4 Steps to Effective How-To Articles

“Editors and readers love how-to articles,” Deborah Bouziden, author of several books and “How To Write a How To” in the April 2008 issue of The Writer, says. “Readers like learning how to do things, be it improve their love life, learn how to cook, or take better care of their children. The market is out there.”

The magazine racks prove it. Recent headlines promise how to lose weight, how to be more organized, how to make crafts with children, how to bake various desserts, and so on. How-to articles are among the easiest types of articles to sell. They can be as complex as you want to make them. Here is a short and simple guide to show you how to write the how-to.

1. Determine what your how-to article is going to be about.
Be specific. Vague ideas are difficult to turn into a how-to article. Freelance writer Sandra Dark’s work has appeared in such magazines as Writers’ Digest, Kiwanis, and Gardening How-To. She says, “First, get to know your subject right down to the bone. And if the subject is something you know zilch about, be sure to ask the experts you interview to define every point so you can understand it, and so can explain it to your readers, clearly.”

Thursday Bram, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in WHY Magazine, Funds for Writers, and other online magazines, adds, “Writing a how-to article breaks down to first outlining what the specific steps are and then deciding just how much information — how many details — a reader needs to be able to complete the actual project.”

Tim Shisler, freelance writer and author of multiple articles, including “Yosemite National Park” in the August 2008 issue of Backpacker says, “Be an expert in what you’re writing.” He also cautions to be careful about making assumptions. “I see a lot of people write how-to’s and just assume folks know what they are talking about. To be on the safe side, never assume.”

While Shisler suggests you need to be an expert in what you are writing about, Dark and Bram advocate learning the subject matter as you go, ensuring you can write an effective how-to article for beginners or intermediates, depending on what level you are at yourself.

2. List what supplies are needed.
Imagine starting an article about how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with smearing the peanut butter. What are you smearing the peanut butter on?

What does the reader need? This is typically done in the start of your article. According to Bouziden, “The beginning is where you set your article up and tell your reader what you are going to tell him.”

Remember time is often a supply readers might need, particularly if the how-to is about something complex. When possible, include how long it will take for your readers to finish the project.

3. List the steps in logical order.
“This is the meat of the article,” Bouziden says. “This is where readers will often see bullets, numbers, or first, second, third.”

Dark agrees and adds, “The single most important part of writing a good how-to article is clarity. We all know what it’s like to read the how-to manual for a computer or a TV-DVR hookup. Manuals are written by technicians rather than writers.” She suggests it doesn’t matter if the how-to is about boiling water or buying a house. In any case, the steps of the how-to must be as clear as you can make them.

Shisler added there’s no better knowledge than hands-on experience. “If your how-to article includes direct instructions, then do it yourself following literally what you write. If you have roadblocks, something is wrong.”

4. Reread it (and edit) to be sure it makes sense.
Bram says, “It’s important to ask someone to follow the steps of the how-to to make sure all necessary information is present.”

For general readership articles, Shisler suggests going through the process with a child, an adult, and a senior citizen. “By watching all three generational processes, you will be able to see what to highlight and what to discount.”

At this stage, Bouziden advises getting rid of everything not directly related to your topic and the steps to get to it. “Stay focused, on target. Use the extra material as a bounce off for another article.”

How-to Articles Online
For writing how-to articles for the Internet, Dark suggests paragraphs, sentences, and articles need to be shorter. She says, “Cater to the thinner patience of readers studying your how-to on a screen instead of on a page.”

Bram suggests with writing for the web, you can leave out certain basic information. “If you need to link to another tutorial that shows a few preliminary steps, you easily can. Furthermore, the web offers you the ability to include far more images with a how-to, often making it easier to explain some arcane detail.”

Shisler advises considering what online resources are available to strengthen your article when writing how-to’s that will be published on the Internet. “For instance, if I’m writing for Backpacker Online about tents, I should make sure to know what articles they already have online about tents and how I can reference them.” In this way, when you reference previous articles on the publication’s website, you aren’t needlessly sending readers to a different site, driving traffic away from the publication you’re writing for. “If you reference online material, do so in a way that does not take readers to a homepage but to an actual article. Online editors will appreciate the time you take to research their site, but make sure beforehand that there can be external links within the story.”

Two outlets for how-to articles on the Internet include eHow.com and Demand Studios, both of which are low-paying markets. If you write for eHow.com, you number the steps whenever possible. Additionally, adding bullets cuts down on wordiness since you don’t have to add transition sentences to change from one step to the next. Writing for low-paying markets, particularly in the beginning, gives you experience in writing how-to articles and lets you refine your own process for developing the article.

Advice for Writing How-To’s
If you want to write how-to articles, Bouziden suggests starting with what interests you. “Everyone does something well,” she says, “and even if they don’t do it well, they do something.” She advises using an outline to make the process easier but also reminds us that an outline is a general guide and can be changed.

Above all, we should read and study published how-to articles. “Unless you have fifty in a folder that you have read and studied, I don’t think you are ready to write one. I go through magazines, find how-to’s, rip them out, and put them in a folder to study.”

Bram emphasizes the importance of clarity, ranking it above style in level of importance. “While it can get boring to turn out tutorial after tutorial, identical in format, it is necessary to make sure readers have an easy experience trying to follow your how-to.”

Regardless of whether you’re writing for print or online publications, Shisler says, “It’s imperative on both sides to know the publication inside and out.” He reminds us, “For print, your words will most likely be limited. Make sure to have a clear understanding from the editor about how many words you have to work with.”

If there is a secret to writing how-to articles, Dark sums it up this way: “The secret to being able to write a good how-to is to develop an ability to explain technical or complex information so a child can understand it.”

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