So you want to be a better writer? I have three words for you. Keep. It. Simple.
Seriously, if you can do that you’ll be in better shape than 90% of the hacks out there.
Because when it comes to writing, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Cast your mind back to the most riveting book you ever read … Got it yet? How did it feel as you
turned those pages?
I’ll bet the prose flowed effortlessly. I’ll bet it whisked you away on a journey of the senses. And
I’ll also bet that you were barely even aware that you were reading a slab of text. Because your
imagination was on fire.
There’s no doubt that the best writers tend to have a unique flair. But even so, the art of writing a
great article (or short story) is, well, actually more of a science. And that means that – with a bit of
experimentation – anyone can master this valuable skill.
So slap on your goggles and have your test tubes at the ready. (Or something like that.) Today
we’re learning how to transform words into solid gold…
Step 1: Preparation is Essential
You’ve probably heard this a million times, but I’ll say it anyway. Failing to prepare is preparing
Identify one (and only one) clear question to answer. In an article of 600-800 words, there isn’t
space to make more than one well-argued point.
Research is also crucial. See what others have written. You might have missed an important angle.
But don’t overdo it … 2-3 hours and then move on. (You may need a little longer if it’s an
Step 2: Drill Down to the Central Message
Preparation done? Ready to start writing? No, not quite.
Now is the time to think carefully about what your central message is going to be. Tell me the main
takeaway in 10 words or less. For example:
The health benefits of running are greatly exaggerated
(No offense to any runners out there!!) This will create an anchor in your mind to stop your
narrative from drifting off course. It doesn’t need to be perfect yet – the key point is that we’re now
refining our argument.
As an aside, if you find that you write better with a working title in mind, then this statement will
double up nicely for that purpose.
Step 3: Create a Skeleton Structure
Once we’ve established the central message of the piece it’s time to put a framework in place.
Think of this as the bones of the article. Without a skeleton, you’ll most likely end up with a flabby
mass of words.
I like to use bullet points for added punch and clarity. Five is usually a good number. Once again,
we’re looking for short, simple statements.
- Running is a popular activity due to cardio and weight loss benefits
- But recent studies suggest it may put additional stress on vital organs
- Etc. etc.
In this made up example I’ve set up a ‘straw man’. In other words, we start off with a claim
(running is good for your health) which we later try to disprove.
The straw man is a nice storytelling technique. However, don’t use more than one of these turning
points per article. Otherwise the reader risks losing his or her way.
Step 4: Use Simple, Engaging Words
Ok, now we’re ready to put some meat on the bones. Flesh out the skeleton structure using simple,
clear English. Personalise the message using the ‘you’ form. And don’t forget to throw in some
evocative words. For example:
‘this will leave you feeling energised’ … or … ‘do you remember your first…?’
The body copy should be light and easy on the eye. Follow longer sentences with short ones. This
will break up the flow and add texture.
Pay special attention to first sentences. It goes without saying that the very first line of the piece
needs to draw the reader in. Don’t just state facts. Tantalise him or her with something amazing,
but don’t give it all away (yet).
Similarly, the first sentence of a chunk of text is important. It should capture the main message of
the block. That way, skim readers are more likely to get the gist of your article. Another nice way
to signpost the story is by using sub-headings.
Step 5: Headline is King
We’re nearly there! And for all you know, you may have the best article in the world. But if your
headline is weak, most people just won’t read on. This is by far the most important element of the
whole piece, so don’t skimp on it!
My recommendation is to leave the headline until last. That way you can draw on every ounce of
inspiration from the words you’ve written. If you’re not sure about your headline, sleep on it and
come back with a fresh perspective.
Now, there are whole books dedicated to the subject of what makes a ‘killer’ headline. I won’t
attempt to compete with those here. Instead, here are a few select points:
1. Communicate Value: In the digital world there are tons of pages competing for the
reader’s attention. What’s in it for them? Promise a little-known secret or some highly
2. Use uncommon adjectives and/or numbers: Our logical brains find the idea of a
numbered list very palatable. And a colourful adjective will make your title sexier (so long
as it’s not an overused one). ‘The 7 most exhilarating road trips…’ etc.
3. Short and to the point: Waffly or long-winded titles are a real turn-off. Not only are they
less catchy, but they imply that reading the article will be an effort.
So there you have it. My five step plan for writing a great article. Let me know about your own
thoughts and experiences in the comments. And remember, keep it simple.