-backs. Stick to the tulips, take the money, and save your award-winning efforts for another time.

Don’t surprise your interviewees

Send them a transcript of what they said, if not a late edit of the whole piece, before publishing and/or submitting, with an invitation for them to amend anything inaccurate but nothing stylistic by a certain deadline. If they don’t get back to you, no problem, you have a paper trail showing they had their chance. Keep all your notes and recordings long after publication. Even the threat of litigation can be hurtful, worrying and expensive for writers.

FAITHFULL INTERVIEW Marianne Faithful playes second fiddle to journalist Lynn Barber in an interview (Photo: Reuters)
FAITHFULL INTERVIEW Marianne Faithful played second fiddle to journalist Lynn Barber in an interview (Photo: Reuters)

Should I be in the story?

The first piece I read in which the journo was the star was Lynn Barber’s profile on singer Marianne Faithfull. Faithfull behaved so badly in Barber’s eyes that the journalist made the first half of the profile about being kept waiting, and filled the second half with catty observations about failed celebrity. Yes, we now live in a world where so much of the media is ‘all about me’, but I believe it’s wise to walk the fine line between these two extremes, and think of the reader first. Unless we’re integral to the story, it’s probable the reader will be more interested in the subject than us. Barber won a British Press Award for that interview, but she has since received death threats, embargoes by other celebrities, and the publisher of one of her later interviews lost a 65,000-pound libel case for malicious falsehood. Putting yourself in an article has consequences, but Barber has often cited her Faithfull interview as a career highlight, so some outcomes can be career-building for journalists. Perhaps wait until you, and you employer, can afford a lawyer.

Stick to the word length

Even if you’re not writing for an editor, have a look at how many words constitutes a good article: they’re rarely over 800 words, and that’s diminishing each year. If an editor requests 800-1000 words, don’t submit 1250, saying, “I didn’t know where to cut”, because it’s annoying, lazy, and likely to see you overlooked for future work.

Read your own work

WRITE REGARDLESSMaybe you’re publishing on your own site. Maybe you’re writing for an editor. Whatever the case, read, read, and read your work. Chances are you’re the only editor your article will ever have. Make it accurate, grammatically correct, and spell-check. Think of your predecessors who never had the benefits of dynamic spelling!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

The call to action

UNCLE SAM WANTS you to get out of your comfort zone, for the sake of a good story (J.F. Flagg's 1917 poster).
UNCLE SAM WANTS you to get out of your comfort zone (J.F. Flagg’s 1917 poster).

THERE’S a nifty three-act dramatic structure, generally used by screenwriters (but drawn from the older five-act dramatic arc), which gets a plot moving a bit faster than a novel and contains a great plotting tool – the Call to Action.

One of the reasons we go to the movies, or distract ourselves by reading, is because we want to step outside our lives, temporarily, for entertainment.

It might sound incredibly obvious, but this distraction requires writers to create work so deliciously escapist that the reader/viewer is taken beyond the sphere of their own lives for a short time.

Writers don’t have to create an alternate universe (although some do, to great effect), we just need to suspend the reader’s disbelief. Even getting them a centimetre off the ground can be enough.

To achieve this disbelief, writers need to have their main character – the protagonist – step outside their world. The protagonist’s ‘call to action’ is the trigger for this step.

Situated at the heart of a plot’s exposition, the protagonist is going about the business of what seems like an average day, when something happens (an old friend calls with some unusual news; a car crashes into their front room; a stranger turns up at their door … it can be anything).

Those of us who live the average Western life, where most of our needs are taken care of, do not get wake-up calls like this, but we love to imagine what we would do if we did.

It’s this attractive energy that publishers, agents and eventually audiences crave, and it’s even become a marketing tool. It’s why we buy the book, or the movie ticket.

Now, I hear a bunch of literary fiction writers screaming: “Nooo, it’s all about the Art!”. Well, as a fan of literary fiction myself, I say let ’em scream: literary fiction writers need a call to action for their protagonist every bit as much as Agatha Christie did.

Would Nick Guest, the protagonist in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, have gone on such a compelling emotional journey had he simply moved out of the Fedden family’s house the minute their daughter Cat started cutting herself? (he wanted to).

Would Stevens, the Butler of Darlington Hall in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, have decided to take a car trip to visit Miss Kenton, the former Housemaid, had his new boss Mr Farraday not ordered him to take some time off ? (he didn’t want to).

Of course they wouldn’t. Had Nick moved out, and Stevens never gone away, both storylines would simply peter out. Neither piece of ‘Art’ would have garnered the critical and financial successes of their Booker Prize wins.

The protagonist’s call to action is linked to a plotting device covered in my posts on the dramatic structures of two films – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The Sum of Us. This is the compelling question needed in every plot’s exposition, in fact, they are almost one and the same: if you get the protagonist’s call to action right, a compelling question will naturally be posed.

CROSSING THE LINE Protagonist Nick Guest in the television adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty
CROSSING THE LINE Protagonist Nick Guest in the TV adaptation of The Line of Beauty (Photo: Nick Briggs).

By keeping Nick Guest in the Fedden’s home, exposing him to family secrets, and relying on his character’s already-established empathy, Hollinghurst poses the compelling question of his plot: When will the Feddens and their British upper class friends discover the reason for Nick’s empathy is his homosexuality?

By sending Stevens (who we already know is staid and a little unreliable in his recollections of his employment history) out into the world, Ishiguro poses his: Is Stevens so deluded he actually believes he can revive a stunted love affair that barely even began twenty years before?

Some authors, particularly crime writers, bury their protagonist’s call to action in mystery – a murder in the exposition is a particularly effective trigger for the most common of all plot questions – Whodunnit?

It’s for this reason that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are Christie’s great antagonists – they foil her murderers (read: protagonists) at each and every turn, showing how antagonists are also locked into the plot by the protagonist’s call to action.

WRITE REGARDLESSHead spinning? Just remember that plotting isn’t meant to be a formulaic set of rules. Stretching and manipulating these conventions, in interesting ways, is the real ‘Art’ of writing.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

The point of no return

NEW TERRITORY Luke Skywalker takes the news of his parentage badly in The Empire Strikes Back.
NEW WORLD Luke Skywalker takes the news of his parentage badly in the classic turning point of The Empire Strikes Back.

SOME call it the mid-point, some the climax, others the reversal of fortune. Whatever you label it, what every great storyline needs is a point of no return.

As writers, we need to take our protagonists and antagonists, and place them in an environment where nothing is the same as it was at the start of the story.

Seeing how they fare in the aftermath makes for gripping storytelling.

In the film Gone With the Wind (1939) screenwriter Sidney Howard (and an uncredited team of extra writers) used the same mid-point as the original novel’s author, Margaret Mitchell, in the scene where the southern city of Atlanta is burnt to the ground.

Filmed almost two months before principal photography began, and long before famous names were cast as the leads, the scene was shot when the old sets of the 1930s King Kong movie were sent up in flames. Such was the need for a spectacular climax to this epic story of the American Civil War.

BURNING BRIDGES Atlanta goes up in smoke in Victor Fleming's Gone With the Wind (1939).
BURNING BRIDGES Atlanta goes up in smoke in Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939).

In the wake of their escape from the city, no character in this story is the same – their world has turned upside down.

The formerly privileged Scarlett O’Hara needs to eke out an existence in the ruins of the war, and it is her climb back to wealth which occupies the central storyline from that point on.

In the original Star Wars (1977), Luke Skywalker is unwilling to leave his home planet Tatooine and travel with Obi-Wan Kenobi to support the rebel forces in their quest to overthrow Darth Vader and the Empire, that is, until he returns home to find that Imperial stormtroopers have killed his remaining family.

In one of this weighty science fiction franchise’s few moments of real pathos, Luke realises there is nothing for him at home anymore. His life will never be the same again, so he has nothing to lose in embarking on an interplanetary journey with powerful strangers.

And in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, self-doubt and hesitation become all too real in Shakespeare’s brilliant climax, when the tortured young prince lashes out at a silent observer behind a curtain, running it through with his sword, only to kill the earnest old courtier Polonius.

This grave error sets a tragic course for the rest of the play, and, after so much angst and inaction, is a devastating action which seals the fate of all the characters.

In a sense, attempting to write anything without a climax is always going to result in unresolved issues in a plot. Without the crucial mid-point, our protagonists remain untested and static.

The term ‘mid-point’ is often used for this moment because a climax should generally occur in the midst of proceedings, after the characters have been established in the audiences’ or readers’ minds, once we’ve formed opinions and loyalties about them, and experienced their pathways ignited by the ‘rising action’ of the plot.

Place a climax too early, and we risk having nowhere to go in a storyline. Place it too late, and we risk losing the interest of the audience or reader.

A point of no return need not be some sudden sequence where our characters survive a nuclear event (although action movies regularly place their protagonists in such external extremes, to great effect), it could be an internal crisis – an upsetting diagnosis, a letter containing bad news, or a guilty verdict in the dock.

WRITE REGARDLESSBurn your character’s bridges, cast them loose in undiscovered country, and record their responses to the shock. It can feel cruel, especially if you’ve travelled with them for some time, but go on, it’s make believe after all, and if the point of no return unsettles you, it’s bound to make your audience feel something too.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!