I’m sure many of you, our readers, have wondered what it takes to get an article published and what a good article looks like.
Well, that’s a pretty broad topic, but I can shed some light on the kinds of things that spell trouble for an article and things that absolutely drive this editor crazy.
1. Bulleted Lists
Let’s begin with bulleted lists. (I’ve had one of those weeks.) Twenty pages of bulleted lists do not an article make. That’s a great doc to take on camping trip, but in no way is a list an article. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s a good idea to begin a writing project with an outline. I know that’s not what we learned in elementary school, but then that’s also where we learned not to begin a sentence with but, and, or any conjunction. Writing in outlines limits the thought process. And that’s not all. When you write outline style, you tend to forget to go back and fill in the blanks. And it forces you to think not in the natural narrative way we think during conversation, but within the artificial category-driven confines of an outline. Imagine coming home from work to tell your significant others how your day went:
- Drove to work.
- Had chat with boss.
- Discussed layoffs.
- Came home.
That’s not a conversation and it’s not a story. Not to mention you dropped a bombshell with no explanation. Magazine writing tells a story. Though it might not appear to be the case, the sort of technical writing we do here is more than documentation. As a reader you need to take away more than just which step to follow first; you need to understand why things work the way they do. So, as a writer you need to write that part. You need to explain the whys and make the connections. You need to put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Ask yourself if the statement about layoffs deserves further explanation. This brings me to pet peeve number two: obscuring cause and effect.
2. Who’s on First?
Frequently I will encounter two facts sitting side-by-side in a sentence. It often seems as if there is some relationship between them, maybe even a causal one, but I just can’t tell. When I see this happen, I immediately wonder if the writer is being evasive and noncommittal or just doesn’t know the answer. The reader wonders too. Maybe the writer is simply a victim of passive voice. You’ll recognize passive voice when you see it. It’s writing that’s completely devoid of actors. Nobody is doing anything (like my house on a Saturday morning), yet lots of things are getting done (well, somewhere). The grass is being mowed. The car is being washed. The dog is being walked. These aren’t so bad, I guess. We can imagine who’s walking the dog. But what about the function that’s being called or the instance that’s being invoked? Or the service that’s being started? In programming it’s nearly always the case that something caused something else which caused something else. Learning programming means understanding the chain of events. They’re vital.
It’s bad to keep readers in the dark about who’s doing what. It’s your job as a writer to be crystal clear on that and to make sure the reader doesn’t leave your sentence wondering who’s responsible for what.
3. Making Assumptions
There are so many assumptions writers make. One particularly annoying one I’ve seen a lot lately is the section subhead that does all the talking for the writer. I’ve seen writers make a statement in a section head and then never mention it again. He might allude to it, but never hits it head on. He might write something like the following header and then continue with the body of the text below it:
Clinton Wins Nomination
Now that that’s happened, pundits are wondering what’s next.
Well, a sentence shouldn’t have to look up at his headline or subhead to learn what he’s about. Don’t assume the reader will want to either.
4. Muddled Thinking
Talking about a concept as if it has already been introduced is disorienting. A sentence like: “A newly elected member of the senate, Mary is fond of blue,” raises lots of questions. A dependent clause like “A newly elected member of the senate” is no place at all to introduce new information. The construction itself with the de-emphasis on the “newly elected” implies that the reader should already know this fact. The writer is already in a hurry to get past that part, so surely the reader knows it, or doesn’t need to. And it implies that Mary‘s political role has something to do with her color preferences. So, did it cause them? And why is the important part of the statement, the fact that Mary was elected to the senate, taking a back seat to her color preference? Because here, the color preference is certainly the point we’re driving home, although it shouldn’t be.
When people write this way, they don’t intend to say that being elected caused the color preference. They want to say that, hey, guess what, Mary was just elected to the senate. And by the way, she likes blue. But everything goes horribly wrong. Prioritize your thoughts, do not use dependent clauses this way, and properly introduce new facts as new facts. And while you’re at it, if your sentence implies that something caused something it didn’t cause, begin again.
5. The History Lesson
It can be difficult to decide how much background to present in an article. You may have lots of information at your disposal and believe that the reader will be better off having read it. But that’s not usually the case. Once you state your thesis at the beginning, it’s best to include only the historical information that’s absolutely necessary–in situations when the current state of affairs just makes no sense or any other time when the topics cannot be understood outside the context. But beyond that, too much history can bore the reader, look like padding, and cause the reader to abandon the article assuming that it will never live up to its promise.
6. What Diagram?
I’m not an artist myself, but I thought it would be fun to let you in on a little secret about some of the artwork we occasionally get. Take a look at the following diagram:
Interesting Political Discussions
Guess what? This is not a diagram. A diagram shows relationships between things. This does not. In fact, these things are not related at all but the reader will try with all his might to make the connection. Poor reader.
Yet another unnecessary diagram shows unidirectional flow from one entity to another. It simply causes more confusion than it’s worth.
There are many other topics I’d like to write about here to help anyone looking to clean up their submissions. So I’ll come back next week with more pet peeves (hopefully it will be a bad week).
In the meantime, I’d love to hear the editorial complaints you have in your role as reader. I’m sure they will help us refine our process as well, so please fill in the comments below.
And if you want to know what Editor-in-Chief Howard Dierking looks for when accepting a manuscript for publication, visit his post here.