Code Quarterly Blog

Proposing an article

Posted in Write for us by Peter Seibel on May 26, 2010

The first step toward writing an article for Code Quarterly is to write a proposal. But you should not think of the proposal as an arbitrary hurdle you have to jump over in order before you can get to writing the article. Really it’s the beginning of your work on your article; the questions you will have to wrestle with to write a good proposal are the same questions you will face when you write the full article.

Here are some of those questions. These apply most directly to technical explanations, think pieces, and articles on computer history. Q&A interviews and book reviews are in some ways more straightforward and I’ll discuss them in a later post.

  • What is your topic? And, more important, what, in particular, do you want to say about it? It’s fine to start with a broad topic (e.g. “how optimizing compilers work”) but you then need to narrow it to something you can actually cover.

  • Do you have a firm grasp on the topic? Your own understanding of the topic will almost always need to be broader than what you’re actually going to cover in your piece. At the proposal stage, it’s okay to leave some things to be researched later but it’d be better not to discover things while writing that completely disrupt your plans.

  • What else has been said about this topic? How is what you are going to say going to add to the conversation? (Quick test: Google your topic and look at the top five hits. Is your article going to be worth reading to someone who has already read those five web pages?)

  • Why will our readers be interested in your article? This is your chance to start putting yourself in the reader’s shoes and articulating why they are going to want to read what you have to say.

  • How are you going to organize your article? There are lots of ways to structure the same information and writing is fundamentally about how you choose to do it. For instance, if you are writing about a particular programming technique, you could start with some simple code using the technique and build up to more complex examples or you could start with a realistically complex example which you then explain bit by bit. Or you could discuss the historical development of the technique and show what motivated each step in its history. Or something else. There is no one best structure for a given topic; it depends on what you are trying to accomplish and who you think your readers will be.

Once you think you know the answers to these questions, you’re ready to actually write a proposal. Quite likely, the act of actually writing down your thoughts will—if you pay attention—reveal where those thoughts are not as well formed as they seemed when they were rattling around in your head. That’s fine; it just means you need to circle back and do some more thinking.

In a perfect world, the first thing you send us would be a completed proposal that answers all these questions and gives us a good sense of your writing style. But that may be asking a bit much, especially if you’re new to the writing game. So, if you’re interested in writing for us, you should feel free to get in touch whenever you feel like you could use some help. As I’ve said elsewhere, we’re more interested in getting good content than in streamlining our process and we’re willing—indeed, we’re planning—to work quite closely with our authors. As long as it feels like each iteration is moving us closer toward a good proposal and, later, toward a good article, we’ll be happy to keep working with you.

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