Puzzling Out an Article

puzzle copy Writing a business article is very different from writing a personal essay or  for that matter, a magazine feature. Not only is the subject matter usually drier, but often for me there is also a big learning curve to master the subject so I can write about it in an informed way. With a feature interview, if I do my job right usually the story will unfold in such a way as to tell itself once I get started, but with a subject such as Part IV in a series on the financial crisis and the national housing bubble, progress is a little slower.

Fortunately, I am blessed to have a wonderful editor for this type of work, who engages in a give-and-take that always leaves me with renewed confidence in my ability to tackle the subject, but the process of piecing the article together is always a different one for me. Much more of the work happens off the page. Not only is there more research, but I also find myself shuffling and highlighting pages, outlining and reviewing notes long before I write. Then suddenly something happens, a glimmer of understanding, a burst of inspiration, and I can envision how the story should come together. I liken it to putting together a puzzle and once you get those first few pieces going, you can see the structure begin to emerge. And, when I’m lucky, when I really can see how each piece connects to the next, it’s a rush. Suddenly, the whole endeavor seems less like a nightmare and more like a challenge, like figuring out a particularly difficult crossword. That’s when I’m lucky, other times I just slog along.

Today, I did a bit of both and while by midday I happened on my burst of inspiration, I realized I had left my laptop at home and had to resort to chicken scratchings on paper. Not so bad you might guess, but somewhere along the way to becoming a professional writer I lost my handwriting. It had something to do with trying to take notes while maintaining eye contact during an interview. So nowadays, I can’t really read my handwriting and it seemed best to give it up and wait to return to my laptop. Problem is that by the time I got home -- after dinner and other errands -- my energy had ebbed and while I could still see where I needed to go with the piece, I lacked the stamina to get there.

There’s something else that happens with this type of work. With any article it’s not just a matter of figuring out how to tell a story, but to tell it in the designated number of words. This can be particularly challenging with a difficult subject matter. In order to understand your subject, you need to do a lot of interviews, but that leaves you with a lot of words. So even if inspiration hits and you see how it all should come together you have to figure out what car to leave off the train, so to speak. This often isn’t easy and involves a lot of second-guessing. Right now I’m halfway through the article, have already written the end and realize that without completing the substantial bulk in the middle I only have 200 words left to exceed my word count. Not good. As a result, I am giving it all up tonight and interrupting your regularly scheduled blog post to share this process with you.

I know the article will be easier to tackle when I am refreshed, but often returning requires becoming re-acclimated to the whole piece again. Sometimes it is just easier to stay with it like you would with a puzzle, “just one more piece” you say. In any case, I have done enough of the work to have all “the edges” in place and even a good portion of the center. I just have to do the work to bring this puzzling piece to its fruition.

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