How to Write Powerful Articles to Promote Your Expertise and Your Business
By Suzan St Maur
Writing articles on your topic (or your business’s topic) is usually a useful PR opportunity a) because it publicizes you/your organization and b) because it can raise your profile as an expert on the topic concerned.
Articles are different from press releases because they’re usually longer and in “feature” style, i.e. not using the hard-nosed news approach of most press releases. Articles in this context are usually more relaxed and more detailed, taking a more in-depth look at the subject matter.
So what are they key issues to bear in mind?
Issue #1: Articles are not advertising…
….even if you’ve paid for an ad space in a publication and the “free editorial” is part of the package. Sure, with a package like that the publication will accept whatever you want to say in the editorial (and I won’t go into what my personal opinion is on that here!) But if you want people to read beyond the first sentence, your article needs to be an article, not advertising or brochure copy written in an editorial style.
Issue #2: Articles are about information…
…because that’s why people read magazines, business publications, etc. OK, there may be a certain entertainment element but primarily you read the sort publications we’re talking about here, to increase your knowledge. If you want to be asked to contribute to a publication again, you must write responsibly. Only use your opinions for an article if you’ve earned the right to express them. Always check facts and figures, because if you get them wrong it reflects badly not only on you but also on the publication.
Issue #3: Readers are only interested in themselves…
…and that means everything you put in your article must be, as far as possible, something that would interest them, not you or your boss. To find out what interests readers you need to research who they are and what makes them tick.
Issue #4: Keeping readers’ interest means giving them value…
…which means you either have to tell something interesting that they don’t already know, tell them how to do something better, give advice on an issue which you know (from your research) is likely to be of concern to them, etc.
Issue #5: If you can’t give advice, tell a story…
…because people like real “slice of life” anecdotes as long as they’re relevant. Ditto with case histories, provided that you keep them brief and succinct. If your service or product involves solving people’s problems, don’t just say so – that’s a) advertising and b) boring. Use a real example of how it has solved people’s problems. Use quotes from the people concerned. Bring your article to life.
Issue #6: Length is important
…because editors are busy people and if they don’t have to cut or pad out your contribution they’ll love you for it. Find out how many words they want from you and ensure you submit that many (within 20 words or so.) One, you don’t want others tinkering with your words, do you! Two, knowing ahead of time how many words to write helps give you a feel for how much detail you need to include, before you start writing. Three, submitting an article that’s the correct length helps to make you look professional, and you’re more likely to get asked to contribute again.
Crafting pointer #1: Devise a strong theme and stick to it
Assuming that you haven’t been told what to write about by the publication’s editor, decide this on the basis of what you believe will interest readers most and then stick to it firmly. Help yourself to stick to the point by writing out a content skeleton in bullet point form. Then start adding “flesh to the bones” as notes. Only start writing the article when you’ve defined and organized your content to your satisfaction.
Crafting pointer #2: Get your “tone of voice” right”
Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of assuming a tone of voice which you think is appropriate for your organization’s image, unless it’s identical to the right one for the audience. Read as many back issues of the publication concerned as you can get hold of, so you get the feel for their own editorial. Then copy that.
Crafting pointer #3: Avoid unfriendly jargon
Particularly in technical publications a certain amount of jargon is OK, because the readership is likely to be familiar with it. However be sure you check this very carefully, and don’t allow any suspect jargon to creep into what you write. Also, don’t take a chance on people not understanding acronyms, abbreviations, etc. If in doubt, spell it out.
Crafting pointer #4: Devise a snappy headline
Although the publication’s editor may well change it, making the headline good will help ensure that the final version remains as close to your original as possible. Once again look at back numbers of the publication for an indication of style and approach. Generally it’s best to keep it simple, direct, try to make it imply a benefit to the reader. Only attempt a “clever” headline (pun, play on catchphrase, etc) if you know you’re really good at it – and that the pun is consistent with the general flow of the piece. A pun purely for it’s own sake isn’t worthwhile.
Crafting pointer #5: Create a sharp summary/intro paragraph
This is something that’s more of an issue in online press releases but I think it’s a useful device for any article. In two or three sentences, summarize the key message of your article and then use that as an introductory paragraph. The editor may not leave it there, but if – as is often the case – s/he uses a trailer for your article on the front page or on the publication’s website, etc., that’s what they’ll use or base it on, anyway. Extra-tip: write this para after you’ve written the article. Don’t try to start with it as you’ll find yourself going into too much detail.
Crafting pointer #6: Stick to a structure with “how tos”
In a “how to” article your structure is fairly easy to define. First you set up the topic, then go through your tips on how to do it pretty much in chronological order, and finish off with a short summary or conclusion. Don’t use any detail that isn’t strictly relevant to what your reader needs. However at the same time, be careful you don’t wrongly assume prior knowledge on the part of the reader. Be sure you know how much they know.
Crafting pointer #7: Use quotes to help tell a story
Although any story you tell in a business article is going to be true, it helps to take some tips from fiction writers and use a bit of drama to bring the story alive. Instead of starting predictably with the background of the case history and how you came to meet the customer, etc., start with a blazing quote from the customer him/herself – “I was up to my knees in water and could see my entire stock being destroyed,” said Jerry Kann, Production Manager of XYZ Clothing Manufacturers. “When you and your pumping crew turned up so quickly I could have kissed you all…” Don’t be afraid to use quotes. As long as they’re real and don’t contain pompous corporate-speak, they’re very powerful.
Crafting pointer #8: Edit hard but sensibly
To be honest, not many of us have the time to hone our writing by producing umpteen drafts and in any case I believe you can over-edit your work, making it too dry and unspontaneous. However hard editing is necessary, especially if your first draft is over length. If you need to cut out more than, say, 20% don’t try to shorten everything. If you do, you’re bound to strangle some of your good points. Instead ask yourself if all your content is really necessary, and if some points are not strictly required then dump them. If the article is seriously over length and you can’t justify giving it a good haircut, contact the editor and ask if they can run it over two issues in two parts.
Online vs offline – the differences
In my view the most irritating difference between writing text for online media and offline is the physical restrictions and impediments imposed by the viewing medium, i.e. a screen rather than a piece of paper.
Most of you will be familiar with all the current web usability issues and if you’re not, by any chance, you would do well to look at Dr Jakob Nielsen’s website http://www.useit.com.
However never be intimidated by grand-sounding webspeak. Writing effectively for online purposes is not rocket science. Essentially, there are just two very important things you have to remember.
Write for the way people read online
Firstly, go with the flow of the physical restrictions and write so you minimize their effect. According to Jakob Nielsen (see above) 4 out of 5 people scan online text. That’s probably because reading from a screen takes them 25% longer than it would to read the same text from a piece of paper – reading from a screen can be hard work, especially if you do it a lot.
One popular recommendation is to keep screen-based text short – about half the length of its paper-based equivalent is comfortable. The other recommendation is to create your text so it works well for scanners (human scanners that is) by highlighting key points in bold – not italics or underline because people think those are links. That way people get the gist of your message while scrolling, although of course they will stop and read more carefully when an emboldened section really does catch their eye.
Don’t ignore online folklore and etiquette
Secondly, bear in mind that even in its short little life the internet has already started to put its folklore on a nostalgic pedestal and this plays a key role in determining what works online now.
Having begun its days as an electronic kaffée klatch for individual tekkies the net has developed a very personal informality and straight-talking ethos that, miraculously, is being preserved and perpetuated successfully. And that’s all the more astounding when you consider the vast commercialism that’s replaced the early net’s endearing woolly-sweater-and-sandals innocence, naïvety and honesty.
Online = informal
Never mind, though. There are other good reasons why brief, straight, plain – even blunt – speaking is a sensible style to maximize the success of your online text. Obviously it helps overcome the physical restrictions (see above) and also works well in such a personal, one-to-one medium that is, literally, in your face.
Overwriting anything using pompous corporate-speak, too much/inappropriate jargon, too much of a “me/us” focus rather than concentrating on what’s of interest to readers … well, they’re all bad enough offline. Do that online and your piece will positively scream out “boring and not worth a second glance.”
If you’re asked to submit an article to a website, obviously you will discuss the content, tone, length etc with the people concerned before you start. Sometimes, though, you’ll be given a free rein.
If this is the case then choose your subject matter very carefully. Even if the site owners tell you to write about anything you want, make sure a) you understand their typical audience and b) you choose a topic that will be of genuine news or feature value to them. OK, by all means work in a few mentions of your product or service but remember this: readers aren’t stupid. If your article looks like a thinly disguised advertisement your credibility will be down the toilet. It’s a simple as that.
Keep them short
If you have a free rein over length, don’t go much beyond 800-1,000 words. One of the websites I write articles for ( http://www.marketingprofs.com/ ) has found that this is the optimum length to retain people’s attention and concentration, because more often than not they will read the article online (rather than print it out and read it off paper later.)
Structure-wise, use shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs than you do for print articles. Every few paragraphs break the text up with a snappy, relevant cross-heading.
Style-wise, keep your language simple and uncluttered. Avoid unnecessarily long words and phrases. Be direct, and write to the reader. If you find this hard to grasp, imagine you’re writing a letter to one typical member of the website’s audience. Have a picture of that person in your mind. Visualize what s/he will find interesting and what will begin to bore him/her. I know that sounds weird and psychobabblesque, but it works to keep you reader-focused.
Don’t forget the trailer
Finally – and I say this deliberately, because it’s far easier to do it last than first – write a trailer paragraph about your article. You should include this as an emboldened introduction to your article, but it should also be able to stand alone so the site can use it as an abstract if they want to. The editor may tinker with this paragraph a bit, but I always prefer to offer them a suggestion of how to introduce my article – rather than let them do it from scratch!
Canadian-born Suzan St Maur is an international business writer and author based in the United Kingdom. In addition to her consultancy work for clients in Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia, she contributes articles to more than 150 business websites and publications worldwide, and has written twelve published books on business writing, marketing, publishing and humor. Check out all her current books here at http://www.suzanstmaur.com/articles_f.htm.
To subscribe to her free biweekly business writing tips eZine, TIPZ from SUZE, click here at http://www.suzanstmaur.com.
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