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.