The beginning…

STEP 1: Get to the point. Every magazine article should have a clearly defined purpose. A feature, by nature, focuses on one subject, and maintains this theme throughout. Ask yourself, ‘What’s the point of this feature?’ Sum it up in one sentence, and type it at the top of your work-in-progress document. Is it to inform readers about thyroid problems and the benefits of having their thyroid functioning checked? Or to explain the social conditions that produce suicide bombers? Or to explore the best ways of dealing with the end of a relationship? Ask yourself, ‘What will my reader learn or gain from reading this article?’

STEP 2: Sketch an outline. A magazine article is a story, and every good story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. You need to come up with the following:

* A seductive introduction that lures them in and promises lots more where that came from;
* A body that’s fleshy, fascinating and satisfying – and keeps them interested right to the last paragraph;
* An ending that leaves them with something to think about for the next few days, weeks or even months.

How? Read through your brief and all your research until the story makes sense in your head. Now write an outline of the article, either on paper or on your computer. In other words, write the order of thoughts that makes the most sense to you, jotting down which points and chunks of information you’ll use in your introduction, body and conclusion.

STEP 3: Find a really good headline (or, um, just write ‘XXXXX’ until it comes). Sometimes the perfect story title arrives, manna-like, before you’ve even started writing. At other times, extracting it can feel like dental surgery. Your article’s title should entice someone to read your first paragraph – then, if you play your cards right, the whole feature. It must reflect the tone and content of your article: a story that’s humorous and light in tone needs a title of the same ilk. For a serious piece, it’s equally important that the header gives a reader the correct impression.

Spend some time brainstorming your headline. Survey the style of title used in the magazine you’re writing for. How do their headers draw the reader in? What tricks and techniques do they commonly use? (A question that piques your curiosity? A bold statement? A cheeky pun? A compelling quote?) Are the titles provocative, serious, quirky, clever, shocking, funny?

STEP 4: Write the blurb/intro. Formulating the snappy one- or two-sentence introduction below the title, before the article proper begins, can help you distil your article to its essence – a useful starting point from which the rest of the piece will flow.
What does an intro do? A lot. If a reader who’s glanced at the title hasn’t yet been convinced to read the story, the blurb should do the persuading.

Ideally, a blurb should give the reader a solid sense of what the article’s about, and have him or her gagging to know more. A way of achieving this is to hint at shocking conclusions to be drawn in the article, or ask provocative questions, or direct salient points at the reader using the second person (‘you’ and ‘your’).


Title: Are you really depressed?
Intro: Try this test: Write down the names of six women you know. How many have told you they are on medication for depression or anxiety? Three out of six? The question is, are they really depressed? Or, when you’re feeling down, should you be able to just snap out of it?’
By Georgia Black, Marie Claire

Title: Choice Words
Intro: Self-talk can be a motivational tool for runners – if what you’re saying makes sense.
By Gigi Douban, Runner’s World

Title: Coach me if you can
Intro: There are approximately 500 full-time life coaches in South Africa. Stand still for 10 minutes and chances are you’ll get coached into living your full potential. Sit down and you could qualify as one, writes Catriona Ross
Sunday Times Lifestyle

STEP 5: Write a grabby first paragraph. To make sure your first paragraph is riveting, try kicking off with one of the following techniques:
A vivid scene (bring in all the senses) involving a person, leading to a surprise
A great quote from a case study (preferably shocking, witty or provocative)
A shocking series of events
A fascinating, little-known fact
An intriguing statement
An interesting anecdote (a short, entertaining story or memory of a person or event)
A puzzling, compelling mystery which you promise to unravel later in the article
A humorous situation
The pitting of opposites against each other (two views, for instance) to set up tension
Your first paragraph should immediately set the scene, pace and tone of your story. It must make a strong point that’s integral to the whole, showing the reader why he or she is following this path with you. Ultimately, it should be powerful and punchy, create tension, and make your reader want more.


‘Runners know how to rank their body parts. Most vulnerable? Knees, for sure. Most tortured? Feet. We’ve got the blisters and black toenails to prove it. Most powerful? When it comes to speed, endurance and the diesel that gets us uphill, downhill and everywhere in between, most of us would find it hard to credit anything other than our thighs. And for good reason. The powerhouse muscles that make up our upper legs drive our running – whether we’re sprinting 100 metres or battling through 42.2 kilometres.’
From ‘Powerhouse Legs’ by Ted Spiker, Runner’s World

‘Many of us know this strange story. You and another woman meet, fall instantly in like, and forge a friendship worthy of a Hollywood movie. You open your hearts and wardrobes to each other, share your triumphs and tragedies. You counsel each other through man troubles, career crises, dieting disasters…And then, without warning, she steps out of your world.’
From ‘Dumped…by a Girlfriend?’by Catriona Ross, Cosmopolitan