My friend George is taking a month off to travel to Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia. He recently set up a company in Bucharest making (and selling) the most perfect eclairs. But building up a new company is hard work, George is a perfectionist and he’s exhausted. George said he would like to write articles and I said I’d like to publish them. I also said I would write an article about how to write an article — and here it is.
It has taken me over 20 years of trial and error to be able to write the kind of concise articles I publish here and on Huffington Post. I could sum up my experience in the following old phrases: “Less is More” and KISS (Keep it Short and Simple”)
When I was chatting with George about writing, the only piece of advice I gave was to write about one thing at a time. I picked this up from the European Editor of The Economist who rejected an article I submitted about three news items from Bucharest (one of which was about a man who threw himself off the balcony in Romania’s parliament while it was in session). The editor said “you should just write about one thing at a time.”
What you have to do is make one strong point and back it up with facts, quotes and personal observation. It’s useful to put that strong point into the title, and make the content of the article back it us. For example, a travel article entitled “Tirana is a Dump but Albania is Great” should be backed up with all sorts of observations, facts and quotes which supports your view. A travel article can be pure observation but the odd quote, or fact, can liven it up (but use them sparingly).
I had a series of short, torrid affairs with the media and while none of these turned into long term relationships I did learn a lot. Writing for a blog is different from writing for the mass media but one rule is valid for all situations: the article must fit the format of the publication or blog. If you can absorb this lesson you can write for anyone.
What this means in practice is that you must study the style of article being published in the organ where you plan to submit your piece. You have to check for length (KISS is the guiding principle here) and relevance. There’s no point sending me an article about making eclairs but I’d like to see a series of articles about travelling through the Balkans.
It’s hard to see what you could possibly offer the mainstream media in terms of articles, but you’d be surprised. If you work in a particular domain, for example catering, your view of the quality of eclairs in Bucharest may be of real interest to the food or lifestyle editor of a major paper in Romania. If you’re travelling through Kosovo when the Serbs and Albanians clash and you witness something dramatic, a news editor might be interested in your perspective. If you’re on the other side of the world your local paper may be interested in an article from you. There are plenty of opportunities for travellers to publish articles.
I constantly come across people who are real experts in a particular domain but when they write an article, say for the company newsletter, it often becomes so technical and dry that it’s unreadable. Often they are addressing other experts, in a language that the rest of us can’t understand.
My mother used to tell me that I wrote good letters. What she was really saying was “Rupert, you’re a bloody idiot. Your school reports are terrible, the teachers can’t stand you and your writing doesn’t make any sense. Thank God you can write letters.” She also told me that I could never become a journalist and this made me determined to prove her wrong.
When I was learning to write articles I used this technique: I would write the article as a letter and then delete the first part. It’s easy to write a letter and by the second or third paragraph the content starts to read like an article — a really personal, compelling and sometimes witty one.
There are thousands of books about writing but my favourite is George Orwell who wrote a useful essay called Why I Write? (you can read it for free here courtesy of the Russians).
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
If you would like to share your experience of writing please write below in the comment box. If you would like to write about your travels, or your travel plans, follow the rules above and I will publish it here.
By Rupert Wolfe Murray