When writers meet, the conversation often turns to shop talk, the business of writing. When a new writer gets a chance to talk to a shopworn veteran writer, she may ask for advice. “What is your greatest piece of practical advice?” the new writer may ask, eager to plum the fiery wisdom from all those trips to Mt. Olympus and visits with the writing muse. The answer: Over reliance on one source when preparing an article. It’s the most common mistake of new writers, new freelancers, and new journalists.
The following is a strategy for developing an assignment for general-interest and specialty publications using a multi-source approach. The following strategy uses the acronym SHOP to emphasize the steps good writers review in preparing an article. SHOP stands for:
As a writer, you can use the SHOP formula to get a sense of how to write the piece. In some cases, you may not need the entire sequence, but always consider the various stages of story production to make yours full-bodied, with a metaphor here, dialogue there, rich details, the telling quote-all meant to transform your words into pictures, ideas, and scenes that leave your audience thrilled, exhausted, perplexed, and satisfied.
For each assignment, think about Selection. Selection is the topic that you will cover, but it considers the idea, the thrust. Think of Selection as unwrapping the layers of an onion. You peel off the top layer, revealing the second layer. You peel back that layer and you find yet another, then another. Story selection is like that. You select a topic and then realize that the topic is a little deeper. You may choose not to go deeper. You may want to stay with the top layer, but you sense you have a direction. You have an angle, one that you selected.
To make a story more informative, the writer could include History. For our purposes, history refers to background. What is the history or background of your subject? To get this information, the writer is compelled to seek other sources. A good rule is to force yourself to talk to at least three sources, if you can. It makes for a better article.
Observation includes all the stimuli from your five senses. Tell the reader what you saw and heard. Be precise. Give colors. Help us experience the moment. Be judicious in your use of adjective and work to be very precise about the nouns.
When you insert observation into your feature article, allow yourself to draw on free writing. Bring to mind those feelings that you associated with the moment. As novelist William Forrester tells his young charge Jamal Wallace in the film, Finding Forrester, “You write the first draft with your heart, and you write the second draft with your head.”
This advice must be tempered by adding that it works best for free writing where you can let yourself drraw from your inner voice, unrestrained this time. Once you have dropped the veneer, you can reclaim the observations in their fullness. Practice free writing as soon as you can unload your notes. Write unrestrained. Take a break. Drink some cool water. Now re-read the words and begin editing. Savor the lines that are the strongest, but most faithful to the observation. Resist the temptation to make almost right, right.
The final part of the acronym if P for Perspective. In this case, the writer wants to show us the micro pictures that highlights the macro picture. Contact the local government or historians at the nearby university.
A good source for information on experts, particularly academia, is ProfNet at http://www.profnet.com. As a freelance writer or reporter, you will be required to enter some basic information on the topic along with your deadline. In return, your request will be sent to the United States or around the world. This website is an ideal place to start your search, even before you do your primary interview.
Be sure to check LexisNexis. What other articles have been written about your topic? Read the competition to get names of sources. Call these sources or email them and ask for others who are knowledgeable about the topic and contact them. Keep peeling back the onion until you have enough great material to write.
Ready to write
Once you have gathered all your information, you are ready to write. The finished article will have a meaty quality, editorial heft, the kind of piece that is likely to have shelf-life. Isn’t that what you want from your work? By investing in it with some substance, you are creating the kind of prose that your audience will want to preserve and recall. As a writer, you have the ability to construct an article of note; the only question is if you are willing to invest the time and energy in crafting a feature article that will endure.
This is an excerpt from Dr. Michael Ray Smith‘s book FeatureWriting.net. Used with permission.
Download the entire book for free from our MTI Online resource center.
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