Ten Rules to Easy Pieces

December 3rd, 2007

Once in a while I’m asked to write an article — short, nonfictional, and presumably interesting. Here are my ten rules, or, rather suggestions, for this kind of writing — suggestions that might make the whole operation easier and more productive.

1. Say “no” unless the piece is about something that actually interests you. The odds are extremely good that you won’t be able to interest a reader in a topic that doesn’t actually interest you. Enthusiasm is contagious, and so is lack of enthusiasm.

2. Open Google in an extra window. Got a question? Need to know when construction started on Mont St. Michele or when Scott and Zelda landed in Paris? Get the answer and move on.

3. Organize it in your mind first. (Or you can do it on paper.) However many words you’re writing, here’s a good breakdown: Ten percent for introduction and “hook” to capture the reader; 25% to set the stage and provide basics (where it is, what it is, when it happened, what you’re trying to do); 50% for getting through that material as interestingly as possible (see below); and 15% for a graceful and maybe even surprising closing. If you’re doing a 1,500-word piece and you’re still in the introductory section at word 420, you probably ought to get moving.

4. Envision your reader constantly. This holds true throughout the piece, but it’s especially urgent when you write the opening paragraphs. In essence, these paragraphs have to say, “Here’s something you’ve never thought about and may not be interested in, but I’m going to tell you about it anyway, and in a way that will persuade you to put your whole life on hold and read this entire article.” Essentially, in those opening paragraphs you’re leaning over a campfire, looking your reader in the eyes, and saying, “Here’s something that’ll interest you.” And then you deliver — how?

5. Start with a detail. There’s no better way to hook a reader than to open with a snapshot of something surprising, or a bit of human behavior that demands explanation. It’s easy to build on those kinds of openings. And they can help you find a closing, as suggested a few points below.

6. Ask yourself repeatedly, “what’s interesting here?”. Okay, so there’s no way around some statistics about the population changes in three small Chinese towns in 1876. Do you have a human story about the waxing or waning of those towns? Probably. Use it.

7. Keep the thread taut. That’s the thread between you and the reader. This is actually a variation on asking yourself what’s interesting, but it also includes looking at your tone and style and making sure you’re doing everything in the way you’re telling the story — working, in other words, to keep that person reading.

8. When in doubt, forget the length limitation. Having trouble maintaining a taut thread? Lost in a morass of uninteresting facts? Beginning to wonder why you ever said you’d write the piece? Well, forget all about how it’s supposed to be 1500 words, and just write anything and everything that comes to you, no matter how idiotic or inelegant it may seem. This process is called (by me, at least) “circling the drain.” Almost invariably you’ll start out in some prosaic, low-rent suburb of your idea and gradually circle in until you have what you want. Then highlight it — use red type or something — and move on, while you can still feel the electricity. DON’T stop and cut the deadwood. You can do that later.

9. Finish “up”. Unless you’re writing about something genuinely tragic, try to leave the reader feeling good. One time-tested closing technique is so simple people often forget it exists — complete the story you began in the lead. If you start a piece, say, about child services bureaucrats with the story of a child taken from her parents, finish with the resolution. If that doesn’t work, find a grace note to end on — but be careful about the phony positive resolution that comes out of nowhere and seems to beg for a Mantovani sound track. If you’ve seen Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons,” that’s a perfect example — an ending that was reshot and pasted on to Welles’ film by studio execs who just wanted a happy ending. And it’s got strings behind it, too.

10. Have fun. If you’re not enjoying writing it, why should anyone enjoy reading it?

2 Responses to “Ten Rules to Easy Pieces”

  1. Stephen Cohn Says:

    You’re a generous man to share all this. It’s fascinating how much of this can be applied to writing music. Thanks for the tips.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks for dropping by, Stephen. Some time we should get back to the talk we were having about the creative process — how it’s the same, and how it’s different — for different art forms. I think it’s a fascinating subject.

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