The call came Wednesday afternoon: the issue was closing in 12 days, and two pages needed to be filled. A feature, a spread. Here’s what was wanted. Could I get it done by Friday? The answer was yes. The question: How?
Step 1: Analyze the ask
I’m a word person. The more information I’m given at the beginning of an assignment, the springier a launching pad I have. Still, I can work with the vaguest request, so long as there is a single word I can cling to for direction, tone, and purpose. For this feature, that word was “grace.” It would be a twist on an etiquette piece, but not the typical charm school blitz I’d written at least once before.
I began with a dictionary, looking up the etymology of “grace” and its synonyms, “charm” and “charisma.” Grace, as a quality, offered more of a people-pleasing connotation, whereas charm was more self-serving. The former was more suitable for a holiday issue feature, so I took that idea and ran with it, but in a different direction.
Next, I pulled out my personal archive and looked at what I had already written on the subject. This content was what I was avoiding. I needed a new tone and a new approach—my editor had made that clear.
Take away: It’s essential to know what your client wants, no matter who that individual or corporation is. If it’s unclear in the initial proposal, clarify before you start the project to save time, both yours and theirs.
Step 2: Consider the audience
The audience I would be writing for is one of my favorites: teen girls. Writing for them allows me to draw from my own past as well as from my three-plus years working with them as a web editor. Their own needs and desires are never far from my mind.
I find it helpful to imagine a particular person in this massive sector. Writing for 500,000 girls is daunting. But writing for one girl who might be reading my article after a tough day at school, while curled up in her room trying to get up the guts to go out there and conquer the world again, was doable. I could see that girl. I could talk to her. And I could advise her. It made the process less immediate and more intimate.
Take away: If you’re daunted by the scope of your project or by the massive readership it will have, consider focusing on singular parts and individual readers. It keeps me calm so I can “work to done,” and I bet it’ll help you, too.
Step 3: Chart the possibilities
In addition to being a word person, I am a visual person, even when I’m writing. So, especially when an assignment is given to me rather than pitched by me, I tend to pull out old-fashioned paper and RSVP pens and sketch out a cloud diagram. This allows me to get all of my thoughts out of my brain and onto a page that I can evaluate in one quick glance. I write down everything, even the ideas that I know won’t make it into the first draft, much less the final. Why? Because when I ignore them, my train of thought seems to hit them like speed bumps—they’re always there, no matter how much I attempt to push them to the side. Writing them down bulldozes them. They’re there if I need them later, but they’re not slowing me down anymore.
Once I get all my ideas out, I organize them into headings or groups, I give them taglines or descriptors, I scribble out how-tos, and flesh out the meat of the content a wee bit more. Then, I rank them in order of their importance to two areas: what the assignment asks of me and what my audience needs from me.
Take away: Find a brainstorming method that works for you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cloud diagram, a hierarchy chart, or an outline. You can use Evernote or Post-Its or napkins or the back of your hand. All that matters is that it helps you organize your ideas.
Step 4: Hone the purpose
It’s tempting to throw everything you have on the page, but that’s not what a smart writer does. She picks and chooses the best points she can possibly make, the most essential advice she can offer. And sometimes, there is an opportunity to add more in—as sidebars, often. But usually, there’s a lot of waste after a brainstorming session. And you know what? That’s OK. That’s normal. You can use that waste later in a different article. But for now, let’s turn to the task at hand.
After I highlighted the best ideas from my brainstorm, I grabbed my laptop and started writing up headings. I’ve never been one to write exhaustive outlines, but before I begin an article, I like to get the structure down. It lets me quickly see what’s to come, and it offers me the chance to plot my transitions and nail down subheads.
An important thing to note here is that just because you have a home-run structure, that doesn’t mean it suits your purpose. My first thought for this piece was a play on basketball, which would be in season when the feature ran. I wanted to include sports references, scribbled down a note about designing in X’s and O’s, like a playbook, and building the piece like a workout. It was kind of nifty and kind of kitschy, but the bottom line was that the idea I had of what it would look like didn’t match the purpose of the piece. What did grace have to do with basketball? Did I want my readers to approach the topic like it was a game? Absolutely not.
Ultimately, I set that idea aside. And you know what? As soon as I did, the writing itself made sense. I built the structure, headlines, and subheads around the advice. That was the right choice.
Take away: It is so easy to get stuck on one great idea. Sure, that idea might be phenomenal, but if it doesn’t compliment your piece, it doesn’t belong in your writing—not today, at least. This is where you have to be not just a writer but an editor, too. You have to know when to start over, when to leave inappropriate notions out, and when to take a different approach. Trust me, it will pay off in a top-notch product.
I had initially told my editor that I’d have the article to her by Friday night—I figured that I’d need two full days to brainstorm and write the piece, as I was feeling a little stuck on the topic and how I would transform it into something different. She signed off on that, and I went back to my Wednesday to-do list, content to begin work on Thursday.
And then my introductory paragraph hit me—BOOM—and I was off. I opened a new Word document, scribbled it down, and started my word-search. By lunch time on Thursday, I had a good-looking brainstorm (another reason I favor cloud diagrams—they look so lovely!). And by 5 p.m., I was done. An article I was unsure of 24 hours before had poured out of me easily thanks to the steps I’d taken to get it done right.
The response from my editor: “Nailed it.”
About the author
Brittany Taylor is a freelance writer based in South Carolina. She is a frequent contributor to Girls’ Life magazine, a national publication for girls ages 10 to 16. She is the founder of Write for Freelance and Ingenue Diaries. You can see more of her work at brittanymtaylor.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingenuediaries.