Thursday, November 17, 2005

Organizing A Long Magazine Article

A “classic” when it comes to writing books is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. If you haven’t read this title, I highly recommend it.  My copy is something I cherish because Zinsser autographed it in 1990 when he spoke at an Evangelical Press Association convention.  His publisher, Harper & Row, graciously sent a bunch of copies to our convention. As magazine editors, we lined up for his autograph.  Over the years, I’ve read the book several times and valued the contents and the clarion call to excellent writing.

I belong to several online writing groups and attempt to participate when I can. Earlier this week, the moderator quoted from On Writing Well saying, “Organizing a long article is the most unsung and untaught skill in nonfiction writing. But it's just as important as knowing how to write a clear and pleasing sentence. All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don't keep remembering that writing is sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next, and that narrative--good old-fashioned storytelling--is what should pull your readers along without their ever noticing the tug. The only thing they should be aware of is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey and know where you are going.”   I tried to find the quotation in my copy—yet couldn’t locate it. I wrote and learned the quote comes from On Writing Well fifth edition by William Zinsser, Chapter 21, page 253, paragraph 2. Harper Perennial, (c) 1994, NY, NY. My edition only had 246 pages so no wonder I couldn’t find it.  If you follow the link, you will see the latest version of this book from 2001 has 352 pages.  I guess I need to order a new book but it shows the on-going learning and valuable writing teaching from William Zinsser.

For the online group, we were discussing how to organize the long magazine article. I didn’t make a long contribution to the group but here’s what I had to say:

As others in this discussion have says, outlining and understanding the overall flow and structure of your long article is important. Another key for a successful long article is to be reading and analyzing long magazine articles. Many Christian publications are focused on shorter lengths  such as 1,000 to 1,500 words (which are easier to sustain and write).  Many publications have cut back on these longer articles because of the short attention spans of their audience. 

To find these longer magazine articles, I recommend O Magazine. For example, one of my writer friends in the American Society of Journalists and Authors had a lengthy article in the October issue of O Magazine called “All the Wrong Men.” Unfortunately the article isn’t available online. Janine Latus uses subheads and an ever entangling personal experience story to sustain it for six pages in the magazine. Because of the topic (abusive men), Janine worked the longer magazine article into a memoir book proposal which generated a bidding war--and ultimately Simon & Schuster won. The book will appear in 2007 and I’m eager to see the finished book.

Many writers could profit from reading then studying the form of these longer articles--and understanding the variety of their constructions.  Magazines like O Magazine, The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly would be good sources for these types of pieces. The key from my perspective is to continue your education and learning to become a better writer.  We can learn from many different sources.

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