From time to time, people write to me suggesting ideas for an article. If I think they have merit, I put them on what I call my "short list" (the quotations are because the short list is anything but short these days). One topic that's been on my short list for many years is a column about writing columns. I've been the author of Making Magic since 2002 and I wrote multiple columns as well as many articles in The Duelist for many years before that, so it's definitely something I've had some experience with.
So for my article today, I am going to talk about the dos and don'ts of writing an article. For those who are interested in writing, this hopefully will give you some things to think about. For those of you who have no interest in writing, you can consider this a behind-the-scenes article on Making Magic. I plan to share some of my tricks along the way. That said, let's get started.
Here are some things you need to think about when making an article:
#1: Choose a Good Title
Let's start at the very beginning. Your article should have a title. The title has basically one job. That job is to convince people to read your article. Your article can be awesome but if no one reads it, it won't matter. I have the luxury of having a column, which means that many people come here each week having no idea what the column is about and reading it anyways. Nonetheless, I am trying to get every one possible who visits DailyMTG.com to click on my article, so my title is important.
Here are some things to think about when choosing your title:
Does it explain what you article is about?
Look at today's article. It's about as blunt as it can be. I'm not always this blunt but you can usually guess the theme of the article from the title, most likely because I literally put the word that matters in it. Next week, for example, is God Week. I guarantee you the word "God" will be in the title. It will be a pun or a pop culture reference most likely (a writer has to have his or her gimmicks), but the word "God" will be there.
Does the title catch readers' interest?
For good or for bad, the thing the audience gets when figuring out whether or not to click on your article is your title. Once again, I have the luxury of usually being in a big box along with a few sentences of descriptive text, but most of the clickthroughs depend on the title grabbing the reader. So not only does it have to be descriptive, something about it has to be catchy. Why do I tend to use puns and pop culture references? Because they catch people's attention. Sure, people might groan, but they'll click.
Is your title unique?
There are a lot of Magic articles out there. The last thing you want is for someone to read your title and assume it's something they already read. Be distinct. Just as you need to find your voice as a writer, you need to craft an impression that is uniquely your own. This is especially true of your titles. One of the signs that you've gotten good at titles is that readers can start identifying them as your titles. If you took my titles and started asking Magic readers, many of them (who read me, obviously), would say, "Oh, that's Rosewater."
So why am I spending five paragraphs on the title? Because it's that important. You can have the best article in the world, but if people never click on it to read it, what does it matter? As one of my writing professors used to say, "The small becomes large by writing to the medium." Your titles matter. Pay attention to them.
#2: Use a Thesis Paragraph
See up above. Those first two paragraphs of this column are what we call a thesis paragraph. They start the article by explaining what it's about. (Why did I have two paragraphs and not one, so I could have a single thesis paragraph rather than two thesis paragraphs? I'll get to this in a minute.) The thesis paragraph is important because it helps set up the structure of your article.
Your audience comes in cold. Your readers don't know anything. Okay, hopefully your title gave them a hint (see above). You need to transition them. This is true not just of writing but of teaching as well. One of the things teachers are taught is that the first thing you do is explain to your students what you are about to teach them. The same is true for writers.
Material is better absorbed if the audience can self-prep. The goal of a good article isn't to confuse readers but to guide them through the material. To do that, you have to make sure they understand what it is you are talking about.
Here's an example. You click on a column of mine called "Tempest in a Teacup." Imagine if the first line was:
For a week, we didn't shave.
Hopefully, the title gave you a hint I was going to be talking about Tempest. It was in italics in the title and this is a Magic column. I write about design, so maybe it's safe to assume I'm talking about design. Nonetheless, I think the first reaction to many readers would be "What? Who didn't shave? Shave what? What is he talking about?"
Now, instead, imagine, I started with this:
Hello everyone. It's Tempest Week so we're going to be talking about all about a set and block from early in Magic's history. I am particularly excited because Tempest was my very first design and it holds a special place in my heart. It's quite a story so I'm very eager to dive in. I hope you enjoy it.
The Storm Before the Storm
For a week, we didn't shave.
Can you see the difference? By spending a few sentences setting it up, I am preparing the audience for the tale. The "For a week, we didn't shave" line—rather than being confusing—now gets to be what it wants, which is a grabber to pull the audience into the story.
In addition to easing the audience into the article, the thesis paragraph also serves as an excellent gateway that allows readers to leave if they wish. Why would you want them to leave? If they are not going to be interested in the topic, forcing them to waste time reading more paragraphs to figure it out is only going to make them less likely to click on one of your articles in the future.
The role of a writer is to service the readers. If they aren't going to be interested in what you're going to say, let them know. It serves no one to force readers into something they are going to be unhappy with. Also, it helps form a trust between you and the readers. You create a transparency so the readers have incentive to return. My best parallel is how a good salesperson will not sell you something he or she thinks you ultimately will not want. It's a practice of bad salespeople (and bad writers) who are only thinking short term.
#3: Be Conscious of Physical Presentation
Some of writing is art and some is craft. This lesson is a craft one. One of the most important things you can do to make your writing approachable has nothing to do with the words, but rather with how you present them. The trick to this section is understanding two things: mental load and aesthetics.
Mental load is how much a person can mentally process at any one time. If you try to make people process more than they are comfortable with, the most common response will be for their minds to shift to something else. When reading an article, mental overload tends to lead to people either skimming or leaving your article all together.
Aesthetics has to do with the mind appreciating what is being presented. The mind has certain preferences that lead it to favor certain qualities over another. Aesthetics becomes important here because it is another factor that has to do with whether or not a reader becomes comfortable with what he or she is reading. Discomfort will lead to readers stopping, and, as a writer, that isn't the impact you want your article to have.
What does all this mean? Put simply, you have to think about how you present your material. This leads to a few lessons:
Keep Your Paragraphs Short
I'm going to reprint what I've written above in this section, but I'm going to take out the paragraph breaks and just make it one long paragraph.
Some of writing is art and some is craft. This lesson is a craft one. One of the most important things you can do to make your writing approachable has nothing to do with the words, but rather with how you present them. The trick to this section is understanding two things: mental load and aesthetics. Mental load is how much a person can mentally process at any one time. If you try to make people process more than they are comfortable with, the most common response will be for their minds to shift to something else. When reading an article, mental overload tends to lead to people either skimming or leaving your article all together. Aesthetics has to do with the mind appreciating what is being presented. The mind has certain preferences that lead it to favor certain qualities over another. Aesthetics becomes important here because it is another factor that has to do with whether or not a reader becomes comfortable with what he or she is reading. Discomfort will lead to readers stopping, and, as a writer, that isn't the impact you want your article to have. What does all this mean? Put simply, you have to think about how you present your material. This leads to a few lessons:
Hopefully, you can feel the difference and, yes, I am using the word "feel" on purpose. It's the exact same words I just wrote but this version is more daunting. Why? Because it wasn't broken down into little chunks. Lengthier paragraphs increase mental strain without adding any value. Paragraph breaks are free. Please use them.
Use Headers (Preferably in Bold)
This lesson is basically the same one as the last. If you chop up your material into smaller bite-size chunks, it is less intimidating and more friendly to the reader. The last lesson talked about paragraphs. This lesson takes it a step up. Just as you want to chop up your paragraphs, so too do you want to chop up your article. An article will be easier to digest if the reader can further divide it into sections.
The trick to doing this is the use of headers. Headers are basically a title for the section. I strongly urge the use of bolding because I very much want the headers to feel like section titles. The header's job is to break up the article into smaller chunks, and the physicalness of the bolding helps reinforce this feel.
Also, aesthetically, readers like to have a hard and fast structure to the article, and bolded headers helps make it feel like it has that structure. Pictures are also real good at helping break up articles and make them feel like sections rather than one long continuous piece. I tend to thematically tie my headers together to help make them feel connected, but that is not essential.
Finally, if the column has a structure (like this one) that is broken down into natural subsections (this article subdivides into lessons), you can use those as your headers. Just make sure to bold them.
Where Appropriate, Use Lists
There are a bunch of different tricks to chop down your article into subsections. I'm going to talk about this one because it's the most useful. Humans love lists. If you read a lot of articles on the Internet, you'll notice there are a lot of lists. Why? Because it's an easy way to break up and structure your article—two things I talk about above.
For those who have heard me talk about communications theory (read this if you haven't),you know that your article needs comfort, surprise, and completion. Lists are nice because they provide all three attributes. This doesn't mean you should be using lists where they don't naturally fit, but they are a valuable tool when you need to order the points you are making.
#4: Stick To Your Topic
You begin your article by explaining what you are going to be talking about. The next tip is quite simple—talk about that subject and only that subject. This might sound simplistic, but one of the biggest mistakes novice article writers have is a lack of focus. Good writers might make the words sound organic, as if they are thinking them up as you read them—but behind the scenes, each word choice, each sentence choice, each paragraph choice needs to be carefully thought out.
In my screenwriting class, my professor taught us that "No line is worth the scene, no scene is worth the movie." What that means is that even if you have the best, wittiest, most memorable line, you don't put it into a scene if it doesn't work for that scene. Likewise, you might have the most heart wrenching, the funniest, the most amazing scene you have ever written, but if it doesn't advance the movie, it has to go. Writing articles is no different. You need to stick to your topic and every element of your article needs to advance that article. If the piece in question can be removed and the article works without it, remove it.
Yet another quote from one of my writing professors: "Writing is hard. Rewriting is brutal." After you finish writing your article, you have to rewrite it. It's during this rewrite that you have to be critical and second guess every decision you made during the initial writing. The key to rewriting properly is to always keep in your mind what it is your article is about and cut anything that isn't advancing that agenda.
#5: Connect Your Topic to Your Reader
Whenever there is a major news story, what does your local news outlets do? They try to find local angles. They find a citizen of your city who might have been there. They try to figure out what impact that event will have on the city. The get local reactions to that event. Why does every local newscast do that? Because they understand the point I'm about to make.
People care more if the thing in question has some personal tie to them. Things that happen to other people are not as compelling as something that could happen to them. Article writing is no different. If you want your readers to care more, you have to figure out why what you are writing is going to matter to them. An important part of your job as the writer is to find a way to make the topic resonate with readers.
Take this article, for example. I know by the very fact that you are reading this that you read articles. When I start breaking it down, I am giving you all an insight into a process I know you participate in. Even if you are not a writer, it's interesting to see behind the scenes in how something you are involved in comes together.
No matter what the topic, there is some way to find the universal truth in it. That's what good writers do. They take the topic at hand and make sure that it is something the reader will be able to identify with. In fact, the key to being a good writer is having the ability to understand what it is about your topic readers will want to invest themselves in.
What this all means is that when you are writing an article, you have to always ask yourself why the readers will care? What is it about the topic at hand that will connect your topic to your audience? If you do not know that answer, you need to keep looking until you figure it out.
#6: Understand Your Tone
Not only should your article have a single topic, but it also needs to have a single tone. What do I mean by that? When you write an article, it's not just what you write but how you write. The words do not exist within a vacuum. How you choose to string your words together will create a context. What mood are you trying to create? How do you want to convey what you have to say? What is the response you are hoping to evoke from your readers?
In communication school we studied a man named Marshall McLuhan, a philosopher of communication theory. He is probably most famous for the quote "the medium is the message." What the quote means is that the means by which you communicate is as much what you are communicating as the message within the communication. "How" matters as much as "what."
What this means is that you have to think not just of what you are trying to say but you have to care about how you say it. I will use my column as an example. Let's say, one week, I want to talk about a serious topic, perhaps a big change coming to Magic. The next week, I want to share stories about Magic R&D from the wild early days of the game. The way I want to write each of those two articles is very different.
The first article requires a very serious tone. I don't want to be cracking jokes or making a lot of asides. I need to use very precise language and be straightforward in my presentation. The second article wants to be more informal. I'm telling stories, so I want to be conversational, and having a lighter tone will enhance the article. The word choice, the sentence design, the paragraph composition, the overall structure of the article, the images, the examples, the takeaways (I'll get to this one in a moment)—all of these will vary greatly from week one to week two because the tone for each article will be very different.
This lesson is just saying to make sure that not only do you need to figure out your topic ahead of time, but you must also figure out your tone. How are you going to convey the subject you wish to write about? The answer to this question will shape many decisions you make while writing.
#7: Make Use of Examples
The metaphor is a very powerful tool. Why? Because it is what is known as a bridging tool. I have something I want to explain to you but I'm not sure if you'll understand it. So what do I do? I find an example of something I believe you do know and then explain the new thing through the lens of the old thing. The metaphor bridges the new with the old.
Examples in your writing serve the same purpose. You are trying to explain things in your writing and often your readers will not be able to connect. The key to making this connection is to bring in examples. For instance, notice how I started this section. I had to explain something, so I used an example to explain it. I knew most of my readers would be familiar with metaphor so I used it as a tool to make my point.
Don't be afraid to use examples. Don't be afraid to use more than one example. Don't be afraid to use pictures. Don't be afraid to use any tool in your tool bag to make sure that your audience gets the point you are trying to make. Remember that the number one goal of an article is to communicate with your readers. To do that, make use of the tools available to make sure they understand what you are talking about.
It doesn't matter how eloquent you say what you have to say. If the reader doesn't understand what it is you are saying, it is all for nothing.
#8: Have Takeaways
Here's a metric that I think every author should have when writing an article. Did your readers leave with more than they came with? Did the act of reading your article imbue them with something that they can apply to their lives? Are their lives any different for having read your article?
Note that it doesn't have to be a big thing. I'm not saying you have to make your readers reevaluate aspects of their lives, but I am saying that you should be able to offer your readers something tangible to take away from the read. It could be an idea. It could be a suggestion. It could be a tip. It could be something to stew on.
The issue here is that if you want your article to make an impression, you have to offer something readers can apply to their own lives. The professor who taught me this (if nothing else, this article will demonstrate I took a lot of writing classes) called them takeaways. Every piece of writing, she said, should give your readers something to take away to their own lives.
The reason this is so important is because it elevates your writing. If your readers are able to leave with a takeaway, you have done something very important. You have managed to use your words to impact another person's life. That is indeed a noble gesture and something every writer should aspire to.
Remember that I'm not saying the takeaway has to be a great revelation. Just give your readers something to think about. It is human nature that they will then take that and apply it to their own lives. And trust me, there is no greater compliment you will receive as a writer than when someone explains to you the impact your writing has had on them.
How exactly can you make a takeaway? Let me gives some examples:
- You can give them information they did not know before.
- You can teach them how to do something.
- You can help them reexamine something in a new light.
- You can introduce them to another source of enlightenment, such as a book or a movie.
- You can share with them something in your own life and explain how you dealt with it.
- You can make them remember a memory.
- You can tell them a joke they can tell others.
- You can share a story they can share with others.
- You can make them think.
There are so many ways to add a takeaway to your writing. Doing so will elevate your writing from something the reader interacts with to something that affects them.
#9: Use Yourself
What is the one thing you have as a writer that no other writer has? You. The one thing you bring to the article that no one else can is your own unique perspective. You should try to make use of this advantage.
Another way to think of it is this: If you can take an article you wrote and scratch off your name and no one could recognize that it was your article, what are you doing as a writer? The goal of each and every article is to write something only you could write. That means using your perspective and your voice and pulling examples from your life.
When you sit down to write an article, don't just think about what the article has to say. Think about what you have to say. Why are you writing that article? What purpose does it serve? Why are you the one to be writing it?
With this lesson, I want to say to every writer out there—step up. If you're going to write, make it something not only worth reading about but worth writing about. The best writing comes when writers put themselves into their writing.
As an example, I have written about all sorts of things from my life—my dating foibles,
my time in Hollywood, my courtship with my wife, my wedding, my kids. I've walked through life lessons, resolutions, my highs, my lows. I've shared a lot. Why? Because I wanted to make a connection. I wanted to write something that no one else could and share it with all of you.
I firmly believe, as a result of those risks, I've managed to connect with a lot of readers, some of whom have been reading this column for over ten years. I am confident the day I hang up the pen, I will be able to do so knowing that I wrote because I had something to say, something to teach, something to share. I will know that I poured my life and soul into my writing and was a better person for doing so. If you're going to write, please aim no lower.
#10: Write A Concluding Paragraph
You always want to start by explaining what you're going to say and always end by reminding them what you said. While the middle gets to wildly vary from article to article, your start and finish want to most often (there will be special reasons to break the structure—such as this and this and this) be consistent and expected. Never underestimate the importance of a comforting structure.
For any writers reading today's article, hopefully, these ten lessons will have an impact on how you think about your writing and possibly give you a takeaway or two for the next time you pick up the pen (or more likely the keyboard). For the non-writers reading this, I hope today's article gave you a little better insight what I'm up to week to week.
As always, thanks for joining me today. I am particularly interested in your feedback on today's article, as it was a little bit different. You can email me through the link at the bottom of the page, respond in the thread to this article, or talk to me through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram). I am extra interested to hear what you thought of today's article.
Join me next week for a column that should be a real godspell.
Until then, may this article have had an impact.
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