3. Brainstorm and research your topic
This doesn’t work for everyone, but once I’ve chosen a topic, I usually find it helpful to get a large, blank piece of paper, and just write down in a kind of “cloud” format all the relevant themes and ideas I can think of. Try to keep going until you can’t think of anything else to add. If you think better with a keyboard, just open up a text file or Google Doc and start listing off your ideas. You can then start to draw connections between themes, which begins to lead us towards a structure. If you get stuck, go through the ideas you've already noted down, and try to expand each one.
Once you’ve brainstormed, it’s time to research – gather all the books you have on what you want to write about, get Googling, and put together a folder of resources and links that will initially guide your writing, but might eventually become a bibliography or “further reading” section for your text. (Remember never to plagiarize – if you quote or significantly paraphrase someone else's work, make sure to acknowledge the original source.)
4. Tell a story
The majority of spoken or written human communication is storytelling in some sense. Our oldest texts, like religious scriptures, emerged out of an “oral tradition” – the practice of re-telling stories from one generation to the next. Humans are highly social creatures, and stories are how we share information and convey meaning. Even the most basic language-acts, like naming (“that is a tree”) or attributing (“that tree is green”) are micro-narratives, which communicate information by telling a story about the things that make up our world.
If we think of the forms of narrative we’re most familiar with – like children’s books, novels, news reports, opinion pieces – what they all have in common is an arc of tension and resolution. In complex texts, there might be many of these arcs that criss-cross one another.
For an example of how tension and resolution work in narratives, let’s take James Orchard Halliwell’s version of the traditional story The Three Little Pigs. (I've abridged the story below, but follow the link to check out the original text.)
||Once upon a time, there were three little pigs walking through the forest. The first little pig built a house out of straw. A big bad wolf lived nearby, who wanted to eat a little pig for supper. The first little pig wouldn’t let the wolf in, so the wolf huffed and puffed until the house of straw fell in.
||The second pig builds a house of wood, with the same outcome in respect of the wolf and his huffing and puffing. The third pig builds a house of bricks, and the wolf tries to blow it down too...
||...but he fails. He comes up with a different plan to try and eat the third little pig, but that also fails. Finally, the wolf comes down the brick house’s chimney to get the pig...
||...but the pig had set a boiling cauldron in the fireplace, and the wolf falls in. The wolf was never seen again, and all the pigs lived happily in the brick house.
5. Use a structure as a guide
As well as showing the effectiveness of narrative arcs of tension and resolution, the story of the three little pigs also shows the importance of structure:
Introduction of characters (the three pigs, the people in the forest, the big bad wolf); introduction of a point of conflict that provides dramatic content (little vs big; pigs vs wolf).
Body of the story, exploring the nature of the conflict (wolf's aggression and pigs' resistance):
a. Pig 1 vs wolf in the straw house
b. Pig 2 vs wolf in the wood house
c. Pig 3 vs wolf in the brick house
Synthesis of themes and conclusion to the story: wolf never seen again (conflict over); three pigs live happily ever after (little vanquishes big).
With this structure in mind, when you begin writing, set out a notional template for your article. It doesn’t matter if you end up moving away from it in the course of writing. The important thing is that you’ve begun with some organizing principles. I often start with something like this:
- Word count target (e.g. 1000 words)
- Introduction (5-10% of total word count = 50-100 words)
- Theme 1 (25% of total word count = 250 words)
- Theme 2 (25% of total word count = 250 words)
- Theme 3 (25% of total word count = 250 words)
- Conclusion (10-20% of total word count = 100-200 words)
Even if these headings and target word counts are completely arbitrary at the start of the process, they do at least give you some constraints within which to start working. For example, working with this template will force you to consider: what are the three most important points I want to address in this article?
6. Use a clear introduction and conclusion
As we saw above, a good introduction creates expectation and tension, and makes the reader want to keep reading. Most of the time, an introduction needs to:
Catch the reader’s eye. This could be by addressing them directly (i.e. using “you”), by saying something provocative or topical in the first few words (e.g. “Design is dead.”)
State what the article is going to cover. This can be stated quite plainly – the priority is for the reader to understand what they’re going to gain from reading on.
Briefly give relevant background. A simple example of these last principles can be found in our recent article on the iPhone X:
Apple today announced the latest iteration of the iPhone – the iPhone X. Alongside the usual incremental improvements that most of us are now largely indifferent to, the arrival of iOS 11 does deliver something more significant: a mainstream, mass-market mobile product that for the first time has an Augmented Reality (AR) engine baked right into the OS.
Read on for an explanation of what AR is, and a look at its current and potential future applications. We also explore what AR could mean for UX designers, and, finally, our take on the $162bn question: are people going to use it?
A good central section is firmly connected to the themes and tone of the introduction, and unfolds a story or delivers information in a connected and structured way (even if that structure is simply a list, as in this article).
A good conclusion resolves the tension created in the introduction. Depending on the kind of text, a conclusion might include:
A brief summary of what’s been said. For example, in academic articles, the conclusion will often begin with a summary of what has been written up to that point. This approach is good for guiding the reader through more factual writing, but is not a part of most kinds of dramatic or creative writing. (Some famous authors, like Agatha Christie, created devices to add summaries or extra explanations as part of the dénouement – or resolution – of their storylines. For example, in each Hercule Poirot story, Poirot summarizes the entire case at the end, before revealing the solution.)
Synthesis (which comes from the Greek, meaning “putting together”). This is more than just a summary, thought it often involves some summarizing. You’ll usually see synthesis at the end of an article that has covered several disconnected topics, or two opposing opinions. As a minimum, a synthesis draws out points of connection and reaches some sort of judgement on what those connections mean. A more substantial synthesis might generate a distinctive new outlook or idea.
Something provocative or new. If you’re writing factual articles, or content that deals with current or contentious topics, the conclusion is often an opportunity to be a bit more opinionated, or to give your “verdict” on a topic as a writer. One way of thinking about this is that the main body of a piece of factual writing is to establish your authority in the reader’s estimation by relaying information on a topic. By the conclusion, the reader will be interested in your verdict, so long as you’ve earned the right in their eyes to express a view.
7. Make it as short as possible, but no shorter
There is a big difference between listening to someone speak, and reading what someone has written. When we’re in a room listening to someone, we usually can’t control how quickly they are talking, and we can’t go back and listen again to the last thing they said. For that reason, good presentations and speeches often include plenty of “redundancy” – basically, that means repeating the same point several times using different words. It helps ensure that the audience will receive and understand the message.
When we’re writing, redundancy is much less important, because people can always go back and re-read a sentence or a whole section.* In fact, redundancy is usually to be avoided, both because it adds unnecessary length, and because it can make it harder for the reader to follow the logical progress from one point to the next.
(*For example, we could remove redundancy from this sentence: “In writing, redundancy is less important, because people can re-read a sentence or section.”)
People sometimes ask if there is an ideal word count for blog articles. The basic answer is no. There’s a famous quotation attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everything must be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” This paradox expresses a truth about writing, too: clear communication relies on a text being as concise as it can be, but not so abbreviated that it doesn’t properly explain its points.
8. Think small: write paragraphs, not chapters
When I was writing my PhD, I spent days, weeks, and months procrastinating. Much of this came from a feeling of being stuck, or of feeling inadequate to the task of what I knew I had to write about. I can see now that I made a couple of mistakes that led to this situation.
I tended to think about big tasks rather than small ones – e.g. “write that paper” or “draft that chapter”. What I should have done more (and what I learned to do towards the end of the process) was to break down tasks to the smallest manageable units. These were usually paragraphs, and the job of each one was to argue a particular point.
Having something small and manageable to focus on not only helped me to articulate my thoughts – it also reduced the fear and insecurity I felt towards the task of writing, because I finally felt in control of the process (even though it remained challenging).
9. Start anywhere – and don’t delete anything
A text doesn’t have to be written in the order it will be read – there is categorically no need to start at the beginning. Indeed, the beginning is probably not a good place to start, because the idea or argument that we have in mind when we begin will probably be more easily expressed as a conclusion. Particularly if you’re feeling stuck, just start anywhere – start with whatever is on your mind, and see where it leads.
Also, instead of deleting sections, just paste anything you remove from your draft into a second document. Usually I just have a text editor document open which I just save as “article cuts” or something. Psychologically, this frees you from the fear of “losing” some of your work in the editing process. It also means that, if you want to reverse your decision to exclude something, you can always paste it back in. Sometimes this way of working simply allows you to write out the same idea in slightly different language.
10. Resist the temptation to edit as you write
A sure way to get demoralized is to try and write things perfectly the first time. You’ll end up spending 2 hours try to get an introduction word-perfect before you even start on the meat of your article… and when you do finally finish, you’ll realize that the introduction needs replacing anyway. It doesn’t matter how dreadful your first draft is, because nobody but you is going to see it. The important thing is that you will have words down on paper, and this will give you a place to start refining your ideas and tightening up your prose.
11. Edit to strengthen and simplify
In my view, the process of editing a draft has three crucial aims:
Strengthen argument: Remove weaker themes or points. Add references and sources.
Refine structure: Make sure that points and themes are made within the correct sections. Move stuff around if necessary. Make sure that section headings properly describe what each section says.
Improve copy: Remove repetition and redundancy. Maximize conciseness. Replace unnecessarily complex or obscure words. Shorten sentences.
12. Your headings should read as a summary
This is sometimes hard to achieve, but ideally, you should be able to string together all the section headings in your article, and they will more or less produce a summary of what your article says. This is a sign that you’ve written something that is structured and well argued. Online, it also aids readability and shareability, because even if someone is skimming your article very quickly, they can still get an idea of what it’s about.
Bonus tip: Get unstuck with freewriting
If you’re struggling to find your flow, consider freewriting, which is essentially an exercise in disinhibition.
Set a 5 minute timer on your phone. Your job is to type continuously for five minutes. Don’t stop. Don’t look up. Don’t pause. Don’t delete anything. Don’t edit anything. It is literally a brain-dump.
Pick a topic or word to write about. I used this technique in writing this article, using draft headings, e.g. “How to choose a word count”.
Keep typing until the alarm goes off, then stop. Chances are you have managed to articulate at least one thought that you can use. But it doesn’t matter if you haven’t – you can always delete the whole passage and try again.
Thanks for reading!
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