The 10 Commandments for Writing Killer Articles

The 10 Commandments for Writing Killer Articles

Every author needs to write and publish constantly—right? If we don’t… who are we? Will our skills crinkle up and disappear? Will our influence disappear from the interwebs altogether?

Articles are a great way to build your platform and reach new readers, but crafting your message and selling your message are two very different skill sets. Some writers can do both. Most can’t.

So maybe there’s another way to look at article writing. Maybe instead of trying to meet an arbitrary quota, we should start asking whether the reader can smell our desperation when we set out to write an article that “sells” our idea rather than something that matters. (Spoiler alert: it’s all about the reader.)

If you’re feeling the pressure (or desire) to write an article, think through these ten things first.

1. Why are you feeling the pressure?
  • Peer pressure?
  • To get up on a soapbox?
  • To test out an idea for a new book?
  • To answer a question you get frequently?
  • To build your platform?
  • To beef up your blog archives?
  • To impart a small nugget of wisdom?
  • Vague ennui?

None of these are necessarily bad reasons for writing an article. But consider that, depending on your expectations and your season of life, there may be even better ways to impart that idea.

Maybe it’s a strategic coffee invitation, so that you can process your idea verbally with immediate feedback. Maybe it’s a quick invitation for comment on LinkedIn. Or maybe you are just trying to stay disciplined about writing every day. (If that’s your goal, consider a tool like 750words.com instead… your blog doesn’t need to be a dumping ground for every passing thought.)

2. Who is your audience?

If the article is for a publication, how much of that publication have you read? The best pitches come from interacting organically with an outlet or community for a while. When you’ve had a subscription for years, you’ll have a much better idea of the topics it covers and the way it covers them.

Never, never write a boilerplate pitch to shop around to multiple outlets. Let me repeat this: never, never, sent boilerplate pitches!! No two publications have exactly the same audience (or the same editorial staff), so why would one pitch work for both of them?

If you’re writing for your own blog readers, this is much easier because you’ve probably been interacting for years. You may even know many of them by name—in fact, you may be able to predict their comments in your head before the post even goes live.

But you’ll still need to answer the following question:

3. What is the ask?

Put another way: when my reader finishes reading this, what specific actions am I hoping they’ll take?

Examples of your ‘ask’ might be something that directly benefits you:

  • Buying your book
  • Leaving a comment on the post sharing their own experience with the subject
  • Subscribing to your email list so they never miss another brilliant idea

Or it might be a behavior change that benefits society:

  • Reconsidering a previously held belief
  • Apologizing to someone
  • Doing more research on the subject
  • Shifting mindsets

Whatever the ask is, make sure it’s absolutely clear. Otherwise, you’ve just wasted your reader’s time.

4. What is the very best format for this article?

Maybe you blog pretty regularly, but have hit a plateau on traffic. Why not try writing an op-ed? Or pitching your favorite magazine or industry publication? Trying out a fresh format might take a little extra research, but breathe fresh air into your writerly sails. (Of course, if you can turn the whole thing into a listicle, do that whenever possible.)

5. Where is the best place to share your article?

Proceed with caution when cross-posting content to your social networks, since each of your online networks has a different purpose—and a different blend of people. (Remember the rule about writing for your audience?)

Here are some basic rules:

  • Twitter—for anyone who has followed your professional work or wants to interact with you
  • LinkedIn—for anyone you’ve worked with directly, or would like to work with
  • Facebook—for anyone who might appreciate keeping up with your work (in a limited way!)
  • Email list—for anyone who has specifically signed up to read more of your content
  • Instagram—for anyone who might want to be part of your community, see you speak in person, or buy your book

Once again: it’s all about the audience. Think about which of your followers would most appreciate seeing this article, where, and in what way. If an article you really love starts to take off—as in, racking up hundreds of hits and comments in its first few hours online—consider capitalizing on the momentum by paying for ads to boost it even more.

As you finish the process, consider adding a few finishing touches to your article:

6. Within the article, can you link (strategically) to other posts on your site, or to sites you admire?

This is good for your SEO (search engine optimization) and might get noticed on the other end by your author crush.

7. How readable is the article?

Check the Flesch-Kincaid reading level here. Most newspapers and websites aim for an 8th grade reading level, so favor short, clear sentences over long ones.

8. Does it have a nice, clicky headline?

They’ll never find your content if they don’t love your headline. Headline Analyzer from CoSchedule will analyze your headline grammar and keywords and give you a predictive rating for how the headline will perform.

9. Have I read it out loud?

Unless you have a professional editor proofreading every post, read that sucker out loud. It’s the best way to catch awkward phrasing and mistakes.

10. Have I gone on a “which” hunt?

As you read it out loud, kill all your passive verbs (which slow down your writing). Keep an eye out for any cliches, overused phrases, or unnecessary words, like “which” and “that.”

Your turn! What are some other questions you ask yourself before writing an article?

Filed As:  authors, platform building

About Laura Finch

Laura Finch, a native of Wheaton, IL, has eight years of experience in politics and news, including time spent working as a press aide to a U.S. congressman and a stint as a producer for a morning cable news show. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Taylor University in Indiana, a graduate degree in digital journalism from American University in Washington, D.C., and is an alumna of Indiana’s Lugar Series. She has also been published in one book, “The Zambia Project,” about a major student AIDS project completed through WorldVision. In her spare time Laura loves to run along the Potomac and discover new D.C. restaurants with her husband, Andrew.

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