How to Write and Sell “How-to” Articles

Brian Clark over at copyblogger.com got it exactly right when he posted this:

It’s no secret that “how-to” articles and blog posts are some of the most sought after, linked to, and bookmarked content online. People want useful information, and they’ll reward you by promoting it to others when you provide it.”

There’s even one website, www.ehow.com, consisting of nothing but how-to articles.

But readers of online content aren’t the only ones who like how-to articles. Magazine editors love ’em and so do their readers. Flip through publications on any newsstand and you’ll find scores of how-to articles geared to readers of each magazine.

At my local Barnes & Noble, in less than five minutes I found a diverse group of how-to articles, including these: Digital Camera World showed how to turn photographs into captivating watercolors; Budget Travel ran a piece on how to plan a girl friends getaway; Gardner’s World showed how to choose and care for fish in your back yard pond; Healing Back Pain had an article on how to prevent back injuries at work and at home; and Sky & Telescope offered advice on how to choose and use a telescope.

How-tos like these are relatively easy to write and sell. A how-to can be complex and technical, or as simple as directions for a recipe or a project a schoolchild can complete with ease.

There are multiple ways to write how-to articles. Here’s one that has worked for me:
Assume that readers know nothing about your topic, so jot down notes about everything they need to know. Next develop a rough outline by designating each note as a major point or a lesser point and decide on a logical order in which to present each major and lesser point. This will give you a rough outline that you can flesh out during the actual writing.

When you’re ready to begin writing, you need to hook your readers so they will want to read the entire article. You can use an anecdote, a startling statistic, a quotation, a “what’s new” approach, or whatever is an appropriate lead for your topic. You might even use the same hook used in your query letter to the editor (You do intend to query an editor for your how-to, don’t you? Except for a how-to that’s super simple and short, a query is the preferred way to go).

After the lead, next make sure you present all your information in logical order. You can highlight each point by using subtle breaks or subheads. You can include quotations from others who have successfully completed similar projects, or you can interject your own suggestions for specific points to make sure readers can clearly understand the process. Some writers merely use separate paragraphs for each point, linking them with appropriate transition sentences.

Wrap up your article with a satisfactory conclusion. There are multiple ways to finish, including a summary of the how-to, additional instructions, or a paragraph that links back to your opening hook.

Determine if the piece needs photographs, a sidebar with follow-up information, or a sketch or drawing to explain complex instructions. Ask yourself this question: am I leaving out anything that may be obvious to me but not to my readers?

Finally, polish each sentence and paragraph in your how-to to make it shine. Take out every unnecessary word and phrase and spell check everything, including photo cutlines and sidebars. And don’t forget to include a catchy how-to title.

© 2008 by Laverne Daley

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7 Comments on “How to Write and Sell “How-to” Articles”

  1. Hi Laverne,

    I’m catching up on my professional reading. Once again, I find your site to be most helpful. Thanks! Peace, Michele PS It’s great to be back! 🙂

  2. ldaley says:

    It’s great to hear from you, Michele. Hope you’re in excellent health now. I’ve really missed reading your blog. Welcome back!

  3. Peggy says:

    I love ehow. I just consulted with them tonight on how to make mashed sweet potatoes. I basically knew how, but wanted to make sure I wasn’t leaving out any important ingredient.

    And you’re right about the how-to blog posts getting linked to a lot. I do it at Junk Creation as you may know. : )

  4. ldaley says:

    I’m an ehow fan, too, Peggy. The site is a regular stop for me, and so is Junk Creation. I’m simply amazed at the number of things I learn about at Junk Creation. Don’t know if there’s some mixup in computer clocks, but your posts always seem to be made around 3 a.m. or thereabouts. I’m up in the middle of the night sometimes and it looks like you are, too.
    Good to hear from you, Peggy. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Peggy says:

    Laverne. No mixup. I’m sometimes up that late. : )

    Good to hear from you too. Glad you like JC! I enjoy stopping in here as well.

    BTW – I changed the url to my personal blog to its own domain at lightgreenstairs.com. It has a different look and I’ve been playing around with wordpress.org.

  6. Peggy:
    Just took a look at lightgreenstairs.com and you’re right–it does have a different look. Very light and attractive and easy to navigate. I like it and plan to return often. LD

  7. Peggy says:

    Thanks Laverne! I’m still trying to figure out some elements of the design. I’m not so good at html, but I do like the template a friend helped me find.


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