Great articles come in all shapes and sizes, from transient internet lists to verbose, lengthy musings in the London Review of Books.
Truly engaging articles, however, don’t happen by accident.
The mark of a great piece of engaging content (for our purposes here, at least) is not how long it is, how fancy the language is, how qualified the author is, or how technical the subject matter is. It’s how the reader feels while (and after) they read it.
Different articles will have different purposes: to inform, to persuade, to entertain, to aggravate, to provoke, to inspire, or to reveal. The sign that a piece of writing has been successful is whether the right readers respond in the right way.
Is this manipulation? Not necessarily. Manipulation is when you control or influence people in an unscrupulous or nefarious way. Is aiming to inform someone about how to load an app to the App Store, and then achieving a sense of “informed” in your reader, manipulation? Not in my book.
As long as you’re honest and fair about what you’re trying to achieve, and genuinely wish to be of service to others (whatever your sales targets might be), it’s okay — crucial, in fact — to try and encourage a certain response in your readers.
For example (let’s go all meta on this), this article is aimed at those who find themselves wanting or needing to create online content (whether for a business or otherwise). The goal is to demystify article writing in a readable and friendly way, breaking down the process into easy steps, in order to help you as a writer feel inspired, informed, and practically well-equipped to craft effective and engaging content.
With this in mind, I’ve broken down my own article-writing process into the following 10 steps:
Maybe this process will be useful for you; maybe not. You’re welcome to pilfer, adapt, disagree, mash-up, and otherwise make whatever use you can of what I’ve learned as you write your own enjoyable and engaging articles.
Let’s look into each of these steps in more depth.
This one may seem obvious, but it only takes a quick look around us to see that most of the world spends most of their lives doing stuff they’re not genuinely interested in (how many guys REALLY want to trail around the homeware store after their partner on a Sunday?). In similarly tragic fashion, a huge amount of content gets created by people who aren’t genuinely interested in their subject matter.
This matters, because your interest level in your subject matter will inevitably come through to your readers. If you’re bored, but pushin’ on through anyway, they will be bored too. Truly readable and engaging articles come from authors who are enthused about what they’re writing about.
What are you genuinely interested in? What conversational subject makes your eyes light up and your hands start spontaneously gesticulating? Write about that, if you can.
If you can’t, find ways to weave your interest into what you ARE writing about — for example, if you’re paid to write about tourism, but are really more interested in food, you might focus on café reviews, foodie location tips, and food-related metaphors.
Ultimately, however, these workarounds won’t cut it: I highly recommend finding outlets where you can write about “your thing” (or things) more directly. Such writing is guaranteed to flow better and read more enjoyably for the reader.
I’m not talking about what you’re good at (although it might be the same). I’m not talking about what you’ve achieved success with. I’m not talking about what the greatest number of people will be interested in. I’m talking about what YOU are interested in.
It might be obscure, it might be geeky, it might be weird … but you’ll speak with enthusiasm and knowledge, and it will come through. No amount of verbal gymnastics or technical research can replace your genuine enthusiasm.
The beauty of the internet is that it allows you to connect with the right people, the ones who will share your interest and want to read your obscure (or not so obscure) scribings. Which leads us to …
I can’t overemphasize the importance of this step. Knowing who you’re speaking to and what effect you’re trying to create before you start writing will make your job so, so much easier.
If you write for an organization or guest post for specific companies, ask to discuss or read over the brand’s voice and vision, which should outline who the company is speaking to and the tone of voice they wish to speak in.
It’s much harder to come back to an existing piece of stream-of-consciousness writing that has no specific audience in mind and try and mash it into something more specific and readable.
Fiction writers may be able to just speak from the bottom of their humanness, and connect naturally with the right people on that basis, but for our intent here, we’re not fiction writers. We’re writing something with a specific purpose.
So first off, get to know your audience. Without getting creepy, know as much about them as possible. Grab yourself a pen and some paper, or open a blank document, and pin down your audience.
Don’t stop at physical details like age, culture, gender, and other demographics. What do they dream of? What do they worry about at night? What are they saving for? (Are they saving?) Get to know them with the enthusiasm you would a new girlfriend or boyfriend. Get to know them for no reason at all, beyond your desire to serve them.
Perhaps your audience is you, five or 10 years ago. Think about how you were and what you needed. After all, there’s (hopefully) no one you know better.
You may even like to imagine your audience as one specific person, to whom you’re speaking directly. Write down what they’re like. Befriend them. Understand their troubles. Get playful!
For example, your interest area might be raw food “cookery,” and you run a content-based website that sells your raw-food related products. Your ideal reader might be a 34-year-old woman with straight brown hair who cooks at home, lives in an urban area, has a lot of houseplants, is confident about relationships but not work, eats spaghetti in a charmingly messy way, and is not knowledgeable about raw food, but would like to be.
This may sound waaay too specific, but there are enough humans on the planet, and we have enough in common with each other, that if you speak honestly and directly to one (imaginary) reader, it will naturally resonate with others in your target audience.
We’re looking to define an energy and a tone here, not to literally write articles on “How to water your houseplants and eat spaghetti more tidily.”
Articles that are too general and attempt to appeal to everyone are often soulless, remote, and boring. Even if your tone is informative, and your goal is to sell something, write as if to your good friend.
Define your reader, and befriend her or him.
Make sure you actually like them! This may seem obvious, but I edit too many articles where the author comes across as subtly scornful, dismissive, or (in their own mind) superior to their readers. We’re all readers, we’re all intelligent, and no one likes getting talked to like a dumb-ass.
Once you know who your reader is, write down why you want to speak to them. I have read far, far too many articles where the “why” could have been summarized as “to tell them how awesome I am.” This is not a good reason for an article. They’re your friend, remember, so they already know you’re awesome.
Think about what they need. Do you know something they might need to know? A practical skill? Something you’ve learned? Some reassurance on their path? A clear articulation of something that’s been troubling them? An explanation of a tricky process you’ve worked out?
You may want certain outcomes from your writing (email signups, more site traffic, et cetera), but first and foremost it needs to be useful to those who read it. Otherwise, why would they bother?
At this point, you should know your subject matter, your audience, and the reason why you want to speak to them. Use these to write a draft title — it doesn’t have to be short and snappy or clever yet, it just has to clearly articulate your article’s reason for being, so you can keep coming back to it when you go off-topic (happens to all of us).
Use the activity of writing your title to make sure your scope is realistic — are you trying to cover too much in a 2,000-word post? How in-depth do you want to go? Is the scope appropriate for the tone of the article? (You might not be able to adequately cover “What is the Meaning of Consciousness?” in a 500-word listicle.)
You may also wish to include a short description or slightly expanded version of the title, to help yourself stay clear on what you want to say.
For example: Your draft title might be “Starting a Blog,” and your description might be “Basic blogging tips for those who are just getting started and are not that tech-savvy.”
You can come back to this title and description later to make it more succinct and “clickable,” but for now let’s move on to creating some kind of coherent structure.
You’ll thank yourself for this later. It is much, much harder to marshal pages of random thoughts into an order than it is to make an order and then pour your thoughts into it (I’m speaking from painful editorial experience here).
Everyone’s mind works differently, so you’ll need to find the system that works for you, but I highly recommend adopting some kind of structural planning process.
Try a few planning processes and see what syncs with how your brain functions naturally. For each method, write (or type) your title (and short description, if you have one) at the top of the page, and make sure everything is relevant to your title and your “why.”
Here are some ideas:
Whatever you go with, take the time to do a thorough job at this point — it’s arguably the most important stage. I’ve found that the more I plan a clear structure, the easier it is to write; and the more I stick to my planning method, the quicker I can construct this framework.
Think of it like the structural framework of a house — absolutely indispensable for the house to stay up, but a bit chilly without all the walls and windows in yet — and near impossible to add later on!
Right, we’re now ready to:
Yes, go on, just do it! Don’t worry about perfect grammar or crafting the best sentences ever; just get it out. Keep your audience firmly in mind, as if you’re having a conversation together, and keep to your title and structural framework, but otherwise go for it.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
You’re like a painter with a big canvas at this point — throw the paint on and tidy up later. The idea that everything has to come out perfectly formed is a very unhelpful myth. That’s why writing is called a “craft,” because you work with the raw material!
While you’re writing, however, it might be useful to keep the following point in mind:
Every article has to strike a balance between unsubstantiated claims and a death-by-boredom torrent of factual information. The right balance will depend on your audience, tone, and subject matter. An article on recent medical discoveries about eczema will need lots of links to well-regarded medical research; an article on the best burger bars in Lisbon can happily be pure opinion.
Think about when you actually need to prove something, and when your experience and understanding can speak for itself.
Either way, it’s a good idea to follow a simple formula when it comes to evidence: introduce an idea, provide an example, and place it in context/explain what it means.
For example, our raw food writer might be penning an article called “Why Eat Raw?”. She’s got her audience and tone down, and she wants to help readers interested in raw food understand what it is and why someone might eat it. She’s broken down the subject into subheadings based on five key reasons for eating raw food, one of which might be “health benefits.”
At this point, she might introduce the idea that eating raw food is good for our health, and then mention one or two well-reputed studies that have shown this to be the case. She would then bring it back with something like, “What does this research mean for the average home cook? Well, it means …” She doesn’t just say the facts: she unpacks what they mean.
The unpacking is important, because this is the service you’re providing to your readers: they don’t just want raw information (they can Google that themselves), they want it filtered through you. Imagine meeting a friend for coffee who just bombarded you with factual information — you’re not going to repeat that in a hurry.
Remember, the goal is not to convince a hostile reader to agree with you: this leads to too much evidence, used aggressively. The goal is to inform our reader-friend and earn their trust with thorough research. Good evidence should say, “Look, I care about getting this right so that we can both have access to this interesting, accurate, and useful information … which is cool because …”
(S)tatement, (E)vidence, e(X)planation … sound familiar? Most of us would have learned this (memorable) acronym, or a less suggestive version of it, in high school. But now we’re actually interested in our reader, and our subject matter, so it becomes useful and relevant, rather than a deathly bore.
Write these last. You won’t know what you’re introducing or concluding until you’ve written it!
Start with something snappy, give a brief overview of what your argument is, and then say what the reader can expect from the article.
In your introduction, make sure to use any important keywords to make it easier for people searching for your article to know they’re in the right place. Establish your tone here boldly (Informative? Chatty? Suggestive? Serious? Passionate?), and make sure it matches the rest of the text — the most engaging articles have a strong, consistent personality throughout.
In your conclusion, briefly recap what you’ve been saying in a short and sweet way. Please, don’t ever write “In conclusion” — it evokes dry essay-writing and a vaguely funereal mood. Also, don’t introduce any new ideas or arguments — simply round off what you’ve already said in a way that feels … well … conclusive.
These do not have to be boring, dry summaries! Remember, you’re having a chat with a friend — so how would you summarize your piece to them? Think of it more like exciting news that you want to give an overview of first, before getting into the details.
The title says it all, really (but I’ll say some more things anyway, just because).
It’s a common misconception that writing has to come out perfectly the first time. Maybe for a lucky few, but not so for most of us. Even those who write pretty well on the first stab will benefit from rewrites.
Give your writing a bit of breathing room and come back to it with fresh eyes — you’ll be amazed what improvements will become obvious.
A friend, who is a successful freelance journalist, related how he had tracked the amount of editing effort he put into a piece in relation to how popular it was. There was a direct correlation, he said, between the pieces he’d rewritten more times, and their eventual popularity — despite the fact that he himself couldn’t really tell a difference in quality.
This story really made me realize the benefits of rewriting, and how I’d been avoiding it, thinking that only bad writers need to rewrite.
(By the way, see what’s going on here? Introduce an idea … give an example … explain its significance.)
There is such a thing as over-editing, but I know that for myself, my toddler-like resistance to rewrites (“What do you mean it’s not perfect!” *Sulk*) means I have usually erred in the opposite direction — and I know I’m not alone.
Give your writing the best start in life by rewriting as a matter of course, and seeing it as part of the process, rather than a clean-up job after the process.
During this process, it’s also a good idea to return to your title. Brainstorm several options: you want something punchy and clear that speaks to your audience, communicates the overall content of the article, and stands out from the crowd.
You’ll have to find the sweet spot between too breathlessly “clickbaity” (“10 Absolutely Perfect Article-Writing Tips To Totally Transform Your Content”) and too boring/inaccessible (“Thoughts or Surmises on Why Several Specific Structural Process Techniques May Help Your Writing”).
Just keep coming back to the feeling of an honest, enthusiastic, and friendly conversation with your readers. If you’re thinking about Search Engine Optimization (SEO — a whole topic in itself), you’ll want to include your main keywords in your title, and as often as is appropriate throughout your post. Again, think of this as a service to your readers, to help them find you, rather than a manipulative or underhand technique.
Of course, it may be hard at first to know what needs rewriting and why, which is why I highly recommend that we all …
Okay, okay, I’m an editor, and this is an article for our editorial agency, so I’m biased. But I always learn from having another set of eyes look at my work, whether they’re professional or those of a literate friend.
We may have gotten so involved with building our house of words that we haven’t noticed that there’s a wall missing or that a door is upside down. This happens to everyone! I can’t overemphasize the importance of having someone else look over your work — the more pedantic they are, the better.
Using Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” mode, or the “Suggesting” editing mode within Google Docs, are great ways for an editor to make suggestions without making multiple copies or irrevocable changes.
Watch yourself to see whether you get defensive, dispirited, resentful, apologetic, or obsequious in response to feedback — all are unhelpful in the process of improving your work. It may seem obvious, but remind your lizard brain that it’s not about you — the editor is commenting on the work, not your worth as a writer or a human.
Their role is to help make the work more perfectly what it is, thereby helping you realize your vision — not to grade or assess you or the work, or impose their own voice or vision. Keep this in mind, and you’ll be able to receive feedback more non-defensively.
Remember that you don’t have to agree with everything they say — just be sure you’re not automatically rejecting any suggestions for changes.
To finish off, here is a brief list of some of the most common pitfalls I see in article writing in my work as an editor, so you can skirt around them:
There’s a lot of terrible writing out there. If we’re going to make the effort to create content, it’s worth it (and not that hard) to follow a few simple process rules to make that content engaging and readable.
As is the case in most areas of life, it’s easy to value quantity over quality, but if we’re looking to connect with a reader, for any reason, our writing needs to serve their needs, and do so in friendly yet compelling fashion.
But in the end, there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to making this connection: any overly rigid formula will kill the creative spark that makes great articles compelling. Even these tips are just what works for me — a structural framework that still needs inspiration and effort applied to it.
Have a play with these suggestions: here’s hoping some will work for you in your mission to give the world your well-crafted, readable, enjoyable, clear, highly-engaging content.
Rosalind Atkinson works as a freelance writer and editor. A great fan of an elegant sentence or a tasty word, she has authored academic pieces on William Blake, and articles for Greenpeace, elephant journal, Overland, and the Vessel Magazine, among others. She escaped academia with a Masters in English Literature, and has done time as a blogwriter, a research assistant, a baker, a costume illustrator for film, and a (kinda seasick) sailor around the Pacific and Subantarctic. She lives in a converted cowshed in the lush far north of New Zealand, where she writes, saves for an old-school printing press, and marvels at how clever and awesome nature is.