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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