Be a Planner not a Pantster – Article Writing Workshop – 30 January 2019

Despite inclement and unpredictable weather – Kathy and I had left Narnia behind in the Irvine Valley (OK, that’s maybe a slight exaggeration) – we had a good turnout of members for Nigel Ward’s article writing workshop. Of course, those of us who’ve attended one of Nigel’s workshops before knew it would be worth pulling on our snow-boots and trekking to Ayr.

Nigel began by quoting from the work of venerated sports journalist, Kilmarnock-born, Hugh McIlvanney who died on 24 January. One quote caught my attention – McIlvanney wrote that boxer Joe Bugner had “the physique of a Greek statue, but with fewer moves.” Just a few words, but they paint a perfect image. McIlvanney’s language was powerful, poetic and descriptive – everything a budding article writer should aspire to.

Then Nigel posed a question – ‘Are you a planner or a pantster?’

This got me thinking. Certainly, when writing fiction, I’m often a pantster, starting with an idea or an interesting first line, then flying into the unknown by the seat of my pants till ‘The End’. But how do I approach writing an article? Am I planning and pacing my work properly? Working out which information is relevant and essential to my piece? Or just cramming in all my research without weeding out the trite and trivial? Am I hooking my reader? Or boring them with an overload of unnecessary details?

Nigel’s advice was, of course, that we should all be planners. He uses mind maps to help him organise his research and form the structure of his articles – a good tip for the pantsters.

Nigel spoke about different types of articles we might want to write e.g. reviews, reports, rants, exposés, comparisons. Or we could opt for a chronological history, a balanced argument or a logical ‘how to do something’ piece. We should establish a consistent writing voice to suit the theme of the article: humorous, serious, challenging, or inspiring. He reminded us of the importance of structuring articles with:

A beginning – an opening paragraph introducing the issue/subject.
A middle – main body of the article where the information and research is presented.
A conclusion –The conclusion should tie up the article with a judgement, or a recommendation, or a solution.

Useful advice to keep readers connected to our articles was to:

Give our writing cadence – varying the rhythm will keep the reader interested.
Articles, like fiction, should have a narrative arc.
Use locations and artefacts familiar to the reader.
Make references to music, films, shops etc that our readers will connect with.
Avoid cliché, jargon and terminology.
Avoid the boring.
Don’t get bogged down with too much detail.
Know when to draw the line with research.
Once you’ve finished writing your article, read it aloud. If you get bored reading it so will your reader.

Edit and improve.

Of course, this being a workshop, Nigel got us scribbling. He asked us to write a brief synopsis summing up an article we planned to write, then looked for volunteers to feedback their ideas. Members shared snippets of potential articles based on a variety of subjects – the history of a handicraft, local WW2 history, social history, fascinating characters from the past, sporting injuries and motoring memories. Then we were instructed us to list ten important pieces of information we would want to include in our articles. After we had done that, Nigel asked us to number each point from 1 to 10 – 1 being the most essential piece of information to our article, 10 being the least important. This exercise was to help us establish which of our research nuggets were vital to our planned piece and which could be edited out as surplus to requirements. At first, I found this difficult; I felt all my points were essential. But after careful consideration it dawned on me there were at least two ‘gems’ of info on my list which could easily be dropped without affecting the main aim of my article.

Nigel concluded his workshop with these final thoughts:

Most essays simply describe “What”.

Good essays begin to explore “Why”.

The best essays establish an understanding of “How”.

Thanks, Nigel for another motivational and thought-provoking workshop.

Here’s to the planners – no more flying by the seats of our pants.

Linda Brown

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