I’m constantly Googling, “How to…
How to train for krav maga. How to learn speed reading. How to get yet another mystery item out of the garbage disposal without losing my hand. More or less, how to survive my life.
Sometimes, I come across really useful information that sends me on my way, heel-kicking like a damn leprechaun on St. Pats. The rest of the time, I find “resources” that leave me with more questions than answers. Generic content spew more focused on search rankings than having a valuable conversation with readers.
Let’s call it what it is: tosh.
Because you’re a person of substance and high standards, you want to do more than simply write a flimsy service piece that leaves readers annoyed and still searching.
Nope. Half-baked isn’t your way.
You want to offer up more than a few vague ideas of how to address a particular problem that’s been gnawing at them for weeks. You want to deliver comprehensive advice that better positions someone like me to handle existing. (And Lord knows I need all the assistance I can get with that.)
That’s why you’re here and what we’re going to cover. In a bit of detail.
What is a service article?
The outlet form for experts to share their knowledge. The mainstay in most magazines and blogs. A resource for individuals to resolve pesky conundrums. Service articles are just how-tos describing a step-by-step process that walks readers out of confusion and into solutions.
Have a tip you’re dying to write? Want to demonstrate your expertise? Here’s my way to take concepts and turn them into full-fledged, publishable work.
1. Clarify what you want to say
If you already know, move along to the next step. But, if you need some help figuring out a topic, let’s start mining your life with three questions, Sharpie markers, a timer set for an hour, and one of my favorite things to do: brainstorm ideas.
- – What experiences do you have? At what do you excel? Do you know the best way to travel as a solo female in the Peruvian Amazon? (If yes, let’s chat). Do you have an exceptional way to create art using old window frames and cool photos? Do you have a fail-proof habit-stacking system that could help people be more productive? Believe it or not, your background, experiences, and knowledge are far more valuable than you think. What you might consider uninteresting or basic could be the very thing someone in Utah spends their free evenings Googling. Trust in who you are, your idiosyncrasies, your unearthed lessons. The world waits.
- – What are you curious about? No one says you have to be the world’s greatest expert on underwater basket weaving to create a helpful guide on the subject. When it comes to putting together valuable information founded in evidentiary support, research remains king. (We’ll talk about that next.) That being said, what real-world, everyday issues or problems have your mind spinning? What are you looking up during your lunch break? What do you need to learn to improve the quality of your life? Guaranteed, someone across town wonders the same thing.
- – What are your readers curious about? Whether writing for a magazine or blog post, think about what keeps your target audience up at night. How are they struggling? What would improve their lives? What new tip have you recently come across that you’ve felt compelled to share across your social circle?
2. Get support for your claims
Most of us don’t want to follow someone blindly into the depths of any topic, be it BJJ or branding basics, unless we trust the information and process has been vetted and researched. There are too many people claiming to have the fix for us, without proving their resources. This simply doesn’t work. You could be a masterful painter, but how do we know? Plus, no matter how well you know a topic, there’s always room for improvement or updated methods.
Consider the words from award-winning historian, journalist and playwright Jeff Biggers in his Writer’s Digest article, “Research Tips for Nonfiction.”
“Whether I’m traveling to a new destination or investigating a story over environmental protection or researching the life of an American Revolution leader, I never assume I’m the first person to cross that border. Before I leave the house, I read everything—or as much as humanly possible—that others have written on the same subject. This has never ‘ruined’ a trip, as some sort of spoiler. Hardly. It simply provides a deeper understanding for an original story.
We all have the capacity to put our own frame on events or stories; but in the world of nonfiction, dealing with real facts and figures, it’s important to review the work of writers who have done a lot of the heavy lifting and primary research.”
Whether you’re already an expert or need to research a topic, do the due diligence to inform your work. Check reputable resources for stats and facts to bolster your conversation. Look to experts; journals; research-based articles; well-written books; reputable polls, surveys, and analyst-driven reports.
3. Write to one person
The masses. As soon as you decide you’re going to put words to paper, there they are, in the back of your mind. With all their expectations, judgements, and needs.
Have you ever tried to please everyone? It’s impossible for the exact reason stated above. Each individual person has his own expectations and desires about how the world fits into a digestible paradigm. Trying to accommodate each and every person who comes across your article is like trying to bake one kind of cookie for everyone in the world. No matter how exceptional you are in the kitchen, not everyone can tolerate nuts, eat gluten, or even likes chocolate chip (idiots). To appease the faceless crowd, you’ll be up all night, exhausted, covered in flour and butter.
Pick one person who gets you, who needs your help, who fits your target audience, and write to that one person.
I love how Gavin Morrice puts it: “When you try to speak to everyone at once, you’ll be heard by no one. The more specifically you direct your message, the more likely you are to be heard.
For me, choosing just one person moves the process of writing away from trying to create a vaguely defined artifact for an imaginary audience, to the natural and purposeful act of writing a note to a friend. Any questions of voice, tone, style, and depth all naturally answer themselves, in the same way as they do when you have a conversation with someone you know. The same is true of context, so you’ll find it less frustrating trying to guess how much background information your reader already has, and how much you should provide.”
Personally, I write for my fiancee, James. Not only interested in improving in every way, he gets my sense of humor and loves my style (or so he says, lol). This simplifies my process and eases my concerns. I don’t worry if the entire world doesn’t like my word economy or flow for which I opt. I’m not spending hours unnecessarily concerned if my jokes are going to bomb with an entire room. I focus on James. If he likes it, if it helps him, I’m happy.
“Write to please just one person.
If you open a window and make love to the world,
so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”
― Kurt Vonnegut
4. Figure out the reader’s end goal
Ultimately, everyone wants a more kickass life.
They want to be more efficient, organized, successful, happy, fulfilled. The list goes on. While you can’t Midas-touch someone’s existence, you can improve it with tips and lessons learned aimed specifically to that person. Now that you know who you’re addressing, narrow down what he or she wants:
- – Who is he?
- – Why is he reading this?
- – How does he spend his valuable time?
- – What does he want for his life? Himself?
- – What challenges does he have?
- – What do you want him to be able to do after reading this article?
- – How can you slant your information as narrowly as possible to an exact situation this person faces?
Armed with such information will allow you to package the idea for your ideal reader. Simply going from general to specific in the way you present your material will change the way your target reader will come to it.
Think this: How Higher Education Schools Can Share Better Stories on Their Websites
Not that: How to Tell Better Stories on Your Website
From this angle, you can include more on-point references that resonate like an 15th-century Italian church bell at 6am after an all-nighter.
5. Explain yourself with a storyline that flows
Your job here: Walk us through each and every minuscule detail.
Start from a place of absolute confusion—how to even get started—and manually move us through each step in the process. Even if you think an action might seem obvious, it may not be to your reader. Imagine he’s a complete noob. He has no idea about anything regarding your topic. Nothing. Your job, as the expert, is to try to remember what it was like to be completely clueless about something you’re extremely knowledgeable. Not the easiest thing, but really the whole point of this type of article.
For example, while writing this, I’m writing to James, who’s never written a service article in his life. He might not have the first clue about how to get going. But he wants to, so my role is to guide him. Make sure he doesn’t forget to do this or consider that. I have to do whatever I can for him to have a successful outcome.
- – Start by defining the major actions your student must take. These could be your subheaders. What’s great about this is you can use the process as your outline, which inherently builds story flow into the article. A nice bonus you wouldn’t have with, say, profiles or feature stories.
- – Break down each point into finer detail. Explain anything and everything you can in this section to bolster the reader’s efforts, warn them of pitfalls, and mitigate complication.
- – Check yourself. Walk through the process, making sure you’ve not left any potential questions from your audience unanswered. Did you cover every aspect? Did you leave the reader with questions? Were you unclear at any part? If so revisit the piece until you’re confident that your reader could succeed with your instructions alone.
6. Bait the hook…
“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead,” said William Zinsser in On Writing Well.
People don’t have the time or patience to wait for you to captivate them. And they definitely aren’t going to work for it.
That’s your job.
You have one sentence. That’s it. If it appeals, if it sparks enough interest, perhaps they’ll read your second. Still interested, they might move onto the third.
This is your hook. The first three to five sentences when you prove you’re worth the effort and precious minutes it’ll take to consume your ideas.
How do you do this? Play on the reader’s curiosity.
Even if you lack exceptional writing talent (we’ll work on that), if you can get the reader to start asking questions, you stand a chance of being heard.
To do this, start with the questions that you had about the topic:
- – Why did you want to write this?
- – How did you first come across this topic?
- – What about it kept niggling at you so much that you had to find out more?
- – What facts or stats made you sit up and take notice?
- – Did you hear any stories related to this topic that fascinated you?
Now ask yourself, which answers from above are especially provocative? What could someone say to you that would leave you so curious you’d toss your entire afternoon schedule just to hear more? Not just lunch. Not just that lame meeting you didn’t want to go to anyway. I’m talking about the whole lot.
How can you phrase a fact or insight or question—that makes people stop and say a variation of: “Wait, what?” “Daaaaaamnn…..no she didn’t….where’s this chick taking this?” “I have to know where this is going.”
I’m not saying you want to give readers whiplash, but you’re definitely going for a double take. It’s just you two in a room, and you have 10 seconds before they walk out the door.
7. PUT ON A SHOW
A lot of writers put it all on black when it comes to the lead, thinking if you get the reader in the door, he’ll stick around.
Not even close.
Do you know how many articles get read in their entirety? Basically none. In fact, you’re doing alright if they make it halfway. (Check out this fascinating Slate article that goes into serious detail about reader behaviors. You might be saying, This is just a how-to article. Aren’t there enough questions about the topic in general to hold interest?
Sorry, no. Especially not with the incessant amount of content on the streets today. Meaning there’s no room for laziness here, friend. You have to think of your piece as if it were a movie, asking how can I keep my reader glued to the screen?
- – What can I say?
- – How can I say it?
- – What questions can I pose in the beginning, hint at throughout, and then pull together at the end?
- – How and where can I embed cliffhangers?
8. Let things simmer
A tried-and-true technique used by creatives throughout history. Thoreau claimed that his nature walks set the baseline for most of his work.
I love this, because my subconscious is far smarter than I’ll ever be. It somehow knows what’s missing, what needs to be incorporated, what specific phrases I could use. The list continues.
After I know what I want to write about, have brainstormed my knowledge, and done significant research, I let all of that junk simmer in the background. I’ll get outside, paint, or clean (theoretically). Really any kind of movement that lets the mind wander and wonder. Always making sure to have something handy to record on, either a dictation or notes app or pen and paper.
Mind you, this is not the time to force your brilliance. Quite the opposite. You need to get space from the topic, letting everything you’ve just crammed into your mind have its freedom to simply run wild in that space. I have no idea how this works, I don’t know if anyone does, but your subconscious will find connections that weren’t apparent, ideas you hadn’t even considered, word choices and pairings that’ll make think you’re the next e.e. cummings.
Go for a walk and see what bubbles up.
9. Rewrite with fresh eyes and a no-holds honesty
Eureka moments or not, come back to the page with the perspective of a stranger.
Reread your work, focusing on offering a comprehensive, stand-alone manual of sorts. All the time asking yourself, does this order make sense? Have I forgot anything? What questions have I not addressed?
Look for holes, clunky transitions, arguments that need expansion, illogical progressions, missing points, areas to incorporate that genius found on the trail. You’re hunting for weakness of any kind. (Don’t worry about grammar, though. We’re not there yet.)
When you have all the necessary material, go to work on style. This means word choice, sentence structure, passive voice. Find ways to increase brevity without sacrificing clarity. Add in your personality with a sense of humor (if you have one), bits about your life, stories, etc. Make it human. You know those explanations for troubleshooting a computer problem? You’re not going for that. 🙂
Though this is slated for fiction, I’d recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Dave King and Renni Brown for anyone interested. I’m still looking for an excellent article on self-editing, but continue to fall short. If you have suggestions, please feel free to pass them on. In the meantime, I’ll consider how I can help break down this very important aspect of coming to your work. For as Hemingway said, “The first draft of everything is shit.”
10. Read it out loud
Hands down, one of the best ways you can improve your writing. Just hearing your words spoken allows you to take note of anything awkward or not working. A lot of times, when I read a paragraph out loud, I’ll hear the best next sentence in my mind. It might not be what I have on paper, but that’s usually a good thing. I’m allowing my inner voice to pick up my slack by telling me what works best. Trust that whisper in your mind. It always knows best.
Revisit steps 9 and 10 until you can’t see straight. Or until you think you have solid material. Whichever comes first.
11. Edit that mother
Sorry, but we had to address grammar eventually. The faster you get over the fact that you have to do this, the faster you can move on to watching GoT. (Is it me, or does it seem like a crazy long time since the last season ended?)
Explaining how to edit for grammar will take more time than we have here. For now, here’s an easy rule. If you don’t properly know how to use semicolons, parentheses, hyphens or dashes of any kind, just don’t. In over 10 years as a professional editor, I’ve found that most people really have no clue. (No offense.) Keep your copy clean with simplicity.
You can, however, look for any passive voice (e.g., is, be, been, are, etc.) and find better verbs. Not only will you strengthen your sentences, but enrich your writing with better style and flow.
Find excellent help at Quick and Dirty Tips from Mignon Fogarty, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada.
12. Get a reader
Find someone who won’t bullshit you and ask for a read-through.
You know that person honest to a fault? Who’ll tell you when you look like crap, even when you feel your best? You want that guy. You don’t want the chick who smiles and says, “This is your best work yet!”
No. Sure it may feel good, but she’s not doing you any favors. You want to improve, drive your writing forward, not sit around basking in your ability. Get the mate who can’t keep from putting his foot in his mouth. That’s your guy.
(Of course, you don’t want someone so brutal in his criticism that’ll drive you away from the craft completely. While you need to thicken that skin if you want to write, or do anything really, you still need some positive feedback.)
- – What questions do you have?
- – What am I missing?
- – Do you think following these steps will lead to your desired outcome?
- – What words or phrases do you hate/love?
- – What would you change or add?
- – What could I do better?
Take this feedback and revisit your work. Definitely keep in mind that you don’t have to incorporate all suggestions. You have to know where to draw the line. For example, if your reader calls you out on some critical missed points, steps absolutely necessary for reader comprehension, then, yes, obviously, pay attention.
But say your reader doesn’t like a phrasing that you love. Do you have to change it? Nah. I think Hunter S. Thompson would argue sometimes that’s your best work.
How will you know? Listen to your gut. If you don’t trip over the word or sentence when you’re reading—if it doesn’t pull you out of thought—consider keeping it.
One thing about writing: Not everyone will love your style. Such is life. They can go read someone else. And, hey, you’re learning. We all are. This is an ongoing commitment. Just focus on improving and being your best self every time you come to the page.
(And if you can’t find someone to offer honest and constructive criticism, let me know.)
13. Finish strong
You know that feeling when you’re having an awesome conversation, but someone interrupts before you can wrap things up and really get to the point? Then, for some reason, you never circle back, leaving this amorphous problem hanging in the air of your mind? I hate that. It’s like getting 90 percent through a joke and never hearing the punch line.
Writers that put all the work in up front and then finish soft, or not at all, simply weaken their overall efforts with slackerdom.
As your last word on a subject, put the time in here. Your conclusion both ties the entire piece together and emphasizes your point. It’s the last thing readers will remember.
Take a note from Emily Tripllett Lentz’s article, “How to Write Conclusions That Don’t Suck.”
“A great way to conclude your piece is to answer the ‘so what?’ question. It sets your idea in a broader context, which gives your writing a better chance of resonating with a larger audience. Take a step back from what you’ve been saying and ask: Why is this important? Why should anyone care?”
Still need a few ways to do this? Summarize the theme or main points without repeating them. Call your reader to action. Include an appropriate quote. Or discuss the implications or potential of putting your good advice to use.
No matter what technique you use, sell the reader on your article. Remind him why the information he’s just read offers value.
14. Give it an exceptional headline
Why do we read anything?
Because the headline caused enough question, interest, or resonance in our minds that we judged the work worthy of our time. That’s it. So, while usually only comprising 6 to 12 words, each one swings a lot of weight. Or should if you want to get eyes on your work.
According to Copyblogger, “On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest. This is the secret to the power of your title, and why it so highly determines the effectiveness of the entire piece.”
No pressure or anything, right? Pretty much the reason why experts espouse that you should spend 50 percent of your time on the article, and the rest on your headline.
At some point in time, I’ll put together a more comprehensive guide, but for now, here are a few tips:
- – Keep it concise
- – Be specific
- – Give a nod to the article content
- – Make your first and last three words the most hard-hitting
- – Avoid passive voice.
Whew…that was a lot. Can you still see straight?
I didn’t set out to write over 4,000 words on how to develop a better service article. Considering the seemingly easy and supposedly straightforward nature of the plug-and-play format, you’d think such attention to detail superfluous. Plus, who has the time? Especially when we know, according to Slate, you probably won’t even have gotten this far.
However, like erecting a beautiful home, the details of craftsmanship define the difference and set you apart. Taking the time, putting in the work, that’s how you’ll distinguish yourself as a thoughtful writer worth attention.
Yes, there’s a lot to consider when writing a how-to the right way. Hopefully, you’re not too overwhelmed. Just use this as a guide throughout the writing stages, and I’m confident you’ll nail it, creating something you can proudly share. 🙂