July 2010

The “how-to” article–an article that teaches the reader how to make or do something faster, cheaper, better, or easier–is one of the best-selling articles around. Especially now, with people trying to save money by making and building things themselves (Think about all the DIY television shows!), how-tos are more popular than ever.

Included in the “how-to” category are self-help articles, which can range from helping yourself out of depression to how to lose weight quicker to how to find the best spots to go on a date. You name it; just about anything–or certainly any category–is game when you’re talking about how-to articles.

For a writer, this is great news. If you scan just about any magazine–children’s, sports, celebrity, inspirational–you’re bound to find at least one “how-to.” This is a wide-open market!

Here are ten tips you’ll need for writing a great “how-to” that will sell:

1. Write about what you know. To get ideas, think about hobbies you have, sports you play, things you’re able to teach others how to do. You’ll be surprised at how much knowledge you possess of “how to” do something when you really think about it. And, when you write on what you know, and love, your passion will shine through.

2. Think like a teacher. When you write a how-to, you have to temporarily become a teacher. Prepare your writing by organizing your instructions into sequential steps or another form of logical flow. Anticipate questions your reader may have as you write, ensuring all questions get answered before you finish.

3. Keep the instructions simple. Even with more difficult tasks, you want to write so just about any one can pick up your instructions and easily follow them. To help with simplicity, limit each step to one short paragraph or a bullet point. Don’t combine steps. Spell out each aspect of your instructions, being as clear as possible.

4. Be specific and detailed. Don’t assume anything, except that your reader has never made (or done) what you are asking him to. Don’t gloss over or skip steps or take short cuts through your steps. Explain how to do each step, not just what to do.

5. Bring in an expert. It may help to interview an expert or two for certain informational how-tos. For instance, if you’re writing about how to shop for health insurance or what to look for when choosing a veterinarian, it’s best to have an expert in these subjects share their tips. If you’re not sure how to find or interview an expert, check out my previous blog on this subject.

6. Use straightforward leads and titles. For how-to articles, tell it like it is. Using titles and openings that tell exactly what your article is about and where it’s headed are more effective than cute and catchy titles and leads that keep your reader guessing. This doesn’t mean you have to be boring. You can still use writing techniques such as alliteration, puns, and the like; just make sure it’s quickly obvious what your article is about. Remember, your reader is looking for information from your article, not drama.

7. Every word counts. Again, your job with a how-to is to clearly disseminate information to your reader. No time for flowery descriptions or personal stories. You can add humor if you’d like, maybe discuss how and why the project you’re about to share is one of your favorites, and so forth, but you must keep your writing tight. Less is more with how-tos!

8. Double-check facts and measurements. Don’t estimate or try to remember from years past when using measurements or facts in your article. Either re-do the project as you write about it, or at least verify each measurement and quantity as you go.

9. Include pictures. Using photographs or drawings to help explain the process or to show the finished product can be very helpful for a how-to article. Plus editors love such add-ons that add sparkle to your text. Just be sure the photos are of a high quality so they can be enlarged without becoming out of focus.

10. Have someone else check your work. When your article is completed, have someone who is not familiar with the project or process you wrote about to read it (or better yet, do it) and check for clarity, logic, accuracy, and to make sure you didn’t leave out important steps. If you’re writing about something you’ve done a hundred times, it’s easy to leave out the simple things, assuming others will somehow know or be able to figure out what you mean.

In case you haven’t noticed my blog’s tag line, it reads: “Encouraging and equipping those who love to write. Rescuing those who don’t.” Today’s post is dedicated to those who may not love to write but their job requires them to do so. I realize that most of my readers are professional writers, but we all know non-professional writers who wish someone else could do their writing for them!

I chose to interview a friend and client of mine, Ignatius (Iggy) Nelson, who fits this description perfectly. Iggy has worked his way up the corporate ladder and has recently discovered how integral writing is to his everyday job. So much so, that if he hadn’t taken matters into his own hands and received training in the area of writing, he probably would not be where he is today.  Let’s hear from Iggy and how he overcame his writing challenges:

1. Tell us a little about your background and how you got into your present industry and job?

I began my career with the City of Palo Alto as a water treatment specialist in 1986. I was in charge of taking water samples and filling out paperwork for processing the samples. In order to advance, I took a lot of classes on water treatment and operating various equipment. My big break came in 2000 when I was selected as a Water Services Manager for another Bay Area city. I was selected for my present job after completing an all-day assessment and am now a Water Superintendent.

2. When you first got started, how much and what kind of writing were you
required to do on a regular basis?

In the beginning there wasn’t much writing at all. Most of my time was spent out in the field. I basically had forms and paperwork to fill out but no real writing.

3. How much and what kind of writing are you required to do now on a regular

Currently I am responsible for 9 employees and oversee a budget of $5 million. I am continually writing memos and reports as well as other forms of internal communications. I’m also responsible for writing extensive reports and memos to the city council. When I first took on this position, the most stressful part about my job was the writing.
4. Would you have been able to move into the management positions you’ve held if you weren’t willing to write or weren’t successful at writing?
I may have been able to get into management, but it would’ve been a struggle to do well in my positions without being able to write. In my field it’s a big transition going from operations, where you’re doing field work to sitting at a computer all day e-mailing information, preparing performance reviews, and writing reports.

5. Did you ever think starting out that your job one day would require so much

It really never occurred to me that I would need writing skills if I wanted to advance into management. The writing was certainly more than I expected. Little did I know that my current job, because of the higher salary, would require even more writing. Looking back I should have been concerned about learning to write and not have procrastinated at doing so. I had no idea that someday writing would be a big part of my work.

6. What have you done to help yourself in the area of professional writing?

In 2002 I decided to take a basic writing class at a community college. The first time I took the class I flunked it! But I kept going and didn’t quit. Last year I took a class from the University of Phoenix called Effective Written Communications. Recently I took another class entitled Business Communications.

7. In general, what do you see with your peers and those supervising you when it comes to business writing skills? Do you think most people have prepared themselves for the amount of writing they have to do?

Most of my peers are not at all prepared for business writing. My level of management does not require a college degree or any formal educational training. My supervisors typically have engineering degrees, and they can write pretty well. But most of those in my line of work have not prepared for the future when it comes to business writing.

8. How could you convince someone starting out in a non-writing field that
they will need to be prepared for gaining business communication skills?

I would simply share my story and tell how learning to write has helped me throughout my career. For someone like myself that spent most of his years working out in the field, writing was not a big deal. I never gave it much thought that someday I would need business writing skills. I am convinced that you must have good writing skills to advance in life. My biggest regret is that I didn’t take those writing classes earlier, before I got promoted into management.

Thank you, Iggy, for sharing your story with us. I know there are many other stories out there just like yours. If any of you have a similar “Iggy” story to share, please do so. I think sometimes as writers we take for granted that this is something we can do and don’t really put much thought into it.

But more and more, writing is a major part of nearly any job, especially as that job advances into a managerial capacity. To stay competitive, employees need to know how to write. Often, companies won’t do much to help these employees, so they are forced to do what Iggy did and take it upon themselves to get the necessary training.

I would love to hear your thoughts, feedback, and ideas that may help others in this area.

I’d like to do a follow-up post to last week’s article on writing for children by moving to the teen market. Writing for teens is quite different than writing for children, or even tweens, as you can imagine. Additionally, many teens are now reading adult books, so it can be an ill-defined market to try to capture.

In my opinion, you are either a teen-targeted writer or you are not. I think you can become one over time if you’re not, but it takes a lot of research, hanging out with teens, and a huge knowledge of the current teen market, which changes faster than the speed of light.

Right now the teen book market is very hot, and most publishers are saying that this is the fastest-growing segment of their market. But that doesn’t mean you should jump in with both feet…unless you know what you are doing.

Instead of me telling you how to write for teens, I’m going to let other teens tell you how to write for them. After extensive research, various authors compiled the following tips based on what teens told them about what they wanted to see in their reading material as well as how to get to know them. To me, this is the best market research you can get. If you’re interested in writing for teens, what could be better than hearing directly from your market what works for them and what doesn’t?

1. “Don’t preach to us or always try to teach us a lesson.” Teens can see through this very clearly. Sometimes (often) they just want to be entertained, so go easy–if at all–on stories that have moral lessons attached. Let your story speak through your characters and allow them to learn whatever it is you want them to learn on their own, without you guiding them through it.

2. “Know our lingo.” This is tough because it changes frequently (constantly). What’s in vogue now may not be when your book comes out. But it’s still important to be as current as possible on how teens talk and what they’re really saying when they do. One of the biggest complaints from teen readers who were surveyed is that the authors usually get it all wrong when they try to “teenspeak.”

3. “Be honest and transparent with us.” Teens, like kids in general, can spot a fake a mile away. Don’t try to pull anything over on them, because you can’t. And don’t try to appear–or have your characters appear–super-human to them. They don’t want that. They want real people with real struggles that they can relate to.

4. “Challenge us!” Teens today are sharp (even though they don’t always act like it!). They want to be challenged to be the best they can be, to be stretched beyond their comfort zone, and to think and analyze situations. Don’t simply hand over the information to them as you write. Make them think with your characters and through your story. And challenge them on a personal level to be better people.

5. “Help us make a difference.” This was a huge heart-cry from teen readers. They want to be known for something bigger than themselves. They want to be involved in efforts that will affect others for the better. Teach them how to make a difference in their world. Encourage them that they have what it takes to be world changers, and show them how to do it.

6. “Spend time in our world.” Teens know that if you want to speak to them, you have to be able to relate to them. So, hang out where they do. If you don’t have teenagers of your own, find some you can befriend and spend some time with them. Hop into online forums or get to know them on Facebook and the like. Find out what struggles they’re facing and how they deal with these struggles. You cannot write to teens from a distance.

7.“Respect us.” Many teens feel as though adults have no respect for them or their opinions. When you write to teens, show them respect by allowing their voice to be heard through your book, not just your voice about them. Allow your teen characters to realistically and intellectually express themselves so that your teen readers can not only relate to them but can feel good about your characters as well.

Writing for teens can be tough, but the more we know them and know about their world, the easier it becomes. If anyone has heard from teens on any points that were not covered here, or has any other ideas you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you.