Let’s say you don’t want to take my journalism school professor’s advice and, instead, want to write an article–or two or three–as your WNFIN challenge project even if you don’t have a paying assignment yet. Today, Zachary Petit, managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine and author of the forthcoming A Year of Writing Prompts: 366 Story Ideas for Honing Your Craft and Eliminating Writer’s Block, tells you about an article form that get’s used so often it’s a sure bet for almost any online or printed publication. NA
As anyone with an Internet connection and a problem knows, there’s a lot of bad advice out there.
Think back to the last time you wanted to know how to fix your kitchen sink. Or replace your toilet tank. Or do something more outside the box, like, say, safely dye your dog’s fur green so he can be Yoda for Halloween.
You typed your quandary into Google in search of a solid how-to—and up came 10,000 unreliable websites that specialize in how-tos but offer less-than-stellar advice. This deluge of (poorly written!) and often downright inaccurate info may get a lot of us journalists seeing red (not to mention whatever poor dachshund is about to be turned green), but there’s one good thing to come of all this: It means great how-tos are more valuable than ever.
How-tos, or service pieces, as they’re often called, are simple and fast to write, and everyone from newspapers to magazines to websites publishes them—which makes them an excellent gateway to breaking into a publication. In other words, they’re an ideal type of article to test-drive this month as part of Write Nonfiction in November.
So let’s do our civic duties as journalists and save the kitchen sinks and dachshunds of the world.
Here’s how to write a good how-to.
1. Choose Your Adventure.
First, you’ve got to pick a good topic. So brainstorm away. This is actually one of the easiest parts of the process: Just start with your expertise. What do you know in a way that nobody else does? Flex that knowledge. Then brainstorm more and consider what problems you’ve recently solved—did you just lose 25 pounds for your wedding in a short timeframe? Quit smoking? Build a creative desk? Ideas abound. Tap into your own curiosity, and chances are you’ll tap into someone else’s. Another good way to generate salable ideas is to browse a market resource listing like Writer’s Market (which my employer Writer’s Digest publishes), and see what rises from the ether for each magazine listing. And/or, try taking a big story—say, a swine flu outbreak story you saw on CNN—and turn it into a small piece: how to tell if you’ve got swine flu, regular flu, bird flu, a cold, hypochondria, etc.
2. Do Your Homework.
What’s it going to take to pull this piece off, and to pull it off the right way? Make a list. Try banging out a rough draft.
Ask yourself: Do you have enough knowledge to pull it off on your own? Even if you think you do, go deeper: What links and resources can you provide readers who are looking for supplemental info? Would the piece be enriched by quotes from experts or statistics you’ve dug up? Even if you know exactly what you’re talking about, people like to see a chorus of consensus.
3. Know Your Reader.
Set a goal of who you’re going to be writing to: the expert. The layperson. The dabbler. The desperate Googler. All of them at once. Cater your material to that specific type of person, and after you’re done, consider actually showing it to someone you know who fits that description. Does it all make sense to them, and get them where they need to go?
4. Be Deep.
There’s nothing worse than finding a how-to on exactly the topic you’re seeking, and then realizing that all of the info is bare-bones, overly obvious basics totaling 75 words. So anticipate all questions your reader may have, and answer them. Be like narrative nonfiction author Richard Ben Cramer, who said, “I’m out there to clean the plate. Once they’ve read what I’ve written on a subject, I want them to think, ‘That’s it!’ I think the highest aspiration people in our trade can have is that once they’ve written a story, nobody will ever try it again.” Sure, writing Pulitzer-grade prose on conflicts in the Mid-East is slightly different than writing a 500-word story on how to keep squirrels off your birdfeeder, but the same principle applies to all good journalism.
5. Be Deep … But Be Careful.
Like a diver, the deeper you go, the more pressure there is on you. You’ve got to get everything in your how-to right. Don’t trust the Internet. Trust your own experience with your subject; trust experts; fact check everything; field test everything. Getting it right builds trust with editors, who will be giving you future assignments, and moreover it builds trust with readers, who will be embarking upon the very experiment you’re proposing.
6. Don’t Be Afraid of Your Own Voice.
Obviously the info is king in a how-to, but don’t hesitate to let a little voice shine through (if it’s the type of thing your target market will be OK with). Voice is what will make your prose uniquely yours. So be yourself. Readers will probably be able to tell if you’re trying to be anything else. Some people will like it, and some people won’t. (It took me a long time to be comfortable mentioning dachshunds dressed as Yoda in articles.) As Jack Kerouac, himself no stranger to voice, said, “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” (Still, never forget that with a how-to, it’s easy for a voice to get too loud too fast.)
7. Be Chronological.
This step probably should have come a few paragraphs ago in this article. But still. It’ll make your piece exponentially easier for a reader to follow.
8. Be Succinct.
Hunter S. Thompson: “Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life.”
Tom Clancy: “I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.”
9. Polish to Perfection.
As in all writing, this is vital, but especially here. If you’re writing a piece about how to view the meteor shower that’s happening next weekend, and you make an obvious gaffe like misspelling meteor or getting the name of a constellation wrong, how can the editor believe you’ll be able to pull everything else off correctly, from the names of experts to accurate quotes to the best viewing locations around town?
10. Seal the Deal.
Finally, make sure you finish the piece and actually submit it. Cast your fears aside, and put your work in someone’s hands, trusting they might want to know exactly what you’ve just written.
Sure, you should overanalyze your piece, but you shouldn’t overanalyze it so much that it never leaves your desktop. After all, as Philip Roth said, “The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.”
And hell is a long way away from that meteor shower everyone is wanting to see.
Here are some more resources you might find helpful:
- FAQs: How to Start a Freelance Career
- The Easy Way to Write a Magazine Query Letter
- How to Conduct a Great Interview
- How to Beat 4 Freelancing Pet Peeves
About the Author
Zachary Petit is an award-winning journalist, the managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine, co-author of A Year of Writing Prompts: 366 Story Ideas for Honing Your Craft and Eliminating Writer’s Block (forthcoming), and the executive editor of Writer’s Workbook. Alongside the hundreds of articles he has penned as a staff writer and editor, covering everything from the secret lives of mall Santas to literary legends, his words have appeared in National Geographic magazine, National Geographic Kids, Melissa Rossi’s What Every American Should Know book series, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other outlets.
Photo courtesy of David Castillo