How to do an article autopsy

Wrestling does not interest me in the least. I never watch it, unless it’s happening in my family room in which case the wrestlers get kicked out into the backyard. But I have read about wrestling, simply because the writing was so crisp, engaging and entertaining. And I stopped to wonder at the skill of a writer who could draw me deeply into a subject that I’d otherwise never read and in my experience always leads to yelling, tears and broken stuff.

Which brings me to why writers are so lucky.

They love to read (or they should!) and they can sharpen their own writing skills by reading excellent writing. But a keen, sharp-eyed writer with a full cup of tea and a few minutes at hand can go beyond just reading and marvelling. We can dissect, cut up, tear apart and generally wreak havoc on the printed page with a pen while we conduct an article autopsy that will help us understand how the writer put together such a great piece of writing.

For example, were you grabbed by the opening lines? Then take note of what the writer did. Skip ahead to the end. Did they wrap up in the same way or go somewhere completely new? Where are the metaphors? Circle them. Are they fresh and new or old and stale as the bread lying abandoned on top of my fridge? Where are the transitions in the article? Are they elegant or clumsy? How did the writer bring you in the front door and then usher you through the house they built? How about word play? Did the writer use an old word in a new way? What about quotes? Were they smoothly and spaciously inserted or crammed like a tub of margarine into a fridge that is too full?

When articles work, take some time to try and figure out why. When they don’t, dig around to see what killed them. Either way you are improving your craft.


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