When I interviewed master crime-writer Elmore Leonard years ago, he gave this advice to would-be writers, “If you want to write well, write a lot. Something might even work out.”
Okay, practice makes perfect, maybe. And while you’re out there practicing, it’s nice to have some general guidelines to help speed up the process.
So, as a former print journalist and veteran CNN correspondent who has written thousands of stories, here are some of the strategies I share with my executive clients – many of whom are working to enhance their professional profiles by creating a body of written work for on-line and mainstream publications.
- HEADLINES – Make your headline as compelling as you can!
Think short and catchy. You may write one headline at the beginning of your article and then find you can re-write it more simply and “grabby” after you are finished – like a quick wrap-up. In journalism, for example, editors, not reporters, write an article’s headlines. It’s a distinct skill.
a. Pique your readers’ curiosity–Writing a headline that makes readers curious to learn more and turn to you for answers or insight is a great way to build an audience.
b. Link your cause to a celebrity or a news item- Obviously, you don’t have to always link your relevance to someone who is more famous than you (as I shamelessly did by putting Kim Kardashian in my headline about headline writing). In one week alone I saw more than a dozen writers referencing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s choice to wear the same clothes every day as a launching point for their own observations. In campaigning, we call this finding a solid “third party advocate” – someone who supports your message and is highly visible. In the same vein, linking your point to a current hot news event or topic is common sense – but too often a missed opportunity.
c. Be emotional and/or fun – Most of us will welcome a quick read if it appeals to us emotionally. Research shows people make decisions first from their subconscious, which is where emotion resides, and then back that up with their conscious mind with rational logic and reasoning.
2. LEAD (or LEDE) PARAGRAPH – You grabbed them with your headline now really grab them in your lead. You’ll want to spend as much time on formulating your opening paragraph as you do your headline. There is no single right way to do this. Here are a few ideas:
a. Teaser – This can be as simple as a quick “teaser” introduction, in which you essentially tell your reader here’s what you’re going to get and why it’s important in a couple of sentences – and then the rest of your article fills in the details.
b. Provocative question – Or you can lead with a provocative question that asks your reader to imagine a scenario or something that makes them sit up and want to read more.
c. Startling fact – Hit your readers with the gotcha fact – like how the UK is surprisingly lagging behind other counties in digital training – or what the shocking future statistics for digital security risk may be if processes aren’t changed. Then fill in with the “what can we do about it.”
3. PERSONAL ANECDOTE or STORY
You should already understand the idea of adding in a personal story. Try to make your descriptions as vivid as possible. The key to any story, however, is to relate it back to the point you are making so there’s an applicable take-away for your reader. Don’t make your reader infer. Spell it out for them.
- NUMBERED LlSTS
If you have three main points, don’t just state them in your narrative. Make them stand out by creating a bulleted list. This helps your reader find their take-aways easily. You can then even put that back into your headline. “My top three tips for X” ….
- LESS IS MORE
Just as with an oral presentation, most essays or articles are best written if they don’t get put the audience to sleep with too much information. If your essay is very dense, consider breaking it up into two or even three entries. Imagine you are writing a book, and think about where your chapters would come. One main point per chapter works best. Tease your audience in a final graph that you are going to write more – keep them interested.
Are there implications or lessons to be learned from your article that will appeal to more than your immediate professional colleagues? If you want to broaden your audience, steer clear from using too much industry jargon. Imagine you are writing to a family friend or a dear aunt. Make it interesting for them and it can still have the same appeal for your intended audience.
- CREATE A SENSE of URGENCY
Is there reason why someone should pay attention to your article? What might happen if someone does not follow or consider your point? What will happen if the status quo continues in a particular line of business? This does not mean a false sense of urgency, but if there is a poignant reason for your audience to pay attention, tell them!
- CHUNK WRITING
I don’t always write “linearly” – if I know I want to include a particular point in the middle of my story, I may craft that paragraph as a stand-alone right away and come back to it later. Or while I’m thinking of a topic, I may think of a perfect “wrap” or “go-home” line and write it down before I forget and before I write anything else. I may think of a compelling lede line only after I have written everything else. Imagine the paragraphs of your essay as shells in the “shell game.” When you re-read your finished product, you might move one graph above another if they seem to support each other in a better order. Play with your structure. It’s your creation. You are an artist creating for an audience.
Copyright 2015 Gina London. All Rights Reserved.