I have been writing full or part-time for nearly 30 years, and I have written and edited hundreds of articles. Because of my background, I often get questions for advice on how to write articles, especially from DBAs who have never written an article before. These DBAs want to learn how to write articles because they want to share information with the community, increase their reputation within the community, or to improve their communication skills. In the past, I have answered these questions with short e-mails, or in short conversations. Rather than continuing to provide advice in a piecemeal fashion, I have decided to write this blog post.
If you have studied much about writing, you know that it is something that can’t be taught in a single article. You may also have learned that many authors take different approaches to writing. So as you read my article writing tips and tricks, keep in mind that everything you need to know about article writing is not included. In addition, my writing tips and tricks may or may not work well for you. Of course, you won’t know unless you try them. So if you are new to writing and are working on your first article, I suggest you try out my suggestions and see how they work for you. If my advice works for you, great. If my advice doesn’t work for you, then seek out other writing advice and give it a try. With enough study and practice, eventually you will find a style that works best for you.
Below are some of the most common article writing tips and tricks I share with others.
Know Your Audience
Before you write the very first word of an article, you need to fully understand who your audience is. This is very critical, as it will influence every aspect of your writing. For example, if your audience is novice DBAs, then your topic will need to be introductory in nature and you won’t be able to make any assumptions about their existing DBA knowledge. But if your audience is experienced DBAs, then you can discuss very technical topics, while making specific assumptions about their DBA knowledge. Once you select your target audience, always keep them in mind as you write. If you can, try to put yourself in the mind of the target audience so that you can better guess as to the kinds of information they want to know about the topic, along with answering questions you think they may want to ask, if they had the opportunity.
Before I sat down to write this blog post, I decided to target DBAs who had never written an article before. Although this is the major focus of this post, this posting should also be of interest to any novice writer, even those who may have previously written articles.
Narrow the Scope
Most articles run from 1,000 to 4,000 words. While this might seem like a lot of words to write, it really isn’t, especially when writing technical articles. Because you don’t have a lot of words to explain your topic, it is very important to select a topic that is narrow enough to be adequately covered in the specified length of your article. For example, it is impossible to cover the topic of SQL Server clustering in a single article. On the other hand, you can discuss very specifically how to select hardware to be used in a cluster, or the best methods of how to test a cluster before it is put into production. The narrower your topic, the better off your article will be.
If you a new writer, you may be tempted to keep your article on the shorter side, say 1,000 words or less, thinking that it will be easier to write. This is not often the case. For many writers, it is harder to write a shorter article than a longer article. So if this is your first article, don’t worry too much about the length when writing the first draft. Once the draft is done, see how long it is. If it’s too short to properly cover the topic, then you may need to add more content to fatten it up. If it is too long, then you can cut content that is weak or doesn’t fit the needs of the readers as well as the remaining content.
This blog post is about 4,000 words, and there is no way that I could cover every aspect of article writing in such a short article. Because of this, I chose to narrow my focus to some specific tips and tricks that I have discovered that work well for me.
Write About What You Know Best
When I write an article, I generally write about what I know best. This makes the writing experience easier and much faster. If you pick a topic that you don’t know well, then you will have to research the topic, which will slow down the writing process, making writing your first article that much more difficult. When you gain more experience as a writer, you may find that you purposely challenge yourself by writing about topics you are not familiar with in order to “force” yourself to learn something new. There nothing wrong with this, but isn’t a good idea for the novice writer.
I didn’t do any research for this article. I considered doing some research in order to see what advice other writers recommend for beginning article writers, but I decided against it because I wanted my blog post to come from my personal experiences, not from the experiences of others.
When I get idea for an article, one of the first things I do after picking my target audience and narrowing my subject matter, is to brainstorm. In other words, I just begin writing down various ideas about what content I want to include in my article. I don’t worry about the order the ideas are written in, nor do I expect that I will include every idea I write down in my article.
The goal of brainstorming is to get your creativity primed, and to help you come up with key points that you want to get across in your article. As you are brainstorming, you will often get even more ideas, and these ideas often feed on one another, and before you know it, you are adding ideas that you had not even thought of before. Once your brainstorming session is over, your next step is to formalize your ideas into an outline.
When I brainstormed this blog post, I started by writing out all of the tips and tricks I wanted to include. I wrote then down as I thought about them, in no particular order. As I was writing down the ones that first came to mind, these often reminded me of other tips and tricks I had forgotten about, so I included them as well.
Formalize Content in an Outline
Often, after brainstorming ideas, I have several pages of ideas, some of which clearly belong in the article, and others which do not. So my next step is to begin to organize the brainstorming ideas into a formal outline. To do this, I first group related ideas together, cutting and pasting in Microsoft Word. As I do this, different categories of content begin to appear. For example, as I am looking at all of my ideas, I might notice that eight of the ideas all fall into the same category, while another five ideas fall into another category. If I continue to do this, what eventually happens is that I end up creating an outline for the article. In some cases, I may notice that some categories don’t have many ideas, and if I think this is an important category to include in the article, I may do some additional brainstorming to round out the category.
Eventually, the outline will include all of the major categories of the ideas from my brainstorming, and these categories usually end up as being sub-heads in my article. Of course, some of the ideas or categories may not fit the narrow topic I have chosen, so these need to be removed. I continue this process until I have a formal outline that describes virtually all the content that will be in the article. In many cases, I will spend as much time in creating my outline as I do in writing my first draft of the article. I have discovered that the more detailed my article outline, the easier the fir
st draft is to write.
After my brainstorming session for this blog post, I carefully examined all of the tips and tricks I came up with, then placed them in the order that I thought would make the most sense for readers. In addition, I also changed some of the “category names” of the tips and tricks from my outline so they would be clearer and more understandable for the article.
Writing the Introduction
For me, writing the introduction is the most difficult part of writing any article. This is because the first paragraph of every article must always include the following. First, you need to tell your readers what the article is about in a brief and interesting manner; and second, you must tell your readers why the information in the article is useful to them. If you include this information, then readers will know right away if the article is something of interest to them. I often find myself rewriting the introduction of my articles five, six, or more times until I think it’s just right. Once you get the first paragraph right, the remaining article will be easier to write. This is because the exercise of summarizing the content of the article, along with explaining why the article is important to the reader, helps you to better crystalize in your mind what the article is really all about, which makes the process of writing much easier.
I rewrote the introduction of this blog post six times, and to be honest with you, I am still not 100% happy with it. If this was a formal article, and not a blog post, I would seek the advice of an editor to help me improve it.
Tell a Story
While an article is not fiction, it is still a story, and all good stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end. In other words, the first part of the articles tells the reader what they will be reading, the middle (also called the body) explains your points, and the ending of the article (or the summary) reviews what the reader just learned. As you write the body of your article, try to put it in an order that makes sense for the content you are presenting. This could be procedural, step-by-step instructions; it could be a chronological ordering; or it could be ordered by the level of difficulty of the content of the article. In other words, your articles should have an order to them that makes sense to the reader based on the content you have selected.
This blog post has a beginning, a middle which orders the tips and tricks in an order that I think makes sense to the reader—essentially a step-by-step order—and a summary.
Use Short Sentences and Paragraphs
I don’t want to talk much about grammar or writing style in this blog post, as this is far too big a topic. On the other hand, I do suggest that as you write, try to keep your sentences short (less than 20 words), as well as your paragraphs (2-5 sentences). This not only makes it easier for you to write your article, it also makes it easier for your audience to read.
Most, but not all of the sentences in this post are under 20 words (there are always exceptions). You have probably also noticed that my paragraphs are generally very short.
Divide your article into categories of content, and precede each category by its own sub-head. If you are not familiar with sub-heads, take a close look at this blog post. Each section has its own sub-head. Using sub-heads makes it easier for you, as a writer, to focus your thoughts. They also make it easier for readers to follow along, especially if the topic is complex. I have a tendency to use a lot of sub-heads in my articles, probably more than most writers.
This blog post has more sub-heads than you would find in most articles, but it is a function of the deliberate way I choose to present my content.
Readers want examples of what you are talking about. Examples help readers better visualize what you are describing, along with helping make your content come to life. For example, if you talk about the importance of making backups of databases, provide some specific examples of why making backups is important. As you can see, I use the phrase “for example” often in this blog post, specifically for the purpose of giving examples. Of course, you don’t have to use the phrase “for example” if you don’t want to, but however you want to include examples in your articles, the more the better.
Not only have I provided many example in the body of my blog post, I have included examples after each tip and trick. You are reading one now.
Write Like You Would Talk to a Friend
When I write technical articles, I try to write them very similarly as to how I would tell a friend of mine the same information if I were standing next to them, talking to them. Depending on the article, I use the first person point-of-view (use the word “I”), or I use the second person point-of-view (use the word “you”). Notice that I have used the first person point of view for the most part in this blog post. The thing to keep in mind is that you need to pick a point-of-view, and then stick to it throughout the article, and not switch back and forth without a good reason, otherwise it might be confusing to the reader.
While I generally write articles in the second person point-of-view, I choose to write this blog post mostly in the first person point-of-view because blog posts tend to be more informal, and because I wanted to get across to you the message that the tips and tricks listed here are what work for me, and that they may not work for you.
Writing the Summary
After writing the introduction, I find writing the summary as one of the hardest sections for me to write. This is because I need to succinctly summarize the content of the article, which is not an easy task. In addition, another thing I like to include in my summary is a call to action. By this, I want to challenge the reader to go out and try what I have suggested. I try to be motivational and get the reader to act on the information in my article. If they don’t act on my information, then the reader and I have wasted our time.
See my summary at the bottom of this blog post. As with my introduction, I am not 100% happy with it, but it does include both a summary and a call to action.
Rewrite, Rewrite and Rewrite
After completing the outline, I write the first draft of my article. My goal for my first draft is to get words down on paper as quickly as I can, without worrying about them being perfect. I take this approach because it relieves some of the stress of writing. I know of some people who are such perfectionists that it prevents them from writing in the first place. If you take that attitude, then you may never get around to writing your first article.
Once you complete the first draft, now it’s time for the real work to begin. When I write, I generally rewrite my articles at least three or four times, and in some cases, I might rewrite a single paragraph five or six times before I am happy with it. In other words, don’t expect perfection in the first draft of your article. Just get some words down on paper. Once the initial draft is done, the rewriting will be much easier. I would guess that I spend about 3 or 4 more time rewriting than I do writing the first draft.
I rewrote this blog post four times before posting it.
Have Your Article Reviewed by Others
As a DBA without any writing experience, writing your first article will be difficult. One of the problems is that you get so tied up in the article that you lose perspective and you can no longer clearly judge your own writing. Either you think it is terrible (and it isn’t) or you think it is great (but it’s not). Al
l writers, including myself, need someone to review their writing and offer feedback. This is a normal process. As a novice writer, I suggest you seek out a mentor with writing experience who can offer you impartial feedback on your writing. While you may not always agree with the feedback, the feedback is still very important and can help you gain the perspective you need to improve your article.
As an experienced writer, I skip this step, as I now feel comfortable with my writing style. But as a beginning writer, a mentor can be tremendously helpful.
Special Note for Non-Native English Speakers
The DBA community is world-wide, and while most DBAs can speak and read English, writing it is often a challenge. If you are a non-native English speaker, and your English-writing skills are weak, you should find someone with good English-writing skills to help you out. If you don’t, you may find that your articles will not be published.
I have edited many articles written by non-English speaking DBAs with poor English writing skills, and I have often found this to be a very frustrating experience. As an editor, it is my job to help the writer improve their article, not to rewrite it. But unfortunately, I often end up completely rewriting most of these articles, as rewriting them is often much faster than trying to edit them.
Edit and Polish
Once you get feedback from any mentors you may have, it’s time for one last rewrite. What you want to do is to carefully consider all the advice you have received and think about how it can be incorporated into your article. Another thing I like to do is to wait a week or so after completing my first draft before doing my final edit and polish. This delay helps you gain perspective on your work, so when you see it again after a week, it will look different to you, and you will more easily be able to find and fix any potential weaknesses in the article. Once this is done, you are ready to submit the article for potential publication.
Given that this is a blog post, and is informally written, I only waited four days before I did my initial edit and polish. If I was writing for publication, I would have waited longer. The longer you wait, the better your perspective.
Working with Editors
One of the things I always do for the people who edit my work is to thank them for making me look good in print. Even my most edited and polished articled are still not perfect. Depending on who is publishing your work, your article might go through as many as three different editors. A technical editor’s purpose is to review your content for technical accuracy. A content editor’s purpose is to help you massage your article so that it is more readable, helping out with the structure of the article. A copy editor’s purpose is to clean up any grammar, stylistic, or spelling errors. In some cases, an editor wears more than one hat, and the same person may perform two or more of these edits.
As you get feedback from your editors, it is your job to take their advice and improve your article accordingly. As a new writer, don’t feel bad if you get a lot of constructive feedback. It’s all part of the learning process. Do your best to learn from the feedback so your writing continues to improve.
The job of an editor is to help improve the quality of the article, not to rewrite the article. I mention this because I have seen many articles that were so poorly written that the only way to make them publishable is to rewrite them from scratch. While I have rewritten some articles from scratch, this is not the editor’s job. Generally, when I get such a poorly written article, I will provide some general technical or content editing feedback, then I ask the writer to start all over again, following my general advice. If the author can’t do this, then I won’t publish it. Beginning writers can’t expect that someone else will do their job.
As this is a blog post and not a formal article, this article has not been edited by anyone. Because of this, I am sure there are typos or other problems with this post that could be improved had it been properly edited.
Get Started Today
If you have never written an article before, and you want to give it a try, there is lots of advice you can find in books and the Internet. You can take the tips and tricks I have described above, which work well for me, and give them a try, or you can explore other writing advice and see what works best for you.
While it is great that you are reading this article, the only way to really learn how to write is to take the leap and begin writing as soon as you can. In fact, start this weekend. You don’t have to write an entire article all at once. For example, consider taking this gentle path for writing your first article.
- Weekend One: Start by thinking about a narrow topic that you are familiar with, along with considering who the target audience will be. Write this down.
- Weekend Two: Spend this weekend brainstorming ideas, and then rearrange them into a formal outline.
- Weekend Three: Write your first draft, without worrying about getting it right the first time around.
- Weekend Four: Rewrite the first draft of your article, and once you think it is in fairly good shape, give it to a relative, friend, or mentor to get their feedback.
- Weekend Five: Gather the feedback you have received, and then do another rewrite, while incorporating the feedback you received.
- Weekend Six: Use this weekend for your final edit and polish, and then send it off for potential publication. If you are writing about SQL Server, consider sending it to www.SQLServerCentral.com, as they often work with beginning writers.
Almost anyone, even the busiest of DBAs, should be able to find an hour or two each weekend for the next six weeks or so, and write their first article. So give it a try, even though the initial writing experience might seem a little bit painful. Once you do it several times, it will begin to get easier and easier. I promise, as that is what happened to me.
Please let me know your feedback on this blog post.
7 thoughts on “Tips & Tricks for DBAs Writing Their First Article”
I think one last thing to note is about the final format of the article, especially in regards to length. I feel that overly long blog posts can be a little intimidating, and I think 4,000 words pushes the maximum that I’d read, at least if it wasn’t broken up into a series of posts or pages. If it is something being written for print, or even a magazine style online publication, then 4,000 words is a nice, substantial article.
Otherwise, I follow a lot of these tips as well. I’m definitely a sit down and throw it all on the page kind of guy, because a lot of the work comes in the editing. Oh, and practice, practice, practice… there’s just no other way to grow that writing skill.
Matt, you ran across one of my bad habits as a writer, and that is writing too much. It happens to me all the time, and it is a hard habit for me to break.
I don’t think that it’s a bad habit of yours (or anyone else), I just think that there are appropriate lengths for written pieces based on the delivery format. Given one of your points above – when writing for certain audiences, you cannot take anything as a given – that would necessarily lend itself to longer pieces. But I have seen some interesting things, like 7,000 word blog posts with no images or headings to break up the content – and so I meant it as a note for writing in general. Personally, I have a habit of being too concise at times, even leaving out some important points to an argument I might be making, or relying on assumptions for the reader: that’s not a good habit either. But that’s also where editing comes in. And folks feel that writing is difficult, I think editing is harder because it’s at that point that the piece is actually being written and worked into a final article. The overall length, tone, style… for me, it all happens in editing.
I really wanted to thank you for this post. When I read it I did not think that it would be information that I had not heard before, but it was. And even the stuff I have heard before, you were able to help me understand a bit more.
The post was awesome, and the changes were apperant in the first article that I did. Thanks a lot.
Thanks again, we can never read enough about writing. Excellent stuff.
I just wanted to thank you for your help in publishing articles on sql-server-performance.com. I know I gave you hard time in editing my English.
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