Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How to Write How-to Articles (Part 5 of 5)

Here are a few more suggestions.

1. Don't write lengthy, convoluted sentences or long paragraphs. Readers want information—and they want it quickly, so you need to make it easy to grasp. I have a rule about paragraphs. I don't send out anything with more than eight lines to a paragraph (and I usually stay below that).

2. Don't confuse a personal essay with a how-to piece. If your article is about how to teach an adult-education class, don't bog down the material with statements on the importance of teaching. That is implied, because your readers are those who are interested in learning to teach better.

3. Win readers' trust by convincing them you understand their problems. Because you identify with their situation, they feel they can trust you to offer solutions. For example, chapter one of Aging Is an Attitude begins: "Getting older used to scare me—and I suspect I'm not alone."

After that initial statement, I've included readers' concerns. I show that I understand their anxieties because I used to feel that way.

How-to writing understands the perceived needs of readers.

Friday, September 24, 2010

How to Write How-to Articles (Part 4 of 5)

Here's more on how to write how-to articles and books.

1. Keep the language simple. That's true with any kind of writing, but it's especially true when we try to explain the way to do something.

2. Close to that is making the instructions easy to follow. You want to keep readers moving, not make them stammer or ask, "What do you mean?" Make each point and move on. How-to pieces aren't to impress readers with your knowledge of Sanskrit or your advanced education. Use bullets and lists if they make the material more quickly absorbed.

3. Write in an informal, friendly style. Don't be afraid to address readers as you (as I do in this blog). In most writing, the I-we approach works better because it implies, "I'm like you." But when you give instructions, you become the expert and this is how you teach.

4. Keep the word practical at the center of your writing. Think of this as explaining something to a neighbor who asks, "How do you. . . ?" Illustrate or clarify points by giving examples, as I do in most of my blogs.

If you write how-to articles,
clearly show readers how to do it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

How to Write How-to Articles (Part 3 of 5)

1. Pick one theme and focus on that subject. Even if you want to do an entire book, write each chapter as if it were an article. Make each chapter stand on its own, even when it builds on the previous chapters.

Sometimes that's obvious and here's an example. I expressed the topic for my book Aging Is an Attitude by its subtitle: Positive Ways to Look at Getting Older. I wrote the book because I got tired of negative media images and out of my own struggles about getting older. I also realized I couldn't choose to age—God made that decision—but I could decide my attitude during the process.

Every chapter in that book goes back to one point, even if I don't state the words: Here's another positive way to look at getting older.

2. Make your writing straightforward. You're giving information to readers who want to learn something, extend their knowledge, or look at a subject in a different way. Your article could be as straightforward as seven ways to stretch your money in a down economy or how to find thirty minutes (or five or ten) each day for a quiet time with God.

We write how-to articles and books
to give information about how to do something.

Friday, September 17, 2010

How to Write How-to Articles (Part 2 of 5)

Here are two more tips about how-to articles (or books):

1. Don't try to cover too much material. Don't tell readers everything you know in one article on how to pray or how to start a successful online business. About 1,200 words make a good how-to piece (although that varies with publishers), and today you don't want to write more than 2,000.

2. Start with a concept statement. When I start any project, I write the heart of the material in no more than 50 words. Here's my concept statement for an article on how to write how-to articles (even though I send it out in small pieces): Ten suggestions on how to write simple information to help others write how-to manuscripts. (I used 14 words.) Simple, right? If you can't put your concept into less than 50 words, you probably haven't narrowed your focus.

In 2004, I wrote a book called Committed But Flawed with the subtitle of Seeking Fresh Ways to Grow Spiritually. It's a how-to book, even though my publisher classified it as a devotional guide. Some church groups have used the book for adult Sunday school classes and one church is using it as a men's study.

Here's the concept statement I wrote for that book (with 36 words):

In his search for spiritual growth, Cecil Murphey studied the committed-but-flawed people in the Bible. Using them as patterns each day in prayer, Murphey envisions himself as the individuals who embody those spiritual qualities he desires.

Write a concept statement for yourself.
Be sure you know exactly what you want to teach.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How to Write How-to Articles (Part 1 of 5)

Why would you want to write a how-to article or book? The answer is that readers constantly seek for ways to enrich their lives and improve their skills. If you have expertise in any area, you pass it on to eager learners.

What many call self-help articles or books really fit into this category. You tell people how to do something. It may be how to lose weight, marry a millionaire, build a birdhouse, or read the Bible.

Here are suggestions on how to write how-to pieces.

1. Be sure you have the credentials. That doesn't always mean an earned doctoral degree or being CEO of a large corporation. Sometimes experience is the best credential. Years ago, I sold more than thirty articles on making marriage better. My credentials came from the experience of being happily married.

2. Consider these questions:
* What do I know that many others may not?
* What have I learned to do that I can pass on to help readers?
* What am I passionate enough about to make me yearn to tell others?
* Who am I to write on this topic?

That last question may cause you to pull back, but ponder it anyway. Today, publishers want credentials and you'll have to prove you are an expert if you want to write about "Dreams Inspired by God Today." But you might want to write, "Five New Approaches to Being a Better Parent." I once wrote an article on how to listen to sermons. I used simple suggestions and the article was republished 17 times.

You might be surprised how many things you know that others would love to learn. One man, a runner for more than thirty years, wrote a how-to book on what he knew—how to run and not be injured.

If you know how to do something well,
you can write how-to articles or books.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Writing Devotionals (Part 7 of 7)

"How do you write them?" I get that question often. Or they say, "Only 200 words. I can do that."

I respond with, "That's right, but make them 200 important, necessary words."

Here are three simple things to bear in mind.

1. Look at the requirements of each devotional publisher. Do they take electronic submissions? only hard copy? Some publishers use the Lectionary (and if you don't know what that is, you need to find out). Or they select a biblical book for an entire issue. Some use only the NRSV translation. Follow their guidelines. (You can find guidelines online, by contacting the publisher, or in Sally Stuart's annual Christian Writers' Market Guide.)

2. Make certain your meditation carries a single focus—one idea. Here's the method I use when I'm not sure. I ask myself, "What one noun best describes the material?" Is it forgiveness? compassion? commitment? That word becomes my focus and before it goes to the proofreading stage, I ask, "Have I written anything that detracts from that single theme?" That's when I delete extraneous words.

3. Provide a takeaway value. Every devotional needs to share a lesson you've learned. Again, this sounds like the personal experience articles and it's similar—but briefer. You need to answer this question: "So what?"

As a final word on devotionals, this is an excellent place to make your first sales. It’s an opportunity to polish your writing skills, and this kind of writing also reinforces your commitment to send in material regularly. Small successes such as sales of meditations can encourage you to keep learning.

Follow guidelines.
Make certain you answer the so-what question.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Writing Devotionals (Part 6 of 7)

Perhaps I don't need to write this, but devotionals are true stories. They stress emotions and human reactions that arise out of actual events.

Too often writers want to preach or demand that people think as they do, but good devotionals carry a sharing tone. Think of two friends talking and one says, "I'd like to tell you an invaluable lesson I learned last week." That's the way you want to write.

Lack of preaching also means you want to avoid words that lay guilt on readers such as should, ought, and must. Steer away from absolutes such as always, ever, and never unless you mean without exception.

Insecure writers tend to write with absolutes.
Resist doing that.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Writing Devotionals (Part 5 of 7)

"It's a formula," one woman said. "Boring to write."

Yes, it is formula writing—that is, the guidelines are well defined, but you have latitude within those guidelines.

You can choose to write in first person or third. You can build around an anecdote from which to draw a spiritual lesson; you can retell a Bible story, focus on a familiar phrase, motto, or synopsis of a story. You might write about misstatements. I once wrote a series of devotionals about words children heard incorrectly. One of them was the child who prayed to Howard (as in "Howard be thy name").

Another time I wrote a series of seven on the idea of choosing the kind of day we wanted to experience—and started by saying the idea came after the fourth person in an hour had said, "Have a good day."

Devotionals aren't merely clever stories with a Bible verse tacked on. Instead, you write to integrate stories that make the Bible more alive. Choose topics with which readers identify—often small, everyday happenings. One series I wrote was on the small things that irritated me. In the series of seven, I used each reading to show that small irritants pointed to deeper issues.

Above all, make the message relevant. You can write about an experience in World War II or an event from the War of 1812, but they must have meaning for today. A friend wrote a series centered on The Count of Monte Cristo. He showed that although revenge inflames us to action, only love satisfies.

Inspirational writing takes the mundane and shows heavenly meanings.