How to Flesh Out Your Articles with More Content
“You need more content” seems to be a common response when a writer asks for suggestions after being told that their article was not acceptable. I recently participated in a forum thread in which a young lady was asking for an honest critique of an article she'd written. It was good... but as I read it, I was thinking the same as what other commenters were saying: Not enough content. I had to chuckle to myself because I seem to have the opposite problem. I have a tendency to write too much! - and it often takes me awhile to try to pare down the piece I'm working on. At any rate, it suddenly dawned on me that maybe my problem could be to someone else’s benefit. Hence, the reason for this article.
So, as the overly well-endowed lady who complains of having too much plumpness says to the lean one who complains of having too little: “You can have some of mine!” All joking aside, considering that my problem is maybe having too much content, while others' problem may be a lack of content, I thought I'd share some of my... overflow, so to speak, in the hope that I might present some useful ideas on how to help flesh out those lean articles.
The Devil is in the details
OK, here’s my personal Number One Rule: Never assume how much your readers know – especially if you’re writing to the general public. This is something I’ve struggled with, myself, as a reader. I've had this happen to me several times while searching online for a tutorial regarding some computer program or other (I admit to being somewhat technologically challenged). I might find one that initially looks good, but after a little bit of reading the article or watching the video, I find it confusing because the author assumes that the reader already has a basic understanding of the subject, even when the tutorial claims to be for beginners. Sometimes I just want to scream “Talk to me like I’m a 5-year-old!” I mean, not all of us were born with a mouse in our hand, eyes glued to a screen, and using an I-pod in place of a security blanket. If you're planning on writing an article to teach beginners, you must think like a beginner yourself.
So, be thorough in your explanations, particularly if you’re writing a how-to article. Don’t skimp too much on the details. They’re important. You may think that telling your readers to do something so obvious as turning on the on/off switch would be insulting your readers’ intelligence, but trust me! - there are some people... well, let's just say that some people lack the confidence to use good sense when it comes to something that they feel they are completely clueless about. I suppose they are paralyzed by the fear that they'll do it all wrong (I confess that, at times I can be one of those people - depending on what the subject is).
There are a couple of ways to get around the potential insult to intelligence problem, though. One is to target your audience in your title. If you are writing a how-to piece on some tips for photo-shopping, for example, but you don’t want to go into great detail on the basics, a title like “Tips for Intermediate Photoshop Users” might be a good idea. If your how-to article needs to be all-inclusive, one that will attract both novices and the more advanced alike on your particular subject, at pertinent points within your article you can direct your comments to specific readers. For instance, you can write something like, “For those who are more advanced, skip to the next section,” or something to indicate that you’re aware of both your beginner and your more advanced readership.
The point I'm trying to make, though, is that if your writing is geared towards the general public you can’t assume that people have even a basic knowledge of what you’re talking about. Unless you're targeting a specific group of people who should have a basic understanding of your subject, if you are including instructions in your article, be sure that you explain them in enough detail that anyone can understand, because, when writing to the general public, "anyone" is your intended readership.
Details are not only important in instructional pieces, but in describing characters, settings, events and anything else that’s important to your work. Details provide interest and something for the reader to relate to. Details add life to your subject. Notice the difference between the following examples:
1.) He was a small man, but masculine and strong.
2.) Though he was slightly narrow in the shoulders, and he was no more than 5’7”, he exuded masculinity. His hands were blunt and square and manly-looking. His arms, though wiry and almost thin, were well-toned. His jeans molded to his sinewy calves, hinting at their athletic power. His face had character, possessing a firm jaw and a strong, square chin. His hazel eyes, though kind, held a hint of steel in their depths.
Though the first description expresses the main idea, the second one turns him from a faceless character into an imaginable person. The idea is that if you want to connect with your readers, your words should give them something to draw from, something to attract their attention. In addition, including details can't hurt an article that's lacking in content.
Providing a background will help both to expand your article and to bring your subject to life even more. Let’s say you’re writing a piece about a certain celebrity’s contributions to society. Throwing in some background information about that person’s life can help the reader to get a better idea of that person’s motivations, feelings, why they chose a particular charity or organization with whom they’ve become involved. In short, it helps the reader to understand what makes that person tick. Putting your subject into the context of their background gives the reader a sense of empathy, connection, interest – something that pulls the reader in.
If your subject is not a person, but maybe a thing, a place, or even a concept, providing a contextual backdrop is still a good idea; it lends depth to your subject. Maybe you’re writing a piece on Spain for a travel magazine. Mentioning the fact that for 800 years the country was under the control of the Muslim Moors might help to shed a little light on Spanish customs and attitudes; the cultural and social aspects of her nation; literature, music, art, and even architectural styles; the significance of some of her historical monuments and places. A contextual backdrop not only helps to provide the reader with a deeper knowledge of your subject, but it helps to fill out your article.
Use Examples and Analogies
A great way to expound on your subject is to use examples and analogies. These are wonderful tools to use to explain those ideas that you might find are difficult to get across in your writing. Most people tend to be very visual. If they can’t see something in person, they need to be able to “see” it in their minds – to imagine it. I often use examples/analogies when I write (this article is filled with them, in case you didn't notice). Examples help to give people a clearer understanding of what the writer is trying to say; they are important in instruction and in description. For example, think about when you were a kid in school learning math. Your third-grade teacher was trying to teach fractions. Maybe she drew circles on construction paper which represented pies. She cut them out and then she sectioned them off into equal triangular pieces. Using the pie pieces as parts of a whole was a good example for the teacher to use to demonstrate how to work with fractions, and it gave the students an easy way to comprehend the subject.
We use examples and analogies in “real life” and in our speech all the time. It’s even more important to do so in writing! When we are speaking to someone in person, we can see what they’re saying by their expressions, bodily gestures, and even props (as in the "pie pieces/fractions" example that I used above). We can also hear their tone of voice and pick up nuances from their speech. The written word doesn’t have all those advantages, so it needs all the help it can get. To use an analogy of how important examples are, suppose you have a blind friend. She wants so badly to be able to experience that concept of “color” that she hears about all the time. You know she can’t see, so you “paint a picture” in her mind, using as examples things that you know she does experience. You might say something like… “Yellow is bright and happy, like the warmth of the sun on your face, or like a canary twittering in the branches. It brings to mind happiness and cheerfulness. Green is cool and comfortable like the grass between your toes that softens the ground as nature's carpet. Blue is tranquil, yet sometimes moody or even sad, depending on the hue. Light blue is bright and clear like the tranquility you feel on a nice sunny day. Blue is the color of the sky, or of a lake on that clear sunny day. Navy blue is kind of like the deep, dark depths of the ocean… moody and mysterious and somehow kind of mournful – like the Blues style of music…” and so on. Your friend can’t see the colors, but she can at least get a vague idea of them from your examples of the things she does understand.
In a way, that’s what writers are up against. Our readers can’t see us, or even hear us or the things we’re talking about because we’re not there to show them. We have to think of them as blind, in a sense, and paint “word pictures” in our readers’ minds by using examples and/or analogies to explain what we’re trying to say through the written word.
Details, context, examples. These are three things that I think are good for rounding out your writing projects. Hopefully, these suggestions are worth chewing on as ideas for ways to flesh out your articles and add more content to them when needed.