to Write Powerful Articles to Promote Your Expertise and
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.
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
what are they key issues to bear in mind?
#1: Articles are not advertising...
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.
#2: Articles are about information...
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.
#3: Readers are only interested in themselves...
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
#4: Keeping readers’ interest means giving them
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.
#5: If you can’t give advice, tell a story...
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.
#6: Length is important
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.
pointer #1: Devise a strong theme and stick to it
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.
pointer #2: Get your “tone of voice” right”
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.
pointer #3: Avoid unfriendly jargon
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.
pointer #4: Devise a snappy headline
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.
pointer #5: Create a sharp summary/intro paragraph
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.
pointer #6: Stick to a structure with “how tos”
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
pointer #7: Use quotes to help tell a story
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.
pointer #8: Edit hard but sensibly
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.
vs offline – the differences
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.
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.
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.
for the way people read online
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.
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.
ignore online folklore and etiquette
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
forget the trailer
– 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!
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.
subscribe to her free biweekly business writing tips eZine,
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