There are countless articles online about how to write well, and most of them recommend starting with some sort of structure, outline or formula. Sure, you can follow their advice, but to me it’s all just a bunch of poppycock.
Here’s why. First of all, it makes no sense to start with a plan for your article because you need to have an idea to write about before you break it down piece by piece. So from the get-go the “start with a plan” approach is flawed. While putting so much weight on following a step-by-step process, the many “how to write” articles breeze past the first and perhaps most important step: the inception and development of an idea. One does not simply walk into an article without first having an idea. This is folly.
Second of all, ideas change quite a bit as a writer develops them. While doing everything right in the “writing process,” his original idea could morph into something else completely unanticipated. Whatever structure he started with he will thus have to abandon.
So how do you come up with a good idea and develop it into an article that readers will love and bookmark? I’m glad you asked. That’s what this article is about.
The Idea’s Wild Journey to Become an Article
Several years ago one of my editors let me borrow her copy of William Zinsser’s book, On Writing Well. It gives sound advice on how to write more clearly, and then helps writers find their individual voice. For some writers, just learning how to write more clearly is good enough for them. I get it. A clearly conveyed idea--no matter how dull--can be very useful. So be it: pragmatism has reduced writing to the clear communication of ideas (and hardly anything more than that).
But, as Zinsser infers, good literature doesn’t stop there. Truly good literature is authentic. It bucks a trend or two. It's a natural current that sweeps the reader away. It takes practical wisdom from everyday life and mixes it with wonder.
Some writers like to build their writings like a house; brick by brick, wall by wall, all according to the blueprint. OK, fine, let them do all the structuring they want; but they shouldn't try to dictate the art form. Their techniques may be effective for content marketing, but good literature digs deeper. It flows like a river; that way the explorer (the reader) is held in greater suspense, and wants to read on for what he may discover around the bend. Yes, the river has some rapids and even some shallow marshes, but it's all part of a purposeful, mysterious design that attracts all sorts of life and cities along its banks.
You may disagree, and that’s fine. Making sure an article has good structure may work for you, but it’s not the only way to write. Sometimes the ebb and flow of a writer’s spirit is too strong to contain within a neatly-structured piece, and you have to just let the current take it. In the end the river will wash away all the chaff in his rambling, but the rambling is part of the process more often than not.
The thing that matters is the rhythm of the piece. Does one thought flow seamlessly into the next? Do the thoughts build upon each other as the river gains momentum? Does the momentum take the reader to a opening of a great ocean of more ideas?
A Word About Crafting (which isn’t the same as structuring) an Article
With all this downplaying of structure’s importance, you may think I’m saying you don’t have to work hard to make an article great. Make no mistake, I’m not proposing an easy way out. Writing is hard work no matter what route you take. You may have a diamond of an idea, but you still have to cut it out of the rough rock.
“I saw the angel in the marble, and carved until I set him free.” --Michelangelo
If you’re like me, when you have a good idea you go crazy and just start free writing: jotting down the first thing that pops into your head for about ten minutes, or until you run out of steam. There’s nothing wrong with starting this way. It’s therapeutic to just get it all out. Some thoughts you can actually use will come out of this brainstorm of words.
But the words springing from your free writing will not be your article. It’s the fun part, it’s the release of stress and pressure in the brain. Probably at least a third of it should be tossed out eventually. Don’t think of this as a bad thing; don’t think the free writing was a waste of time. A writer’s relationship with his words is like a romance. After the steamy passion of free writing dies down, the real work begins. A writer could then pack up and leave, vowing that it’s just not worth the struggle to hone his words into something substantial; or he can vow to stay with his words until they bring forth life, and raise them up into something great.
Now Back to Criticizing Structure
Literature, or at least good literature, isn’t supposed to be technical like a manual; it’s not supposed to explain how to complete a task. Good literature is about individual circumstances. It gets the reader so caught up in the moment he forgets about his own situation, and becomes immersed in the writer’s reality. He may not relate to the author at all, and he’s completely OK with that. In fact, he often chooses to read something with hopes to escape his own life and enter into something different, or even strange to him. When he relates to good literature, it is because he has put his concerns aside for the moment to give the task of reading its due attention, and in the midst of losing himself while reading he discovers a deeper truth about himself. In most good pieces of literature, the reader gets lost in the work and then finds himself again.
For the reader, this makes for an enjoyable experience; but for the truly passionate writer trying to learn from the writer he’s reading, it’s a nightmare. Since good writing is born from the writer’s unique experiences, it’s near impossible to reverse engineer. If I borrow the writing style and techniques of another writer, it will wreak of banality. Yet style mimicking has become endemic in the world of online content. Copywriters find a style and structure that works, and they just repeat it over and over. If I read one more headline like, “__ Ways to _______ Your ______” or a similar variation, I may lose hope in humanity.
If you really want a writer to help you write, the best she can do is tell you what worked for her. One writer’s advice on how to write better is just one writer’s advice. They may be after different goals than you, they may have different backgrounds and enjoy different styles of writing--which will inevitably influence the way they write.
Blaze a Trail
The ocean of online content is full of articles that will gladly offer you free advice on how to write well, or reach any goal for that matter, and they’ll even promise great results for good measure. My only advice is to take such advice with a grain of salt. We reach our goals in the creative world by finding our own way, by finding out what works for us. We can take bits and pieces of advice from others who’ve been successful, but take too much and you may lose sight of your own journey in the process.
The world doesn’t just need another writer who understands the process of writing or some secret path to creativity. The world needs you: your way, your approach, your words, your story. Self-expression is the only path to creativity that has ever existed. No one else can show you your way, and no one else can offer you your words. They have to resonate with your uniqueness. The best others can do is give you the raw material you need for the journey. Your job is to go out into the unforgiving wilderness of words, chisel your way through writer’s block, and come out the other end with your own voice, your own style, your own unique ideas and insights on life.
What the world needs is a writer with a refreshing outlook on life, someone whose words cut through the baloney and serve up truth, words as sharp and precise as a needle tip. Go find those words. Find that voice. Find your originality. The world will thank you.