- It Started with an Empty Page: The Birth of an Article
It Started with an Empty Page: The Birth of an Article
By Didi Gorman
If you had to read the first draft of this article, you wouldn’t be able to make much sense of it.
Incomplete paragraphs, half sentences, crossed-out words, and random phrases marked with asterisks were scattered all over the page; nothing like the nicely organized text you’re reading right now.
Writing is a complex process, and today I’ll take you behind the scenes of what that process is like.
All texts start with a spark of an idea.
And an empty page.
Ideas come from
things that catch my attention: something I’d seen, read, thought, or heard (a
fragment of a conversation, for example) has been ‘cooking’ in my head for a
while and is now ready to be expressed.
I then give the piece a temporary title and jot down any thoughts I have about the subject, in no particular order. This is the brainstorming phase. This is also the time where I decide on the nature and tone of the piece (essay, reflection, humor piece), on whether it will be in the form of a blog post (on the internet) or as an article in a physical magazine (or both), and on the approximate length of the text.
While still in the first draft, I try to visualize the target reader. This will have an immense effect on the writing: Who will read this piece? Which gender and how old is the potential reader? How much does he/she know about the subject? Where does he/she live? What is his/her occupation, hobbies, interests?
Relevance to the reader is key. No point in using social media lingo (LOL, TGIF, YOLO), for example, in an article aimed at seniors who are less familiar with this type of language, or writing snow-related articles for readers in Arizona. (I’m not saying that Arizonians will not enjoy reading about snow, only that the subject is probably less relevant to them than, say, to Canadians.)
I then start the cycle of writing and editing, rephrasing and editing again, deleting redundancies, and conducting any needed research. This phase will last several days until the text takes its complete form. Towards the end, I give the piece its final title, often after experimenting with several versions.
The title is the make-or-break of the piece. Its job is to lure the reader (yes, you) in. If you’re reading this now, it means that the title has done its job. It tickled your curiosity.
Once I’ve grabbed your attention with a good title, I need to hold it for the length of the entire piece. But before I can worry about you reading the text all the way through, I need to make sure you read past the first line. Yes, that’s right, the first line.
You see, the first line is part of the first impression, where you, the reader, still ask yourself whether there’s anything of interest for you here. I haven’t quite won you over yet.
The role of the first line, therefore, is to make you want to know more. As simple as that. Go back to the top of this post and check out the first line again. See what I mean?
So now that you’ve been hooked, how do I hold your attention?
The method that works best for me is giving you a glimpse of my world and creating intimacy between us (not in a romantic sense, but like we’re old friends chatting). My text will be personal enough to create this intimacy, but not too personal as to irritate you with blabbering about myself to no end. After all, you’re not here because I’m that important, but because you want to learn something or, possibly, to find out if what I have to say echoes elements in your own life.
My ultimate goal is for you to have gained something by the end of the piece – some food for thought.
Still with me?
Great! We’ve been together for well over 600 words. Let’s keep at it and talk about when the going gets tough. Let’s talk about writer’s block.
Spending most of my day at my desk in front of my computer induces quite a bit of fatigue. There’s nothing less conducive to creative writing than getting stuck in my own head, thinking the same thoughts again and again, and reading my own text over and over.
A change of scenery, some fresh air, and physical activity, all help to unstick my thoughts and set the creativity back in motion. Outdoor walks and quick sessions in the gym are part of my daily routine. Don’t get jealous, though. To make up for the lost hours, I work in the evenings and on weekends.
These breaks also help me to view my piece with fresh eyes – quite tricky, to be honest. Another set of eyes would have been beneficial, but this usually only happens after the text has already been sent in for publication. Admittedly, I never quite know how my texts are interpreted.
By the end of the work, the piece, now fully-formulated and flowing seamlessly, has been edited (by me) dozens of times, for grammar, punctuation, word choice, coherence, and clarity. A lot of work has gone into it, even if the FINAL version is short. (A good deal of text is deleted in the process: If it’s too vague, unclear or repetitive, better get rid of it.)
I’m sometimes asked if humor pieces are easier to write, and the answer is a resounding NO. Humor writing is much more demanding than simply articulating my thoughts in a natural way, such as in an essay.
For the humor piece to work, not only do I need to keep the piece funny throughout (which means coming up with lots of amusing ideas), but also, since humor pieces often address serious topics, I need to walk the fine line of keeping an upbeat sense of humor while conveying a deeper message.
All my COVID-19 humor posts are in that category.
Writing, as a whole, is not unlike art or music. The world gets to see the final, clean version, but this final, clean version did not come into existence out of thin air. It is the fruit of an elaborate, lengthy, and intricate labor.