Okay, I admit it—blatant hyperbole is not exactly fitting for professional writing. In my defense, we’re in the midst of an editorial cycle for the next issue of the Business Intelligence Journal, so the special joy of reading a clean, concise, and—above all—well-organized article is especially relevant. With that in mind….
Telling Stories About Storytelling
Storytelling is big these days—we publish about data storytelling, start-up incubators advise entrepreneurs on the importance of their organizational story, and ongoing events like The Moth reassure everyone that they have a story to tell. That’s great. Everyone loves a good story. Here’s why that matters:
- Your article must have a story to tell.
- Your article must be written in a way that tells that story.
Your Story to Tell
No one sits down to write an article unless they have something they want to say. Obvious when written just that way, but sometimes elusive when sitting at the keyboard. So absolute Step 1 is to Know Your Story. To put it another way, “what’s your point?”
A good story for an article can be written in a single sentence that should fit comfortably on a 3×3 Post-It note—maybe an index card. No more. If it doesn’t fit, it’s too big a topic. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to flesh out your point with side points and other writerly flourishes. It just means that your point—your story—should be that clear and concise. For example, here’s a once-sentence story from a recent Journal article:
This is how we use social media methods to provide sales analytics and why.
That’s it. Everything in the article relates to that one sentence. It would fit on that Post-It with room to spare. That’s how well you should know why you’re writing your article.
How to Tell Your Story
Many, many years ago, I took a class where I learned two things:
- A plot is “a series of events in a particular order for a reason.”
- A story without a plot isn’t a story.
Once you’ve got your one-sentence story, you’ve automatically got your plot. Your plot is whatever series of events allows you to tell your story—which, as we discussed, is the reason you are writing your article.
There are many tried-and-true approaches to plotting, most of which can be found by a quick web search. This one is my favorite:
This is what it was like. This is what we did. This is how it got better.
An alternate version of the same story is:
This is what it was like. This is what we should have done.
This is how it got worse.
Naturally, the first variant is a bit more optimistic, but they’re equally instructional.
A few other variations are:
This is your problem. This is our solution.
This is the proof that it is the solution.
This is the situation. This is what I did.
If I knew then what I know now…
You get the idea. In all of these examples, the first sentence of the plot is your Post-It note reason for writing. The second and third sentences are whatever supporting information you need to fill in those parts of the plot. As you write—and especially as you edit—you should be checking every sentence to make sure that it is (A) part of the story (meaning directly related to your reason for writing), and (B) part of the plot (meaning directly related to one of the sentences in your chosen plot variation). Anything that doesn’t meet both A and B is deleted.