Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘how to write an article

The magic first sentence

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“Finding a date in Beijing is not especially difficult”.

“When you land at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, yours very likely will be the only plane that day disturbing the quiet, although rather bumpy, runway”.

“Five years ago, Beijinger Robert Zhao went on a trip to Tibet”.

“Let’s start with Mary”.

These are the first sentences of some of the articles I’ve written. Most of them, as you can see, are pretty simple. But all of them came about quite suddenly.

So how do you write the first sentence? I can only speak from my own experience, but most of the time it just comes. The sentence will offer itself and I’ll trust that instinct and stick with it. From the opening sentence, everything follows.

I once read somewhere that if you have a title, the first sentence, and roughly know what the ending of the story will be, then half your job is already done. Sound advice, I thought.

I once copied out the first sentence of every essay contained in Tom Bissell’s book of essays Magic Hours (many of them started out as features for magazines). That is the extent of my writing geekery. I did it just out of interest. I wanted to see how a writer I much admire opens his pieces. I highly recommend such exercises. Once you copy and analyse in this way, you see the structure, the bones, that make up good writing, all the more clearly.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 10, 2015 at 2:36 pm

How to write an article you’ve never written before

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Over the years I’ve written about various disparate subjects. They’ve ranged from 1500-word features on economics to interview-based features, short travel pieces and investigatory video game essays. Sometimes you’ll write pieces which you have no clue how to write, how to structure it, what to put in.

In these cases, what I do is very simple. I was reminded of this when I read an online article in The New Yorker. It is about author Akhil Sharma and the 12 years he spent producing a novel: “After writing seven thousand pages over twelve and a half years, I now have a novel, published this week, that is two hundred and twenty-four pages long”.

The piece focuses on the technical challenges that Sharma faced writing his novel. It deals with what I believe writing can tend to be – a series of technical puzzles.

In these instances, it’s best to follow Sharma’s method:

“When I run into technical challenges, I look to writers who are not only better than I am but better than I ever probably will be. All I needed to do, therefore, was find novels that shared some of the same DNA as my book”.

I’m not comparing my journalism to the art of his fiction making. But what he said rung true. When I am unsure of how to achieve something, whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph or an article, I’ll often find prior examples, articles with similar subjects, and read. I’ll read it closely, and I’ll read it to study.

New territory

Recently I have not been so focused on pure journalism. I have in fact focused more on nonfiction. It is a fine distinction. Nonfiction tend to be essays, first-person pieces, memoir and narratives that don’t have a solely journalistic focus. Trying to make it as a writer, I feel nonfiction offers some of the creative freedom of fiction and the possibility of some personal renown.

You always have to aim upwards. I published a piece of nonfiction, but it was unpaid, and am now looking for paying outlets. Bigger and better.

Writing is a craft. And people may think writing just happens. But they don’t see the years of reading, of the early amateur practice pieces and the careful note-taking of other people’s sentences, the visual diagramming of how to put together an article.

But at least in journalism, there’s no sacrifice as equal in measure as Sharma’s: “The book took twelve and a half years of my life and I am not sure if it was the right investment of my time”.