THE CRAFT OF ARTICLE WRITING
Writing is a complex skill. A very complex skill.
Not only do we put students under pressure to master the inconsistent spelling patterns and complex grammar of the English language, but we require them to know how to write for a variety of purposes in both fiction and nonfiction genres.
On top of this, writing is just one aspect of one subject among many.
The best way to help our students to overcome the challenge of writing in any genre is to help them to break things down into their component parts and give them a basic formula to follow.
In this article, we will break article writing down into its components and present a formulaic approach that will provide a basic structure for our students to follow.
Once this structure is mastered, students can, of course, begin to play with things.
But, until then, there is plenty of room within the discipline of the basic structure for students to express themselves in the article form.
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WHAT IS AN ARTICLE?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines an article as, “a piece of writing on a particular subject in a newspaper or magazine, or on the internet.”
An article’s shape and structure will vary depending on whether it’s intended for publication in a newspaper, magazine, or online.
Each of these media has its own requirements. For example, a magazine feature article may go into great depth on a topic, allowing for long, evocative paragraphs of exposition, while an online blog article may be full of lots of short paragraphs that get to the point without too much fanfare.
Each of these forms makes different demands on the writer, and it’s for this reason that most newspapers, magazines, and big websites provide writers with specific submission guidelines.
So, with such diverse demands placed on article writers, how do we go about teaching the diverse skill required to our students?
Luckily, we can break most types of articles down into some common key features.
Below we’ll take a look at the most important of these, along with an activity to get your students practicing each aspect right away.
Finally, we’ll take a look at a few general tips on article writing.
KEY WRITTEN FEATURES OF AN ARTICLE
The purpose of the headline is to capture the reader’s attention and let them know what the article is about. All of this in usually no more than 4 or 5 words!
There is an art to good headline writing and all sorts of literary devices (e.g alliteration and metaphor) can be used to create an eye-catching and intriguing headline.
The best way for students to learn how headlines work is to view some historical samples.
Newspaper headlines especially are known for being short and pithy. Here are just a few examples to whet the appetite:
- Hitler Is Dead
- Lincoln Shot
- Men Walk On The Moon
- Berlin Wall Crumbles
You could encourage students to find some pithy examples of their own. It’s amazing how much information can be condensed into so few words – this is the essence of good headline writing.
Headlines Practice Activity:
Give students opportunities to practice headline writing in isolation from article writing itself. For example, take sample stories from newspapers and magazines and challenge students to write new headlines for them. Set a word limit appropriate to the skills and age of the students. For example, younger, more inexperienced students might write 9-word headlines, while older, more skilled students might thrive with the challenge of a 4-word limit.
Subheadings give the reader more information on what the article is about. For this reason, they’re often a little longer than headlines and use a smaller font, though still larger (or in bold) than the font used in the body of the text.
Subheadings provide a little more of the necessary detail to inform readers what’s going on. If a headline is a jab, the subheading is the cross.
In magazines and online articles especially, there are often subheadings throughout the article. In this context, they let the reader know what each paragraph/section is about.
Subheadings also help the reader’s eye to scan the article and quickly get a sense of the story, for the writer they help immensely to organize the structure of the story.
One way to help organize paragraphs in an article is to use parallel structure.
Parallel structure is when we use similar words, phrases, and grammar structures. We might see this being used in a series of subheadings in a ‘How to’ article where the subheadings all start with an imperative such as choose, attach, cut, etc.
Have you noticed how all the sections in this ‘Key Features’ part of this article start simply with the word ‘The’? This is another example of a parallel structure.
Yet another example of parallel structure is when all the subheadings appear in the form of a question.
Whichever type of parallel structure students use, they need to be sure that they all in some way relate to the original title of the article.
To give students a chance to practice writing subheadings using parallel structure, instruct them to write subheadings for a piece of text that doesn’t already have them.
THE BODY PARAGRAPHS
Writing good, solid paragraphs is an art in itself. Luckily, you’ll find comprehensive guidance on this aspect of writing articles elsewhere on this site.
But, for now, let’s take a look at some general considerations for students when writing articles.
The length of the paragraphs will depend on the medium. For example, for online articles paragraphs are generally brief and to the point. Usually no more than a sentence or two and rarely more than five.
This style is often replicated in newspapers and magazines of a more tabloid nature.
Short paragraphs allow for more white space on the page or screen. This is much less daunting for the reader and makes it easier for them to focus their attention on what’s being said – a crucial advantage in these attention-hungry times.
Lots of white space makes articles much more readable on devices with smaller screens such as phones and tablets. Chunking information into brief paragraphs enables online readers to scan articles more quickly too, which is how much of the information on the internet is consumed – I do hope you’re not scanning this!
Conversely, articles that are written more formally, for example, academic articles, can benefit from longer paragraphs which allow for more space to provide supporting evidence for the topic sentence.
Deciding on the length of paragraphs in an article can be done by first thinking about the intended audience, the purpose of the article, as well as the nature of the information to be communicated.
A fun activity to practice paragraphing is to organize your students into groups and provide them with a copy of an article with the original paragraph breaks removed. In their groups, students read the article and decide on where they think the paragraphs should go.
To do this successfully, they’ll need to consider the type of publication they think the article is intended for, the purpose of the article, the language level, and the nature of the information.
When the groups have finished adding in their paragraph breaks they can share and compare their decisions with the other groups before you finally reveal where the breaks were in the original article.
Article Photos and Captions
Photos and captions aren’t always necessary in articles, but when they are, our students must understand how to make the most of them.
Just like the previous key features on our list, there are specific things students need to know to make the most of this specific aspect of article writing.
The internet has given us the gift of access to innumerable copyright-free images to accompany our articles, but what criteria should students use when choosing an image?
To choose the perfect accompanying image/s for their article, students need to identify images that match the tone of their article.
Quirky or risque images won’t match the more serious tone of an academic article well, but they might work perfectly for that feature of tattoo artists.
Photos are meant to bring value to an article – they speak a thousand words after all. It’s important then that the image is of a high enough resolution that the detail of those ‘thousand words’ is clearly visible to the reader.
Just as the tone of the photo should match the tone of the article, the tone of the caption should match the tone of the photo.
Captions should be informative and engaging. Often, the first thing a reader will look at in an article is the photos and then the caption. Frequently, they’ll use the information therein to decide whether or not they’ll continue to read.
When writing captions, students must avoid redundancy. They need to add information to that which is already available to the reader by looking at the image.
There’s no point merely describing in words what the reader can clearly see with their own two eyes. Students should describe things that are not immediately obvious, such as date, location, or the name of the event.
One last point, captions should be written in the present tense. By definition, the photo will show something that has happened already. Despite this, students should write as if the action in the image is happening right now.
Remind students that their captions should be brief; they must be careful not to waste words with such a tight format.
For this fun activity, you’ll need some old magazines and newspapers. Cut some of the photos out minus their captions. All the accompanying captions should be cut out and jumbled up. It’s the students’ job to match each image with the correct accompanying caption.
Students can present their decisions and explanations when they’ve finished.
A good extension exercise would be to challenge the students to write a superior caption for each of the images they’ve worked on.
TOP 5 TIPS FOR ARTICLE WRITING
Now your students have the key features of article writing sewn up tightly, let’s take a look at a few quick and easy tips to help them polish up their general article writing skills.
1. Read Widely – Reading widely, all manner of articles, is the best way students can internalize some of the habits of good article writing. Luckily, with the internet, it’s easy to find articles on any topic of interest at the click of a mouse.
2. Choose Interesting Topics – It’s hard to engage the reader when the writer is not themselves engaged. Be sure students choose article topics that pique their own interest (as far as possible!).
3. Research and Outline – Regardless of the type of article the student is writing, some research will be required. The research will help an article take shape in the form of an outline. Without these two crucial stages, articles run the danger of wandering aimlessly and, worse still, of containing inaccurate information and details.
4. Keep Things Simple – All articles are about communicating information in one form or another. The most effective way of doing this is to keep things easily understood by the reader. This is especially true when the topic is complex.
5. Edit and Proofread – This can be said of any type of writing, but it still bears repeating. Students need to ensure they comprehensively proofread and edit their work when they’ve ‘finished’. The importance of this part of the writing process can’t be overstated.
And to Conclude…
With time and plenty of practice, students will soon internalize the formula as outlined above.
This will enable students to efficiently research, outline, and structure their ideas before writing.
This ability, along with the general tips mentioned, will soon enable your students to produce well-written articles on a wide range of topics to meet the needs of a diverse range of audiences.
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TUTORIAL VIDEO ON HOW TO WRITE AN ARTICLE
The content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and English university lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book, The Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing, can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.