The Personal Touch: A Primer for Getting Published, Part 1 |
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The Personal Touch: A Primer for Getting Published, Part 1

"I can do better than that!"

Admit it, hotshot: The above thought's crossed your mind after reading a column (quite possibly mine) that struck you as trite or naive.

No, the author couldn't pull the wool over your eyes. You've spent years in the trenches and know what works in your industry. And that's when you had your epiphany: "I know more than this so-called expert. This clown should be reading me!"

Guess what? That's how many of us got started on the business writing path. We saw a void and realized we could fill it. The sad thing is, those with the most valuable insights usually aren't the ones writing. They only share their wisdom with those closest, if at all. So the larger world loses an important voice (your voice) in the process.

You see, there are two types of people: those who create and those who consume. To create, you don't need an Ivy League pedigree or jaw-dropping resume. And God-given talent is a luxury, not a prerequisite. If you want to write, all you really need are some wisdom, discipline, and perseverance (admittedly, connections never hurt).

Here are some time-honored strategies to get started:

What do you know? Every writing course begins with the same advice: "Write what you know." That isn't by accident. Start by taking an inventory. Where is your expertise? What are your passions? What is unique about your perspective on current trends or events?

Even more, mine your personal and work experiences, along with those of the people around you. Examine how they reflect universal business truths that resonate with readers. Write these insights down. Eventually, they'll produce themes that can spark an article.

Identify your audience. Sure, you have plenty of know-how and spirit. But how can you translate that into something that enriches lives? Maybe you should step into your readers' lives. Envision their day-to-day experiences. What excites or frustrates them? What would motivate them to devote five minutes to reading an 800-word column?

In any article, you're literally connecting with perfect strangers. So write like you're building a relationship. Make your style conversational, keeping your message relevant to their lives and your tone empathetic to their difficulties.

A word of caution: Never assume your readers have the same base of knowledge and experience. Insert a refresher sentence or two to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Know why you want to write. What drives you ultimately determines what and how you write. Think about why you want to get published. Are you looking to gain notoriety for your expertise? Do you want to help your peers work smarter or overcome obstacles?

Are you lashing out for being overlooked or marginalized? Are you craving the understanding and validation you can't get elsewhere? Do you see writing as a cost-effective way to generate new business? Or, are you re-writing history, seeking redemption for all you wish you'd said or done?

Thanks to the Internet, an article is a permanent testimonial to who you are. Fair or not, you cannot be cavalier about your tone, topics, positions, and examples. Remember, readers are judging more than your points; they're evaluating you. Make sure your persona comes across as the individual you hope to be.

Pay attention. Far too often, we fall into a rut and live off our routines and assumptions. We quit caring. And people who don't care don't write. It's that simple.

Henry Miller once wrote, "The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself." Hyperbole aside, approach your world with that same curiosity.

Closely observe what's going on around you, parsing everything you take for granted. Ask yourself: Is this the way it should be? What would you do differently? Why?

Eventually, you'll find your mind is always running; it may only take a splice of conversation to spark an article. You may even find yourself carrying pen and paper, compulsively jotting down observations and relating them to larger motifs.

While this awakening may sound like a curse, it actually makes you more effective. When you're in writing mode, you're constantly observing, empathizing, learning, and synthesizing. And this spills over into other areas of your life. For example, an attention to detail keeps you attuned to your peers, making you the ideal person to understand all viewpoints and build consensus.

Define a vehicle. Anyone can produce content. But how can you package it to hold your readers' attention? As a young writer, a tight structure can save you from drifting. Consider employing alternative formats, such as questions and answers, quizzes, or themes to keep you on track.

For example, you could unify a piece on leadership techniques by employing a historical figure, such as Ronald Reagan. With a title like "10 Leadership Lessons from President Reagan," you can ride this figure's coattails to snag readers' attention, all the while bolstering your credibility.

Brainstorm. After you identify a topic, toy with it for a few weeks. It's funny how many ideas or observations you'll jot down when a topic is top of mind. Sometimes, it feels like everything somehow relates to it. After a few weeks, compile everything and look for natural idea clusters. Use this as your starting point to broaden or narrow your focus.

As you brainstorm, never forget your real purpose. Sure, you want to deliver specific points. But most articles are disposable and quickly forgotten. What you're after is staying power. Whether you're issuing a call to action or helping readers find comfort, every idea, image, or example should reinforce that end.

Whatever you do, avoid reading on the topic. You don't want to subconsciously ape other authors. Plus, you'll only grow discouraged if you knew how many others have already tackled the same subject matter.

Instead, concentrate on producing an authentic and truthful treatment of your topic. By doing that, you'll inevitably set the standard for others to follow.

Research. Sure, you could blog your piece, But wouldn't you rather associate yourself with an established brand? Before you write, identify particular outlets where you'd like to publish. Analyze their article topics, slant, style, and length.

Look for examples of articles that work—and figure out why. Review author guidelines to learn their expectations. And don't forget to read their editorial calendars to pinpoint opportunities in the future.

Finally, accept that you're just starting out. Make contact with editors at area business journals or industry trade magazines first. It takes time to build your reputation before a Forbes, Wall Street Journal, or BusinessWeek takes your calls.

In part two, we'll examine how to develop your writing and editing skills.

SMM columnist Jeff Schmitt works in publishing in Dubuque, IA. He can be contacted at, and you can follow him on Twitter at jefflschmitt.