Magazines, newspapers, and online sites must provide their readers with content in the form of well-researched, well-written feature articles. What follows is a proven process for researching, writing, and submitting professional feature articles the meet editors’ needs and enhance your reputation as a writer.
1. Choose a topic.
Start with an idea. Is there something you have a burning desire to write about or a particular publication you want to write for? Once you have decided on your subject, the next step is to establish your premise. What is the point of your article, your working theme? You should be able to sum it up in a sentence or two. For example, here is my working hypothesis for an article on law firm marketing: To compete in an increasing complex, changing environment, many law firms across the country are exploring a revolutionary new strategy — marketing their services.
Research has three purposes:
– It reaffirms and expands your hypothesis, or it reveals that you are on the wrong track and need to start over.
– In its early stages, research provides enough information to help you block out the article and write a coherent, convincing query letter.
– Finally, it fills in the meat of your article. Information is gathered through interviews, reading, and making expert use of the resources on the Web.
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3. Draft a query letter
Unless you are on assignment, the idea is to sell your article to an editor, and a good query letter is key to doing so. A query letter parallels a sales call. It should have five parts, and, ideally, each is only one paragraph long. (Editors are bleary eyed from the amount of reading material in their in-boxes.)
– The first paragraph is your introduction. It tells the editor who you are, why you’re writing, and the subject of your proposed article.
– The second paragraph focuses on the editor’s needs, and to write it you must know the general editorial policy of the publication and the audience to whom it is directed.
– Paragraph three briefly describes the content and appropriateness of your article and why the publication’s readers would want this information.
– The fourth paragraph explains why you are uniquely qualified to write this piece. What are your credentials? How much do you know about this subject? How well do you understand the aims of the publication?
– The final paragraph is very short. It is your close, your action statement, in which you state what you will do next. Will you wait to hear from the editor (risky), or will you call to follow up and, if so, when? If you say you’ll call at a certain time, do so.
4. Do more research
Don’t sit around waiting for a response. Go back to researching, this time in much more depth. Immerse yourself in your subject. Gather every bit of information you can find. Talk to as many experts or sources as possible. Keep at it until you are filled to the point of overflowing. When you feel that one more fact will be a fact too many, you’ll know it’s time to stop.
5. “Feed the computer”
Now it’s time to input all the data you have gathered into the computer that is your own mind. Many writers just skip this step because it requires time to read, highlight, make notes, and organize every piece of information you have gathered and self-discipline to walk away and do something unrelated to your article. You’ve put the data in; the “computer” will do the rest. Believe me, it works!
This is what all that preparation has been leading to — the moment when everything comes together into a coherent whole. If you’ve followed the first five steps, you will find that you’re more than ready to write. Obviously, the intricacies of how to do it would require a separate book, but here are a few techniques I’ve found helpful over the years.
Lay out the article in outline form — introduction at the top; conclusion at the bottom; and I, II, and III in the middle. It may sound simplistic, but that format will keep you focused on sticking to no more than three main points. Your introduction must grab the reader and pull her into the story. It should also contain your thesis. The introduction basically makes the point; I, II, and III prove it; and the conclusion wraps it up in a neat little package.
7. Revise and edit
Editing is not a mysterious or highly technical process. It simply means that you read your article very carefully, looking for typos, grammatical errors, repetitive words, and awkward phrasing. I have always found it useful to read my articles aloud because I tend to hear things I miss when I read. Editing provides the opportunity to see the big picture, as well as the details; to fix the glitches; and to polish the prose. As with researching and
writing, there is an optimal moment to stop. When one more change might just topple your carefully constructed story, it’s time to print it one last time and turn off the computer.
The payoff to all your hard work comes when you send your manuscript to an editor. After your query letter and follow-up calls, the best-case scenario is when an editor says, “That sounds interesting. I’d like to take a look at it when it’s finished.” There is no sweeter moment — except, perhaps, seeing it in print — than dropping that envelope in a mailbox when you know someone is waiting to read it.