When you write, you need to do two things that don’t always play well together: organize your thoughts and write them down. This is a guide to doing both as painlessly (and effectively!) as possible.
Writing is hard, partly because it involves two concurrent processes:
- Developing latent ideas into a form that people can understand.
- Getting them down onto the page in a meaningful structure.
So, trying to write an article from top to bottom, start to finish, is essentially writing it in exactly the wrong way with respect to developing your ideas. If you start with your introduction, you’ll be introducing ideas you haven’t developed yet.
Here’s a guide to shortcutting the process, thereby avoiding the time that might otherwise be wasted by, for example, trying to write your article intro from a ‘cold start’ (having not organized your ideas beforehand).
Top to bottom, the standard structure for articles meant to be published digitally looks like this:
This is more or less exactly the wrong order in which to write. Here’s how I recommend approaching it instead:
- Conclusion (then cut and paste to be your introduction)
- Actual Conclusion
This order of composition works because it actually reflects the process of developing your ideas into a form that people can understand.
Start with the Article Body
It is tempting to start an article from the top: beginning with the standfirst and introduction, moving to the body, then finishing with the conclusion. However, this approach is actually backwards. Why? You don’t know what you’re thinking until you try to say or write it.
This fact becomes clear when you sit down to write about ideas that sounded great in your head — but are much harder to express linguistically on the page. This means that, if you start with writing the introduction, you’ll be trying to introduce ideas that you haven’t fully worked out. So, begin with the body paragraph following your first subheading.
Cut the Conclusion and Put it at the Top
Once you’ve finished writing the body of your article, you’ll have set down your main arguments and ideas in words. Conclude by summarizing your main points and the thrust of your article (coherently of course!), then cut what you’ve written and paste it at the top. Voila: your conclusion is now your introduction! It might need a little rewording, but it’s much easier to write an intro like this than to start drafting it fresh out of the gate.
Delete the Cliche
Writing is hard, partly because starting the process is hard. Often, writers break through blank page syndrome by beginning with a cliche. So, rather than starting with facts and information (the stuff people actually want to get out of the article), the writer starts with something irrelevant.
For example, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then video is worth a million words!”
Or, “They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, nor can you judge a blog post by its header image.”
Basically, irrelevant cliches are a sort of throat-clearing that can help writers to get started. But, once you’re getting your ideas onto the page, the cliche has served its purpose and you can get rid of it safely.
Go Meta (Write Your Conclusion)
The best conclusions aren’t just summaries; rather, they combine an article’s main ideas into a higher-level synthesis. If the function of a concluding paragraph were merely to summarize the main points of the article, you may as well just copy the introduction or even provide a ‘Back to Top’ hyperlink.
This is an opportunity to think more generally and express bolder ideas. The conclusion should take your argument up a notch, rewarding loyal readers with a bit of added insight.
TL:DR: Force Yourself to Write a Standfirst
The standfirst is an awkward format because it’s short enough to make conciseness necessary but long enough that all meaningful information should be included. TL:DR is a useful mantra in this area. Originally from Reddit, the abbreviation stands for too long, didn’t read — users post this reply when a post is too long and they abandon it midway. It then came to refer to a summary of such posts, intended for attention span-starved internet users.
Keep this audience in mind when you write your standfirst. If they lose patience, you lose a reader. Force yourself to express the article on a very high level, or even by some other means, such as metaphorically or with a (non-cliche) rhetorical question. Here’s an example from one of our President Jonathan Allen’s first articles on the L&T Blog:
‘TL;DR: Microsoft’s new CEO sent a ‘meh’ email today. Too much about him and not enough about the company. Speak to your audience and get out of your imaginary interview chair!’
Writing is counterintuitive because the order of operations for the two processes involved — thinking and writing — are necessarily distinct. This counter-intuitive nature means that a lot of written content out there, especially online, shows evidence of the scaffolding created by writers to help them actually get something onto the page. Don’t be afraid to tear the scaffolding down: your ideas are sturdy enough to stand on their own.