Free Advice Friday: Streamlining Article Writing

What’s on the iPod: Timeless by The Airborne Toxic Event

I’m still on vacation, though I’m now south of the Canadian border. Because of my unusually heavy summer workload, I needed to step away for a full week. It’s a combination of detox and much-needed cleaning.

We talked a few weeks back about how to turn ideas into articles. Let’s continue down that path and see how we can simplify our article writing, which is a process I start at the idea stage.

I mentioned in the Ideas post that you should come up with questions. That, my friends, is where your streamlining starts and possibly ends, for good questions in your query make for excellent subheads later on.

Let’s use an example. This one shows the technique easily.(Because I know the editor and she and I chat about personal stuff, I did edit this a bit to stick to the point.) Here’s the original query, minus the greeting and the sign-off asking for the job:

Ebola. MERS. Avian influenza. Meningitis. These are just a
few of the current disease outbreaks as reported by the Centers for Disease
Control. And the fear of impending epidemic is driving up insurance prices
almost as much as the outbreaks themselves.
My article, The Next Pandemic, will detail the
pandemic/epidemic episodes and how they impact insurance. I’ll look at the
costs of outbreak, what diseases have the most impact on insurance, and what
insurers can do to help drive disease control. Some of the questions I plan to
ask are:
– What is a pandemic/epidemic?
– What’s trending now/what should be watched?
– How will insurers respond? Will coverage change and
insured requirements tighten?
– How are fears of these diseases (and risk aversion
methods) impacting the bottom line?

– To what extent can insurers become the gatekeepers or
change agents in the control of such outbreaks?

So how did this translate into an article? The entire article is here. But let’s look at each element separately.
The hook. That first paragraph was my article hook. How did it change? Turns out, only slightly:

Ebola. MERS. Avian influenza. Meningitis. These are the current disease outbreaks as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But what differentiates an outbreak from an epidemic from a pandemic is all in the semantics.

The subheads. So the first question? It became the first subhead, plus it became a discussion point.

Pandemic defined

But what is a pandemic? According to the WHO, a pandemic is “the worldwide spread of a new disease.” However, even WHO officials can’t agree on when to use the term. ….

The same for nearly every other question:

How insurers respond

When Ebola showed signs of spreading, a few insurers moved quickly to exclude coverage. …

Sound reasoning

Best practices for pandemics
What’s missing? The “What’s trending now” question. Why? Because in the opening paragraphs, I mention what’s trending — nothing. 

At this writing, there are no current pandemics, according to August Pabst, a spokesperson for USAID, a Washington, DC-based federal agency….

The same goes for the other questions not mentioned. In fact, not all of your questions need to be subheads. Use the ones you think make the strongest point and have the most information to convey to the readers.

A note about news that isn’t news:
I’ve seen plenty of writers make the mistake of dropping a question or idea from their final draft because either the source wouldn’t talk or the point they were trying to make didn’t amount to anything. Even the non-issue should be mentioned. I remember my managing editor saying how glad she was that I’d included a source’s quotes saying the topic wasn’t an issue. “That’s news, too!” she had said. It’s true — readers will undoubtedly want to know the same things you do, so include it if it’s relevant. Plus, if two experts are saying it’s a topic and one is saying it isn’t, it adds more credibility to the discussion.
That’s it. The idea isn’t revolutionary, nor is it a complex process. It’s stopping to think about how you’re going to approach the article before you have the assignment, and once you get used to writing this way (which should take you just one query), it takes no more time than it does to write any other query. In fact, it may actually save you a little time and wheel-spinning.
Writers, how do you streamline your query or article process?
What methods do you use to simplify any writing you do?

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  • Paula Hendrickson August 14, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    How I structure queries depends a lot on who I'm pitching.

    With most of my regular editors, I send a brief sentence noting the topic and angle. Occasionally I need to point out why the pitch is timely.

    With new-to-me editors, or people I've only worked with a couple of times, I'll list the questions, as you did, note what sources/interviewee I would use, and possibly note why the topic would be of interest to the magazine's subscribers.

    The only real difference is my long-time editors trust me to ask the right questions, so the pitch can be brief. But if it's an angle I don't think the editor will get right off the bat, I will include questions.

    You're right, Lori – asking those questions in the query make writing the article so much easier since you've got the lead, source list, and outline all on one page.

  • Lori Widmer August 14, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    You make a great point about experts, Paula. I do typically include them. For the example, I didn't. Probably the first time in ages, too. Usually I'll scare up some likely candidates and present them as "I will talk with experts such as…"

    You're right — when you work with an editor for a while, they trust you to know what to ask of whom.

  • Paula Hendrickson August 14, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    Exactly – I don't guarantee I'll get an expert. Or maybe I'll say, "I'll speak with experts from…" and name various companies, universities, or institutions.