As I said, all my sulking was making me not like myself very much, so I got to work. I got out the articles that could have been mine – at least in my own mind! I examined the way in on the articles that worked and learned some new things while rediscovering some things I knew but hadn’t seen how to apply. It all goes something like this:
- Whenever possible, the way in included a compelling question or character that was revisited throughout the piece. It wasn’t used as a set-up and then dropped. It informed the entire piece. The reader could keep it in the back of the mind throughout and use it to ground them in the piece at any point along the way. In the really good pieces, it was a steady drumbeat.
- The information included in the piece truly had a place. It answered the question or the way in, in an integral fashion. Nothing was included as an as you know, Bob sort of thing or even as a you really will wish you knew this data dump. As you read the informational parts, it was clear why it was included and it advanced the story.
- The question didn’t need to be profound. It didn’t need to be the end-all, be-all of questions. It didn’t even need to be complicated. It just needed to get the ball rolling and serve as the point that kept the piece focused. Once the piece was moving, the reader was going to stay as long as the momentum continued and the piece held together – both a matter of strong writing.
- Just because the piece appeared this way in print, did not mean the initial question or way in was the writer’s first. It’s possible the writer started with one thing, saw it wasn’t moving in the way it needed to, and made a course correction that necessitated a new opening. I had toyed with that in my head, but I hadn’t made a true commitment to the material. I hadn’t taken the time to sit down and try a few starts.
- The transitions grew out of the narrative. This one was a matter of strong writing. Seeing it in action was instructive. It was also the sort of thing that I respect. It’s still thrilling to read something that’s written by a writer with mastery of the craft. In a piece with an integral question, the transitions just —- flow.
- There was a universal quality to the question. It wasn’t Did Martha get the job? or Is Joe going to propose tonight? It was more about the state of the job market with Martha as the example – not the slapped on top so it looks good example. In a truly well done piece, Martha embodied the problems in the economy. She was EveryWoman and the focus of the piece at once. And Joe? Not only was his proposal anxiety emblematic of all proposal anxieties, it was clear to the reader from the opening paragraph. That’s what I call writing!
Where did this leave me? Humbled. And fired up to give it all a try myself. I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to do this, but I have a number of ideas and tools. I’m going to give them a try and let you know how it works. I have a few new topics that need to be turned into strong ideas. If I can’t come up with a way in on them, I may as well break my pencil in two — not happening!
Meanwhile, if you have a method or suggestion or process for moving from a large topic to a specific, unifying idea, please let us know.