How to Write and Sell How-to Articles—Part 2

In her article, “Ten Types of Magazine Articles,” Shirley Biagi wrote this about How-tos:

“The recipe is an easily recognizable how-to. However recipes for solar water heaters are just as much how-tos as recipes for hot Texas chili, and more marketable. How-tos are a good choice for the beginning freelancer. Offer step-by-step instructions and if possible, duplicate the process you’re discussing, watching for holes in your description. Think of yourself as a teacher explaining an experiment that you expect the class to duplicate. Be careful to avoid words that might confuse the beginner. “

Those are all excellent points for both beginners and experienced freelancers — plus there are multiple ways to write how-tos. Some may take the form of traditional articles, others may use unique ways to show how to do something. A how-to could even be in the form of an essay or a letter to a friend. And some are learning tools.

In her Recipe for Health column, registered dietitian Megan Murphy, my favorite food writer, gives readers a wealth of related information along with how-to recipes.

In one column, she showed how to make Spinach and Feta Focaccia using refrigerated pizza dough and leftover spinach. When she had no yellow raisins as the recipe specified, she just left them out. And she accidentally burned the pine nuts she was toasting. (I like it when people admit to making the same kind of mistakes I make.)

Megan wrote about how her eye doctor sang the praises of spinach for good eye health, and how the presence of beta carotene and Vitamin A in the dish can aid both the cornea and the brain. Because her article went beyond just how to cook something for dinner, readers got more than a basic recipe.

If you just want to write a simple article, however, here’s a basic plan using the hot Texas chili theme:

Introduction or lead — why hot Texas chili is delectable and why you should want to prepare it for dinner:

Ingredients — items you need to follow the recipe and produce a spectacular chili.

Instructions — how to put the ingredients together, and cook and serve your very special chili.

Results — how good it tastes and how much family and friends enjoy your special hot Texas chili.

Whatever the form of your how-to, and whether you’re writing about chili, solar water heaters or another subject, here are some points to consider:

1. Make sure the title of your how-to will interest readers of your target publication.

2. Capture attention with a lead that entices readers to stay and read the entire piece. A wikiHow article shows one way to use a question in the introduction to capture reader’ interest :

“An example of an opening line: ‘Have you ever wondered how to write an engaging introduction?’ And example of a closing introduction line: ‘Here’s how to do it in a few easy steps.'”

3. Present your how-to in logical, orderly steps. Begin with a list of needed supplies or ingredients, then discuss the steps your how-to requires. Use short, simple sentences and limit each step to one idea.

4. Include precautions, plus tips and advice so readers can carry out instructions successfully. Photos or drawings may be needed.

5. Credit others for facts and techniques used in your how-to. Get written permission for any copyrighted content that you use.

6. Be sure your completed how-to has a satisfactory ending.  If you can tie the ending to your lead (introduction), so much the better.

7. Don’t forget to proofread everything, including photo captions. Correct any errors you find.

How-tos can be fun to write and rewarding to see in print. Editors seem to welcome them. If you’ve never written one before, maybe now is the time to get started.

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How to Write and Sell ‘How-to’ Articles — Part 1

Years ago, I read an article about writing ‘how-tos’ for magazines and the author stressed this point: the main requirement for selling a ‘how-to’ is first-hand experience. Equipped as I am with two left feet and no green thumb, and being somewhat math- and technology-challenged, that approach was a difficult one for me to follow.

But I am interested in people and what they do. That interest led me to an African violet expert, so I wrote a ‘how-to’ about how that woman grows prize-winning African Violets in her basement. A local home and garden publication snapped up my article.

I took on a business assignment to write a ‘how-to’ about how an employee implemented Statistical Process Control techniques in the manufacturing branch of his company. I had never heard of SPC before and considering my limitations, my article would have been impossible if the employee had not explained the process in a way that was easy for me to understand and I, in turn, could relate that to others. The company’s employee publication ran that ‘how-to’ in its next issue.

And then there was the couple I heard about who used fifteenth technology to start up and run a modern-day printing operation. Using their expertise, I was able to write a ‘how-to’ showing how to put the centuries-old process to work in a modern setting. The article appeared in a national trade magazine.

The point is this: You don’t have to be an expert to write a ‘how-to’ in areas far removed from anything in your experience. I’ve found that editors eagerly grab well-written ‘how-tos’ aimed at their readership.

So, If you’re not an experienced outdoors person but want to write in that field, find an expert who fits the category. I understand that, despite the present economic downturn, ‘how-tos’ are the best selling category for any outdoors article.

And editors of publications in other fields also eat up ‘how-tos.’ Go to any newsstand and look at the covers and contents pages of diverse publications. You’ll find many promoting articles like these:

“How and Where to Paint” (Traditional Home)
“How to Drop 12 Pounds in 14 Days” (Prevention)
“How to Fake Flawless Skin” (Home Journal)
“How to Save on the Cost of Printer’s Ink” (Consumer Reports)
“How to Find Time to Write” (The Writer)
“How to Add Realism to Your Training” (Guns & Ammo – Handguns)

Whatever your the market you want to write a ‘how-to’ for, research well. Spend time examining newsstand publications, looking especially at lesser known magazines — they may receive fewer queries than others. Be sure to read guidelines and back issues of the magazines you plan to target.

Ideas for ‘how-tos’ may come from your own and your friends’ experiences, from your children, newspaper articles, local radio and tv features. If you find things in your everyday life that don’t work and you try to fix them, that may be the basis for a how-to from your own experience. But you still may want to include advice from experts in your piece, and be sure to mention the experts you want to quote in your query. That can help to sell your idea to the editor.

Where can you find experts? The same place you find ‘how-to’ subjects — check newspapers, radio and tv shows, ask friends, relatives and neighbors, look on the internet. Try Expert.com and Profnet.com. Google your subject and see what turns up. WritersWeekly.com has a special section where you can ask for expert help for articles. If you have a college or university nearby, you may find a wealth of experts on campus.

Be sure to come back here for How to Write and Sell ‘How-to’ Articles, Part 2, where we’ll get into the specifics of actually writing a ‘how-to.’

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Writers Helping Writers: Lisa Collier Cool

Ever since I bought How to Write Irresistible Query Letters, I’ve been a fan of the book’s author, Lisa Collier Cool. That book was a great help to me as a beginning writer and later as a full-time freelancer, giving me needed help in writing query letters. It also presented a collection of successful queries, a welcome addition for those of us interested in how others write query letters.

Last month, I picked up my copy of Parade Magazine and found there “The Dog That Changes Lives,” Lisa’s article about therapy dogs. In case you missed the piece, you can read it here.

I decided to write and ask Lisa about the query letter that sold the article. She was most generous in her response, agreeing to share her query with readers of this blog. I was much impressed with her query. It is a fine example of an effective way to interest an editor of a large national magazine in an article idea.

Below, you’ll find both our emails and her query to Parade:
———————————————————-
To:
Lisa:
I loved your article this week in Parade. Congratulations!

As soon as I read the article, I knew I wanted to ask you about the query you used to sell the piece. I’ve been a freelancer for about 30 years and I also have a blog, Words into Print, about writing (it’s at  ldaley.wordpress.com) where I try to help others get published. I’m wondering if you would be willing to share that query letter with readers of my blog.  Yours is a great example, I think, of a short inspirational piece that not only packs a lot of emotion in relatively few words but also gives vital information to the reader.

(My daughter works at a health care facility in Charlotte and she tells me about the great impact that therapy animals have on patients there).

I do hope you will agree to share your query and I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you, Lisa

Sincerely,
Laverne Daley
Cordova, Tennessee
——————-
Lisa’s answer:
Sorry to be so slow in replying.  Thanks for your interest in the Parade story! Below is a copy of the query letter, which you are welcome to include in your blog, as long as you credit me as the author.

Best,
Lisa

———————————————————-
Therapy Dog Proposal to Parade

I’d like to write about a remarkable therapy dog named Boo, who has an uncanny ability to sense what each person needs–and work what some call miracles.  At Maryknoll, a NY retirement home for nuns, some of whom suffer from Alzheimer’s, Sister Jean was lost in her own world of silence and spent her days clutching a stuffed animal for comfort.  No one could get through to her until she met Boo, who sat by her side radiating sympathy and love at each session.  Little by little, the sister responded.  First she stopped bringing the stuffed toy to sessions, then she amazed everyone by uncurling her tightly clenched hands so she could stroke his soft black fur.  She started smiling when he arrived, with his trainer, Lisa Edwards, and recently, spoke for the first time in years, saying, “Hello, Boo.”

Lisa and Boo also volunteer at a library program, in which kids read to therapy dogs.  When a little boy was struggling over the words, so embarrassed by his mistakes that he was close to tears, Boo knew just how to break the tension.  He began clowning around, sniffing the boy’s shoes and tickling his ear with his whiskers and cold nose, which got the kid giggling.  After that, he decided reading was fun.  Another child felt that Boo was so enthralled by the book he was reading aloud that the kid came back week after week to the library so that the dog could hear the rest of the story.

What makes Boo an unlikely hero is that he has disabilities.  He doesn’t see too well, often bumps into things, and moves stiffly.  And as a puppy, he was such a slow learner that it took an entire year to housebreak him.  When Lisa first enrolled in a therapy dog training program, he was the class dunce and was practically laughed out of the program.  Only by chance did she discover his amazing gift of empathy: At a pet store, Boo dragged her over to two sisters, shopping with their mom.  Then he stood there, glowing with joy as the squealing kids tugged on his tail and petted him.  That convinced Lisa he had the right temperament to be a therapy dog and she vowed to do whatever it took to get him certified.

Boo’s work at the nursing home and library has NO publicity of any kind.  He also volunteers at several other programs, including one for developmentally disabled adults.  He was recently a finalist for Therapy Dog of the Year.   I’ll look forward to your reaction to this idea, which I’m sending to you first and exclusively.  I’ve won 18 awards for journalism and my work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, the Wall Street Journal, Ladies Home Journal, Woman’s Day, Glamour, Self, Redbook, O the Oprah magazine, and many other national publications.  You can see some of my clips on my website: http://www.lisacolliercool.com.

Best,
Lisa Collier Cool
Award-winning journalist

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You will agree, I’m sure, that hers is a fine query letter. We congratulate Lisa on her continuing success, and offer sincere thanks for her generosity. LD

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A Roundup of Proofreading Tips

Sorry about the lack of recent posts here. A back injury kept me away from the computer for too long, but it had one unexpected, and welcome, outcome: lots of time to think about posts to write, including this one on proofreading.

To my writer’s mind, proofreading ranks right up there in importance with crafting compelling leads or marketing savvy, whether for a 150-word filler or a major article or book. My philosophy about proofreading is this: get all the help you can, from a responsible person or other reliable source, and try to make your work as nearly perfect as possible.

Over the years I’ve picked up some especially helpful tips from Internet sources like LR Communications Systems, Inc.; DailyWritingTips.com; Writing Consistently across Media; the Writer’s Handbook of the University of Wisconsin-Madison UW-Madison; About.Com Desktop Publishing; the University Writing Center at the University of Arkansas Little Rock (UWC); and The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University.

Here are some of those tips:

1. Put it on paper and read it out loud. People read differently on screen and on paper, so print out a copy of your writing. If you read aloud, your ear might catch errors that your eye may have missed. (dailywritingtips.com)

2. Read through the entire document once to get an overall feel for content before you proofread for errors. (desktoppub.about.com)

3. Place a ruler (or a piece of paper) under each line as you read it. This will give your eyes a manageable amount of text to read. (UWC)

4. Don’t try to find every mistake in one pass. Read through the material several times, looking for different problems each time such, such as:

Typos and misspellings
Easily confused words (“to” for “too,” “your” for “you’re,” e.g.)
Ambiguity
Inconsistencies
Formatting problems
Factual errors
Missing words (Writing Consistently Across Media)

5. Use the search function of the computer to find mistakes you’re likely to make. Search for “its” and “it’s,” for “-ing” if dangling modifiers are problem for us; for opening parentheses or quote marks if you tend to leave out the closing ones. (UW -Madison)

6. Proof backwards. Begin at the end and work back through the paper, paragraph by paragraph, or even line by line. This will force you to look at the surface elements rather than the meaning of the paper. (UWC)

7. Proofread once aloud. This will slow you down and you will hear the difference between what you meant to write and what you actually wrote. (UWC)

8. Use the spell-checker on your computer, but use it carefully, and also do your own spell-checking. Computer spell-checkers often make errors — they might suggest a word that isn’t what you want at all, and they don’t know the difference between there, their, and they’re, for example. (UWC)

9. Remember that the apostrophe is never used to form plurals. (dailywritingtips.com)

10. Call phone numbers to verify them. If addition, subtraction, or other math operations appear in text, double check the figures. (desktoppub.about.com)

11. Check the numbers. Stating the value of an acquisition was $10,000 instead of $100,000 is definitely not the same thing. What about the population of China, is it 1,2 million or 1,2 billion? Make sure your numbers are correct. (dailywritingtips.com)

12. Closely review page numbers and other footer/header material for accuracy and correct order. (LR Communication Systems)

13. Read down columns in a table, even if you’re supposed to read across the table to use the information. Columns may be easier to deal with than rows. (LR Communication Systems)

15. Double check names. Check spelling of all names and company names. (desktoppub.about.com)

16. And finally this from (UWC) : Remember that it isn’t just about errors.

You want to polish your sentences at this point, making them smooth, interesting and clear. Watch for long sentences, since they may be less clear than shorter, more direct sentences. Pay attention to the rhythm of your writing; try to use sentences of varying length and patterns. Look for unnecessary phrases, repetition, and awkward spots.

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