By John Zajc
We've found that many of our writers tend to make the same sorts of mistakes when they sit down to work their research project into an article. We offer this advice to our members embarking on their first attempt at writing for SABR publication.
1. Be yourself
More than anything else, this is the key to good writing. Let your personality come through. We’re a band of friends here. We want to hear from you. Being real doesn’t undercut your expertise one bit. Simply put, write the way you talk. Read your text out loud to yourself. If it doesn’t sound the way you normally sound, fix it. Some specifics along these lines:
Don’t get formal, pompous or prissy just because your thoughts are going down on paper.
Where you have a choice, use the short word instead of the long one.
Chop most adjectives and adverbs. Instead, try to find nouns and verbs that are precise enough not to need modifiers.
Keep your paragraphs relatively short.
Use the active voice. This is old advice, but it’s good all the same.
Don’t say “It can be observed.....” say “You can see.....” or “Working with these numbers, I noticed.......”. In short, sound confident, not mealy-mouthed.
2. Have a point
We mean this literally. Have a point. You’re writing an article, not a book, so don’t be too broad in your aim. This requires that you know exactly what your point is. Sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how fuzzy a lot of us are on defining exactly what we’re up to. Try explaining your point in a brief sentence. If you can’t, you’ve probably got a problem.
3. Answer a question
Don’t confirm a prejudice. We get a fair number of queries and articles from writers with an ax to grind, who use only facts, stats, or anecdotes that support their side of an argument. We reject these quickly. We do want point of view, and we like it to be colorfully expressed, but it must be based on all the facts available, not on a determined marshaling of only one side of the case.
4. Pare extraneous material away ruthlessly
This speaks to one of the great flaws in almost all SABR writing. It is tempting to stuff in all of the neat things you’ve dug up in our research. But you need to remember that not all of this nifty data is relevant to that one point you are trying to get across. The material you’ve collected is not going to disappear and you can always use it later in an article where it really fits.
5. Don’t strain for a lead paragraph
This probably contradicts advice you’ve read elsewhere, but we’ve found time after time that good SABR leads emerge later in an article, and that heavily-worked and strained-for openings simply get lopped off because they’re too artificial. Try jumping right into your topic. Just say what is you’ve found or what is you want to demonstrate, or what historical event you want to describe. This opening may not ultimately remain your article’s first paragraph, but it lets you get into your writing smoothly and easily, and it saves you allot of mental anguish. Chances are, a natural lead will emerge as you write.
6. Imagine you are writing a letter to a friend
This helps a lot if you are having trouble getting going, or if you’re just a little intimidated by the idea of being published. In fact, this approach often results in the very best sorts of articles -- personal, colorful and idiomatic.
Your first draft is just that. Go through it first to make sure that your article is organized properly. It’s really common to receive manuscripts in which the writers have tacked things on as they’ve thought of them, rather than taking the time to rewrite and put them where they belong. This is also the time to make sure you sound like you and that your sentences really say what you want them to say.
8. Stop when you’ve said what you need to say
A great concluding sentence or two sets off an article like the cherry on top of a hot fudge sundae. But remember that the sundae tastes pretty good even without the cherry. If you’ve got a quick, catchy conclusion, by all means use it. But if you are straining to be funny or simply summarizing or restating what you’ve already written, forget it. (As with your article’s lead, your true conclusion is likely to be lurking somewhere else in your manuscript.
9. Use your editor
In most, but not all cases, this will be the Publications Director. If you’re having trouble, call. If you want to change your approach, call. If you just want to chat, call. We all want the same thing: terrific SABR articles for terrific SABR publications, and a good publishing experience for everyone.
10. Peer Review
With every article, SABR uses a peer review process. This can be one or several readers with expertise on the topic about which you are writing. Even if the article is “My dad, the major leaguer” it will be subject to a peer review. In almost every case, the reviewers’ comments will make the piece stronger. They may correct errors of any kind — statistical, biographical, even the spellings of players’ names. They will point out omissions and possibly direct you to different sources with which you can compare your information. This is a reassuring step in the publishing process. In a rare case, the peer reviewer might decline to recommend the article be published.
11. Expect to be edited
Precious few non-fiction pieces are printed as written — by any publication. We do not require articles to meet an arbitrary word count, but sometimes a piece still has to be cut to fit available space. Frankly, it is easier to accept a solid but pedestrian article of 1,500 words on some major leaguer than it is if the article runs 8,000 words. Many pieces, though, contain unnecessary material (see point 4 above). Then the editor cuts text to improve the article. Sometimes, the organization needs a little work. Editors move text around. Often, editors must find new leads or concluding paragraphs.