Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Magic Key Professional Writers Use

The Magic Key Professional Writers Use

Blog #3

They use it near the beginning, often just following the lead-off sentences. I call it the “thesis statement.” It says in one sentence what the article that follows tells from there on out.

Take “No Guts, No Glory” on page 53 of the May Reader’s Digest magazine. It opens with a first sentence that asks a question: “How did a high school English and art teacher, with no business experience, create a multimillion-dollar company?”

The second sentence identifies the teacher, gives her age and tells that she originated a line of Baby Einstein videos and books for little kids that millions of people around the world know all about.

The third sentence in this three sentence paragraph* presents the thesis statement that says in few words what the article will be about: “She credits her success to common sense—and tenacity.”

*Try to hold your paragraphs to one-to-three sentences in length. Editors like this. Such articles are easy to read. For editors and readers, long paragraphs are tiresome.

The rest of the article explains how she used common sense and tenacity to achieve her goals. This method gives a brief table of contents to the article.

The article, “Show Us the Money” on page 65 also begins with a question. It asks whether you have ever heard of phantom nurses.

The next sentence, the thesis statement, tells how Dr. Kyriakie Sarafoglou of Cornell University’s med school grew suspicious of the way government grant dollars were being spent there. The article tells the chronology of her concern as she discovered that top scientists were treating federal grants like their own personal playthings.

Halfway through, the author inserts another thesis statement, “The shocking thing is that this is happening in many of America’s best universities and hospitals.” He develops this by listing the names of some of those institutions and by telling what they are doing.

Near the end is his last: “And here’s the final insult: diverting grant money.” He explains that recipients can use the money to fund other things.

Use of the thesis statement technique gives direction to the article. By keeping to the point, the author gains authority. Readers believe he is writing the truth. Editors like articles like this!

“Spark of Genius” on page 132 begins with a narrative. Marianne is startled out of sleep by the sound of metal banging metal. She finds her husband is cutting up her pie pans with aluminum shears. She tells him he has chemo coming up in the morning. He replies that he’s working on an idea.

Then comes the thesis statement (this time in three sentences) that carries us through the article, “Marianne knew her husband, who called himself a Type-A Plus, well enough to leave him alone with his midnight obsession. His ceaseless drive had made him a success in business. She understood that he had no choice but to fight cancer the same way.”

The article will show us how he used his creative skills to develop a treatment for cancer that has amazed the medical profession. It works on animals and the inventor, John Curley, believes it holds great promise for cancer patients.

Finally, in “Hail to the Chef” on page 159, the author Richard Wolffe begins with a double declarative sentence: “In the world of culinary news, it was one hot morsel: Laura Bush was looking for a new White House Executive Chef.” He follows that with his thesis statement that lays out what will follow: “The right person would have the talent and temperament to handle extraordinary stress—from sprawling events on the South Lawn to state dinners for world leaders to the needs and tastes of the First Family itself.”

A six-month search ends when a woman, already on the White House staff, gets the appointment. The author identifies her—who she is and how she got the appointment—and then shows how she faces the challenges of her new job.

As you read articles, look for the thesis statement. Be aware that you will rarely find one in chronological narratives that begin at a point in time and follow the main character(s) through the story.

“Diving Buddy” on page 32 begins with “It had been a long week repairing engines” at a marina as the main character leaves work and discovers that a white car with people had driven off the end of the pier. No need for a thesis statement. The adventure holds us.

Look through articles you have in the hopper. Do you have a thesis statement at or near the beginning? If not, compose a table of contents in one sentence that will alert your reader to the attractions you have to offer.

Hopefully, this key will help you write articles that sell.

Professor Dick Bohrer


Blogger Big Dave T said...

Hi professor!

Paul suggested I come by and visit your site. How's that for a transitive verb?

I took journalism classes of my own over a quarter century ago. Most of my old journalism professors are dead though, I fear.

Good luck blogging.

4:40 PM  
Blogger bornfool said...

I can see that I need a subscription to RD.

7:05 AM  

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