Note: To read the previous installment, click here.
Traditionally, Americans have placed business writers on a pedestal. We saw them as the ones who prepped at Yale, consulted Wall Street powerbrokers, and vacationed at Martha's Vineyard. They had access and connections. They were the elites…and we deferred to their wisdom.
The Internet has turned that world upside-down. These days, anyone can be a writer. They can build a network of supportive readers and editors, giving them the tools and motivation to perfect their craft.
And with more outlets and aggregates, fledgling writers can reach a wider audience. The talent gap between trained journalists and talented amateurs has narrowed as a result.
Of course, there are drawbacks. Supply now outstrips demand and outlets can barely afford to pay their staff—let alone freelancers. In addition, it's becoming increasingly difficult for writers to distinguish themselves from the pack. And there are always emerging talents eager to snag their spot.
Still, the opportunity is there. You no longer need to attend j-school, run a Fortune 500 company, or even be successful to merit publication. In your world, your boss may not listen to you. But in print or digital, you can build your credibility and following beyond your cubicle. The world is getting smaller…and people can read anyone. It may as well be you.
To that end, here are some tips for writing articles that'll get you noticed:
Develop a voice. Imagine you're surrounded by strangers. What draws you to someone? Usually, it goes beyond appearance. Maybe it's a warm smile, understanding voice, or a mysterious magnetism. Then again, you may just feel a kinship to someone who seems like you.
Writing is no different than a first impression: The other party is evaluating you in areas like tone, mannerisms, substance, wit, and energy to determine if you're worth the time. In other words, are you likable and compelling?
When you read your work, look for more than whether you clearly articulate your points. Instead, focus how you want to be perceived—whether it's genuine, thought-provoking, or compassionate—and whether your work create natural associations with those qualities.
So how do you do that? First, think about your topic, objectives, and readers. Identify the techniques best suited to them. For example, a satirical edge can effectively reveal absurdities and a unique outlook. But it can quickly degenerate into haughtiness and alienate readers.
Similarly, an impartial third-person voice can convey content, yet lacks the urgency and emotional resonance of a first-person perspective.
Second, never forget who you are when you write. Play to your strengths, whether it's your sense of humor or ability to make mind-boggling connections between topics. Don't try to be something you're not—readers will spot that in a heartbeat.
Finally, write in an environment that evokes the moods you're seeking. For example, a reflective piece would benefit from music that evokes similar sentiments, such as Johann Sebastian Bach or Cat Stevens. Use this stimulation to tap into those emotional undercurrents and creative juices that can turn a pedestrian article into something special.
Craft a strong headline and opening. Think about the last time you scanned a newspaper. What drew you to a particular article? Was it just the topic…or did the headline pique your curiosity?
Your article will never get read, regardless of value and quality, unless it's packaged and positioned correctly. And that's where headlines, subheads, and openings come in.
A headline is no different than a storefront window; your readers will spend a second (maybe two) deciding whether to enter. To draw readers in, consider posing a question ("Are You Ready For…"), offer exclusive knowledge ("Secrets to…" or "Do's and Don'ts of…"), or play on fear ("Mistakes That Can…" or "The Hidden Costs of…").
Similarly, look at employing David Letterman-like lists ("10 Ways to…" or "10 Rules for…"). In short, your headline must tease some benefits or make a promise that invites readers to join you.
Once they've entered, consider making a personal greeting with a one- or two-sentence subhead, which quickly transmits the key points. For example, an article on downsizing could open with this statement: "Are you afraid a pink slip is coming? Take control of your future by bolstering your resume and network now."
One important caveat here: Whenever you submit an article for publication, be aware that editors can (and often do) change headlines and subheads to conform with space and style constraints. That doesn't mean you should ignore the above advice—far from it—but it does mean there's a possibility the final, published product will differ from what you submitted.
Packaging (headline) and friendliness (subhead) will get readers into your article. But it's your opening paragraphs that keep them there. Often, readers just scan an article. Your job is to set the tone and slow them down. Your opening does exactly that.
To hook their attention, use a story, analogy, stat, question, or notable quotation that dovetails into your topic (and treatment). From there, get straight to the point and never look back.
Along with your headline and opening, don't neglect your close. At worst, summarize your key points. At best, return to the themes in your opening, along with introducing an interesting twist or making a call to action. For example, you can finish with a question to encourage readers to ponder your message and apply it to their lives.
Provide substance. Content is king. Your piece can contain a gripping headline and opening, but it won't have staying power unless you actually have something valuable to say.
Look at your work. Does every sentence introduce or expand upon an idea, with evidence and examples to support it? Have you taken your topic beyond basics and generics, into unexpected directions? And have you logically plotted out your paragraphs so they build on each other and maintain a hard-charging momentum?
Remember, your readers are always asking, "Why is this important?" Never let that be in doubt. And don't overwhelm your readers at first. Write pieces that make five or fewer points, and build from there as your skill grows.
Edit your work. Think your piece is clear, engaging, and compelling? Put it to the test. Pretend you're the editor: You're overwhelmed and facing constant criticism, and your job rides on the articles you publish. Wouldn't you select pieces that are universal, provocative, helpful, and well-written?
Like lawyers, editors are always boiling arguments down to their basics. In reviewing your piece, they may adjust your focus, sheer extraneous details, or request touches like expert quotes, study findings, or examples. Of course, they'll never get that far if your writing isn't easy to read. To achieve that, review your article for the following:
• Are the sentences succinct and precise? Do you keep your paragraphs relatively short (three or four sentences)?
• Are you employing action verbs and active voice?
• Have you avoided acronyms, jargon, and clichés?
• Is your reading level congruent to your audience? Are there places where you show off your intellect and vocabulary at the expense of your topic?
• Have you checked all facts and proofread for errors in grammar? (Don't expect an editor to catch everything.)
• Do your points seamlessly transition from one to the next? Are there gaps in your logic? Are your points prioritized and given enough weight? Do you repeat yourself anywhere?
• Are you incorporating devices like imagery and metaphors to stimulate the imagination and senses?
As you edit, think about the questions your readers will ask…and when. Don't forget, you'll go through multiple edits and face tough choices each time. Be certain you're editing for your readers, not your ego.
In part three, we'll focus on how to build a relationship with an editor and handle rejection.
SMM columnist Jeff Schmitt works in publishing in Dubuque, IA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter at jefflschmitt.