Anatomy of an Article

From "What I Am Not Supposed to Say About Literary Journals Until I Am Famous"
From “What I Am Not Supposed to Say About Literary Journals Until I Am Famous”

My only excuse for not writing a blog post for six weeks is that I’ve published almost 40 articles for a total of six editors at four publications in the last month and a half.

Sometimes I just don’t have anything left over.

But I have been getting a lot of questions lately.

People outside the field think that journalism is A) kind of glamorous or B) a bat-shit crazy career choice, and there are lots of things they want to know:

Do you come up with your own ideas or are they assigned?  Do you write something before a publication agrees to take it? How much time do you spend writing? Do you get paid? Don’t you want a real job?

But I also get a lot of questions from colleagues or people dabbling in the field:

How do you make freelancing pay? How do you manage that many assignments? What’s your work-flow? How do you approach your stories?

So before I get back on track with blog essays, I thought I would answer these questions with a walk-through of my work day.

Let’s take my typical local-news article: it will be about an event, issue, or person and will run online. It will have an arts or culture bent, be 700-1200 words long, and earn me $100-$200. Yeah, it’s the big time over here.

Articles begin one of two ways.

  • You find out about something you want to write about, and pitch it to one of the editors you work with, briefly explaining a) the idea b) why it is important or worthwhile to readers. Note: This means sorting through a steady stream of pitches from PR professionals as well as keeping your eyes and ears out ALL THE TIME.
  • An editor (who either knows you or got your e-mail from someone who knows you) writes with a story idea (it could be anything on God’s green earth) and you decide whether or not to accept it.

Work starts on the article long before you begin writing.

  • Once you have made a successful pitch, or accepted an editor’s pitch, you look at your calendar and figure out three things.

a)      What deadline can you commit to?

b)      When will you have time to do the interviews you’ll need?

c)       When will you sit down to write the thing?

  • Decide whom to interview/where to go for the story.
  • Make phone calls or send e-mails to request interviews and/or meetings/tours. Note: This can be quite a process. Often you have to go through a few contacts to get the person you want. Sometimes people will refuse to do the story. And other times, people will vigorously pitch an idea, only to completely flake out as soon as you say yes.

Interviewing.

  • Develop about six core questions in advance of the interview. Note: I used to always write them down, but as I’ve gotten more practice doing interviews, I sometimes skip the writing-down part as long as I’m mentally prepared.
  • Interviews can take many forms. Often, it’s a fifteen-minute phone conversation. Other times, they’re scheduled in-person meetings (from 30 minutes in the boardroom with a director to a walk in the woods with local activists to a four-hour dinner with a French chef).
  • I use a combination of rapid note-taking and iPod voice memos, transcribed later, to keep up with my sources.
  • With practice, note-taking becomes more effective as your brain learns to grab onto quotes as soon as your source is forming the words.
  • Never get so married to your question list that you can’t also pursue a new line of thought should your source provide it.
  • But learn how to keep a lid on a conversation so that you don’t end up spending an hour with someone and not getting what you need. You have to make your time pay.

Preparing to write.

  • Complete any research on information you couldn’t or didn’t get from your sources.
  • Once the interview(s) are done and you have a feel for the facts and the arc of the story, it’s time for what I call “nuts and bolts.”
  • Begin with a preliminary Word document. Type in any interview segments you want handy, either from hand-written notes or from audio, and copy and paste blocks of text – maybe from an informative website, maybe from a press release that confirms venues, dates and times, maybe from a previous article that gives context and keeps you oriented – and the name(s) and title(s) of the people you’re writing about.  Then, the Who, What, Where, When, Why and Why the Hell Do We Care are all waiting right there on the screen.

Time to write.

  • Check the news feed.
  • Go get a snack.
  • Watch the goldfish for awhile.
  • Check the news feed (limit Twitter wars with disgruntled readers).
  • Get a glass of cold water.
  • Refresh all e-mail accounts.
  • Ponder and/or answer new e-mails.
  • FB or G-chat with freelance colleague[s].
  • Post on timelines of all your FB friends with birthdays today.
  • Reach with right hand and massage perpetual knot above left scapula.
  • Go to the bathroom.

WRITE, dammit.

  • Open Pandora and select “Philip Glass Radio.”
  • Return to nuts and bolts document.
  • Write title of article (it can be anything, you editor will most likely replace it with some kind of bad pun).
  • Write “By Alaina Mabaso”
  • Activate knot in left shoulder and write for anywhere from one to four hours. Note: Even though typing the first line feels like the hardest part, the article is actually 80% done at that point. When I have consolidated relevant quotes and research (literally, waiting on the page below) and know how the story will flow as well as what my editor wants (sorry, there is no demonstrable template for that, it’s a matter of skill and practice), writing it is more like fitting a familiar puzzle together than anything else.

Success!

  • Stretch.
  • Frown; massage left shoulder.
  • Look in the mail for checks.
  • Do the math on your budget through the end of the month for the sixteenth time this week.
  • Scan newsfeeds and e-mail accounts.
  • Answer e-mails.
  • Eat a meal and call it “lunch,” whether it’s 10am, 1pm or 5pm.

Finish and file.

  • Copy and paste article draft from “nuts and bolts” page to its own fresh document.
  • Slowly read the article out loud. Listen for clunky/confusing sentences, repetitive phrases, bad punctuation, excessive passive voice and anything else that weighs down the piece.
  • Brutally cut at least 50-200 words.
  • E-mail the piece to the right editor.
  • Be ready to quickly and affirmatively address any questions/clarifications.

Congratulations – you’ve written an article for publication.

NB: this is my process for a particular type of article. Essays, commentary, reviews or full-length features are different. (So far I do not write fiction at all.)

Now, the question of whether or not you can pay the bills this way (remember: student loans and wholly out-of-pocket health insurance premiums, plus self-employment tax) is not so much a question of whether you can do your own variation of the steps above, but whether you can juggle them at multiple stages simultaneously every day, for an average of six or seven pieces a week, while taking off only 3-4 weekends a year with no paid sick days.

That’s my world, at least.

If you want to read recent examples of my articles, here are two:

An environmental education center launches a paid residency for artists whose installations will actually aid ecological restoration

A charity hosts an exhibition of artists with intellectual disabilities; art therapists describe the ways art helps people with disabilities redefine themselves to the public

This is for those who want to hear more about how to build your freelance network: Ten Non-Fatalistic, Real-Life Tips for Freelance Writers

And this is for those who want to hear more about the actual art of writing: Six Tips for Strong Writing That Have Nothing To Do With Word Choice

Any more questions?

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10 Comments

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  1. Impressive summary of a day in the life… love it!

  2. Wow…….uh…..
    Wow Laina….
    To almost quote Jon-Boy Walton……. (insert your own mountain accent drawl) “ Daeddy……I DON’T want to be a wraahter”

    Love you ….and the great dedication you have.

    Your spirit …combined with sick talent and an un-challengeable work ethic…will make you a huge success.
    Dad

  3. I think it’s really interesting how all writers procrastinate this much. I do and have felt guilty for it for years. But I realized a lot of writers procrastinate. I guess it must be true that all writers hate to write!

    But yeah, that’s pretty much the process for me. But it’s an endless pipeline where you’re sending an email days before and you are doing this for several pieces (when you support yourself off it like I did just a few months ago) all at once until you knock one of ’em out.

    And it’s a roll of the dice whether you spend 45 minutes on an entire piece or 5 hours.

    • Alaina Mabaso May 20, 2013 — 8:20 am

      Totally on the 5 hours or 45 minutes.

      I have heard a couple funny quotes about how writers actually hate the process of writing, but that’s not really true for me. Once I begin writing pretty much any piece, unless I’m really strung out, I’m totally absorbed and I enjoy that process more than anything else I do professionally.

      My thought on the “procrastination” is that it’s just one way of letting your mind work when it comes to a somewhat creative endeavor. I think that I’ve been procrastinating for hours or days, but often when I sit down to a piece it all comes right together, and I realize that just because I’m not typing doesn’t mean the ol’ brain isn’t doing some necessary work. So as long as I’m actually meeting all my deadlines, I’ll go with this.

  4. Thanks for an enjoyable dissection.

    Yes, when I write stuff, it usually has to percolate for a while after I conceptualize and research the article, but before I actually write something substantive. I sometimes get annoyed that the piece gets finished and published (on my blog) several days or even a week after I’d planned to post it. However, the resulting piece is much better than if I’d forced myself to write it immediately. Of course, not being a journalist, I have the luxury of not having deadlines for most of my writing.

    Anyway, I mostly stopped in to say hi. Hope everything’s going well for you.

    • Thanks for dropping in, Lee. I do struggle with that guilt when my blog pieces get delayed, but in the end I just have to cut myself a break as long as I’m keeping up with my paid deadlines. If I were not paying the bills by writing, I think I would be more regimented about the blog. But in general, I guess the upside is that you’re right – letting a piece simmer for awhile usually makes it better.

  5. I really enjoyed enjoyed reading this! I was wondering, when you are in the interviewing process, what if you don’t receive all the information you need? I sometimes get stuck in my writing when I don’t have all the information I need for my article. When I have interviewed people for articles, sometimes their answer isn’t as thorough as I want it to be. What do you do then?

    • Thanks for reading; glad you enjoyed. Getting what you want out of interviews is partly a matter of skill that you’ll build up as you go. Do enough of this work and you will get a natural sense of whether you’ve got what you need for the scope of any piece. You will also get practice in setting the right mood and asking the kind of questions that will get people to share the interesting, meaty stuff that will give you a good story almost every time. That being said, the simple answer in the moment is to keep the lines of communication open! If you’re writing and it occurs to you that you’re missing a piece of information, follow up with your source (or their PR liaison) to ask them an additional question or two. When I finish interviews, I almost always ask the source if it would be ok if I called or e-mailed them if I have any additional questions when I begin to write, and people invariably say yes – they want you to get it right. Then I follow up later without trouble, if needed.

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