Sketchy advice: 8 easy steps to writing articles

I had lunch with a friend yesterday, who also happens to write about technology. He asked me about my process for writing comedy sketches: how to come up with the ideas and get them written? He wants to write more articles for his webzine, but often gets stuck on what to write about. It occurred to me as I was answering him that I had taken the basic structure from my wife’s amazing Ultimate Ebook Writer’s Manual (on the Scopcity website) and altered it a bit.

Here’s the rough outline. I’d love to get feedback from other writers out there.

Step 1: Write the Headline

Yeah, I know. It’s probably going to get changed (by you or your editor). Get over it. This is the most creative part of the whole process, so you might as well enjoy it.

In sketch writing, this is coming up with the premise for the sketch, and usually I do this by taking a notepad (the real kind, not the Microsoft text editor) and free-writing words or short phrases until I have about two dozen. Then I look for ways that they might be combined interestingly and see if I can build a premise from it.  As an example, recently I matched “networking” and “Breaking Bad” and came up with the idea What if drugs were sold and distributed via MLMs (like Amway)?

For blog entries, the headline is your premise. It will define and set the bounds on your article, which is a good thing. Writing about Google’s 2015 I/O conference is daunting; 3 Takeaways from Android M for IT Support Professionals is a lot easier to write about because it’s already focused for you. Again, this may be the most important step in the process, so take your time and bang out 15 or more potential headlines. This is where you consider your audience (personas) and funnel objectives (if writing for marketing). Once you have a clear, compelling, and concise headline, you’re ready for step 2.

Step 2: Vomit Words

A bunch o' wordsOK, so that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration. Then again, maybe it’s not. Once you have a great headline, the basic structure of your article should be pretty clear. In the example above, we know there’s 3 main points, probably with an overall assessment (along with the opening and closing, which come later).

Open your writing environment of choice and WRITE WITHOUT JUDGEMENT. Avoid using the Backspace / Delete keys on your keyboard. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar (I know, I know. This is ridiculously hard, especially for us English majors.). Even so, the point is to avoid The Blank Page, Nemesis of productivity and Patron Saint of writer’s block. Copy and paste wholesale notes from any other sources you have. Transcribe quotes from interviewees. Whatever it takes, fill up the space with words, words, words.

Step 3: Organize

Go back and read what you have. Acknowledge that it’s crap right now and that’s OK. It’s expected, normal, part of the process. Organize your crap into a rough outline. Realize that even though the writing itself could be blackmail material, the concepts and ideas you have are good. Damn good, perhaps.

Continue organizing your material until you have the scaffolding of your article. Time for a break. Drink a beer, go for a run, watch the entire season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Do all three simultaneously (you’ve earned it).

Step 4: Rewrite

Energized from your break? Great, because now it’s time to rewrite. Take all those horrible, brain-straining phrases you created in Step 2 and turn them into pure magic. Or, at least, something comprehensible. You should have a strong mental concept of how your article should look in its final form, so buckle down and whip her into shape.

This is really the slogging portion of the process, so queue up some music from Rocky. Or Taylor Swift, whatever. I’m not going to judge*.

Step 5: Edit

“What do you mean, ‘edit’?” asks my conveniently timed inner voice. “We just did that!” But no, you didn’t. You turned crappy words into good words. And you should feel proud of that accomplishment.

Now it’s time to cull.

Get rid of the fat, the extraneous, the repetitive. Banish the overly florid. Cut, cut some more, and keep cutting. You probably have a word count, after all, and it’s better for you to choose what needs to go than your editor (they never really get your style, anyway).

You may want to do some additional structural work here as well. From Heather’s guide:

If you find that no matter what you do, one section feels repetitive of another, you don’t have a sentence problem. You have an organization problem. Try reordering the recalcitrant sections and see what happens.

Step 6: Proofread

Now you go back and find all the spelling and grammatical mistakes. You know how this works, so Imma just leave this here.

Step 7: Review your headline

How well does the article fulfill the promise of the headline? If it does, great! If not, you can hopefully make some minor adjustments to get you there. Or, sometimes, you find that you’ve actually written a slightly different article than the one you intended. If it’s a good article, then change the headline to fit. Either way, Excelsior!

Step 8: Punch up

In sketch writing, once the scene is “finished” (i.e., complete structurally and fulfills the premise), we do “punch up.” This is where we go back and look for opportunities to add jokes and other material that will give the piece more laughs. For your article, this is the time to find that pullout quote, the featured images, etc. Also, this is the point where you write the intro and the close.

I know it’s often the most fun step, and that’s why we leave it for last. It’s your reward.

Final thoughts

My sketch writing instructor encouraged us to come up with one premise a day, and then turn a premise into a sketch once a week. At the end of the year, we’d have 52 sketches, which is a hell of a portfolio for a starting writer. If you’re struggling for ideas to write about, keep a small notebook with you and jot down all those partially formed ideas throughout the day. Then, once a day, try to make connections between them, and you should be able to come up with at least one potential article concept.

Turn one of those into an article each week, and you’ve got your own hella blog going.

*I will totally judge you. Why not listen to Postmodern Jukebox instead?

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