The secrets of writing articles that
sell aren’t esoteric, but they may come as a shock. The reason is that we writers have to place the reader first and
ourselves second. Since many people begin to write for the sole purpose of “expressing” themselves, putting the
reader first is often the opposite of what newer writers often do.
The reader is king (or queen)
Look at the blurbs on any magazine’s
front cover. These blurbs appeal to the reader’s self-interest. They show that the magazine is chockfull of articles
that are helpful, useful, timely, informative, or transforming to the reader. Readers want well-written articles, but they
don’t give a hoot about the writer’s self-expression. Every reader’s unspoken questions are, “What’s
in it for me? Why should I read this?” and “What meaning will this information have for my life?”
Tailor your writing
Each magazine is aimed at a specific
group of readers. You only have to check out the ads to see that editors and publishers have a crystal-clear idea of who reads
their pages. You wouldn’t try to sell an article on customizing motorcycles, for example, to Better Homes and Gardens.
And even an article on gardening won’t catch the BHG editor’s eye unless it offers something fresh, new, and different.
Maybe, for example, you’ve got a plan that keeps a cutting garden blooming nonstop as the season of some flowers ends
and others begins. Or how about bringing organic gardening into the mainstream with ideas on turning old newspapers, grass
clippings, and other “garbage” into mulch?
The trick of a title
The title is the first thing a reader
sees. If it doesn’t pull her in then and there, you’ve lost the battle before it’s fought. Yet, finding
a good title is an art in itself. You should always have a working or tentative title because it will help keep your writing
focused, but the right title may not make its appearance until the article is almost out the door. My advice is to always look first to the text itself to see if some image, phrase, or line of dialogue
seems to capture the theme in a catchy, grabby, evocative way. Try to find something with a hint of mystery rather than giving
it all away.
Make it new
Most magazines keep recycling through
the same topics, but the editors have to keep these looking new. They do this through the technique of slant--a fresh, unusual,
or unexpected angle on even the most time-worn theme. In a roundup of running shoes, for example, the writer doesn’t
merely describe the latest models. She has to discover the latest trends or compare and contrast which models offer the best
value or investigate whether the weekend warrior, as opposed to the dedicated marathoner, even needs special shoes.
We don’t create suspense in
nonfiction by saving the punch line—or “point”—till the end. Just as the magician creates drama and
anticipation by telling the audience what feat he’s about to produce, you do the same by letting the reader know right
up front what the article is about and why he should keep reading. You can do it in a clever and imaginative way, but the
reader has to know (1) that this article has a “point” and (2) that it’s urgent for him to read on.
Baiting the hook
To grab and keep your reader, you
must “hook” him in the first 150 words or so—though it’s even better if you can do it in the first
25. A provocative bit of dialogue often serves, as does a startling statistic, a humorous comment, or a striking statement.
Whatever you choose, it has to instantly grab and keep the reader’s attention. The rest of your article might be deathless
prose or urgently important, but if you don’t get the reader’s attention in the opener, no one will ever know.
Add Flavor and Spice
No matter what the topic, nonfiction
is basically dry information. Your job as a writer is to spice it up, create excitement and immediacy. That’s why you’ll
need to sprinkle a few quotes throughout the article. By interviewing experts, you give authority to your argument, or “slant”.
Dialogue also humanizes the information, bringing it down to earth. I once called up the head of a cookware association while
researching an article on the topic. Though I expected him to tout the latest high-tech metals used in expensive new cookware,
he suddenly blurted out that a great cook could make do with only a tin can while even the most expensive pot wouldn’t
do much for a bad cook. As far as I’m concerned, that one quote made the whole article.
From the ground up
Though a great title, a grabby hook,
and a satisfying conclusion are important, the basis of a great article is a lucid, coherent structure. That means you’ve
got to stay on target in your own thinking. Write out your slant (“point”) in a single sentence or phrase on an
index card and make it your cornerstone. Build everything in the article around your slant, and leave the rest out. Do this
by structuring your article in a series of short paragraphs that flow one to the next via smooth transitions.
Keep It Moving
Transitions are both the stepping
stones for developing your article and the glue that gives your writing a sense of flow and coherence. Link your paragraphs
with transitions, which can be anything from “however” (showing contrast) to “therefore” (showing
cause/result) to “for instance” (explaining).
The human touch
One of the most persuasive techniques
in contemporary nonfiction is to address the reader in the second person as “you”. This creates the illusion that
the reader is having a chat with a friend or other person concerned about his or her welfare. It also pulls the reader in
immediately. Think of how you would react if someone yelled out “Hey, you!” in a public place. You’d turn
and look even if you weren’t sure he was talking to you.
Save the sermon
Even when it’s perfectly obvious
that we have a good point, we must tread the fine line between sincerity and sermonizing. Your readers are grownups. Let them
make up their own minds about whether to put your ideas, suggestions, or information into practice.
Leave ‘em laughing
A good title is worth its weight
in gold, but the ending is just as important. You want to drive home your “point” at the end, but in a way that’s
memorable and appealing. The best endings echo something in the title or the opener, bringing the material full circle. And
for pure punch, dialogue is the number one technique for closing as well as opening an article.
© Copyright 2007 by Donna Ippolito