How to Write and Sell How-to Articles—Part 2Posted: October 25, 2009
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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