So you want to write an article. Maybe you’ve got a great way of organizing your CSS, or you’re a designer who has a method of communicating really well with developers, or you have some insight into how to best use a new technology. Whatever the topic, you have insights, you’ve read the basics of finding your voice, and you’re ready to write and submit your first article for a major publication. Here’s the thing: most article submissions suck. Yours doesn’t have to be one of them.
At A List Apart, we want to see great minds in the industry write the next great articles, and you could be one of our writers. I’ve been on the editorial team here for about nine months now, and I’ve written a fair share of articles here as well. Part of what I do is review article submissions and give feedback on what’s working and what’s not. We publish different kinds of articles, but many of the submissions I see—particularly from newer writers—fall into the same traps. If you’re trying to get an article published in A List Apart or anywhere else, knowing these common mistakes can help your article’s chances of being accepted.
Keep introductions short and snappy
Did you read the introduction above? My guess is a fair share of readers skipped straight to this point. That’s pretty typical behavior, especially for articles like this one that offer several answers to one clear question. And that’s totally fine. If you’re writing, realize that some people will do the same thing. There are some things you can do to improve the chances of your intro being read, though.
Try to open with a bang. A recent article from Caroline Roberts has perhaps the best example of this I’ve ever seen: “I won an Emmy for keeping a website free of dick pics.” When I saw that in the submission, I was instantly hooked and read the whole thing. It’s hilarious, it shows she has expertise on managing content, and it shows that the topic is more involved and interesting than it may at first seem. A more straightforward introduction to the topic of content procurement would seem very boring in comparison. Your ideas are exciting, so show that right away if you can. A funny or relatable story can also be a great way to lead into an article—just keep it brief!
If you can’t open with a bang, keep it short. State the problem, maybe put something about why it matters or why you’re qualified to write about it, and get to the content as quickly as possible. If a line in your introduction does not add value to the article, delete it. There’s little room for meandering in professional articles, but there’s absolutely no room for it in introductions.
Going back to my first article submission for A List Apart, way before I joined the team, I wanted to showcase my talent and expertise, and I thought the best way to do this was to showcase all of it in one article. I wrote an overview of professional skills for web professionals. There was some great information in there, based on my years of experience working up through the ranks and dealing with workplace drama. I was so proud when I submitted the article. It wasn’t accepted, but I got some great feedback from the editor-in-chief: get more specific.
The most effective articles I see deal with one central idea. The more disparate ideas I see in an article, the less focused and impactful the article is. There will be exceptions to this, of course, but those are rarer than articles that suffer for this. Don’t give yourself a handicap by taking an approach that fails more often than it succeeds.
Covering one idea in great detail, with research and examples to back it up, usually goes a lot further in displaying your expertise than an overview of a bunch of disparate thoughts. Truth be told, a lot of people have probably arrived at the same ideas you have. The insights you have are not as important as your evidence and eloquence in expressing them.
Can an overview article work? Actually, yes, but you need to frame it within a specific problem. One great example I saw was an overview of web accessibility (which has not been published yet). The article followed a fictional project from beginning to end, showing how each team on the project could work toward a goal of accessibility. But the idea was not just accessibility—it was how leaders and project managers could assign responsibility in regards to accessibility. It was a great submission because it began with a problem of breadth and offered a complete solution to that problem. But it only worked because it was written specifically for an audience that needed to understand the whole process. In other words, the comprehensive nature of the article was the entire point, and it stuck to that.
Keep your audience in mind
You have a viewpoint. A problem I frequently see with new submissions is forgetting that the audience also has its viewpoint. You have to know your audience and remember how the audience’s mindset matches yours—or doesn’t. In fact, you’ll probably want to state in your introduction who the intended audience is to hook the right readers. To write a successful article, you have to keep that audience in mind and write for it specifically.
A common mistake I see writers make is using an article to vent their frustrations about the people who won’t listen to them. The problem is that the audience of our publication usually agrees with the author on these points, so a rant about why he or she is right is ultimately pointless. If you’re writing for like-minded people, it’s usually best to assume the readers agree with you and then either delve into how to best accomplish what you’re writing about or give them talking points to have that conversation in their workplace. Write the kind of advice you wish you’d gotten when those frustrations first surfaced.
Defining your audience can also really help with knowing their viewpoint. Many times when I see a submission with two competing ideas, they’re written for different audiences. In my article I mentioned above, I provide some links for developers who may be new to object-oriented programming, but the primary audience is developers who already have some familiarity with it and want to go deeper. Trying to cater to both audiences wouldn’t have doubled the readership—it would have reduced it by making a large part of the article less relevant to readers.
Keep it practical
I’ll admit, of all these tips, this is the one I usually struggle with the most. I’m a writer who loves ideas, and I love explaining them in great detail. While there are some readers who appreciate this, most are looking for some tangible ways to improve something. This isn’t to say that big concepts have no place in professional articles, but you need to ask why they are there. Is your five-paragraph explanation of the history of your idea necessary for the reader to make the improvements you suggest?
This became abundantly clear to me in my first submission of an article on managing ego in the workplace. I love psychology and initially included a lengthy section up-front on how our self-esteem springs from the strengths we leaned on growing up. While this fascinated me, it wasn’t right for an audience of web professionals who wanted advice on how to improve their working relationships. Based on feedback I received, I removed the section entirely and added a section on how to manage your own ego in the workplace—much more practical, and that ended up being a favorite section in the final piece.
Successful articles solve a problem. Begin with the problem—set it up in your introduction, maybe tell a little story that illustrates how this problem manifests—and then build a case for your solution. The problem should be clear to the reader very early on in the article, and the rest of the article should all be related to that problem. There is no room for meandering and pontification in a professional article. If the article is not relevant and practical, the reader will move on to something else.
The litmus test for determining the practicality of your article is to boil it down to an outline. Of course all of your writing is much more meaningful than an outline, but look at the outline. There should be several statements along the lines of “Do this,” or “Don’t do this.” You can have other statements, of course, but they should all be building toward some tangible outcome with practical steps for the reader to take to solve the problem set up in your introduction.
It’s a hard truth you have to learn as a writer that you’ll be much more in love with your ideas than your audience will. Writing professional articles is not about self-expression—it’s about helping and serving your readers. The more clear and concise the content you offer, the more your article will be read and shared.
Support what you say
Your opinions, without evidence to support them, will only get you so far. As a writer, your ideas are probably grounded in a lot of real evidence, but your readers don’t know that—you’ll have to show it. How do you show it? Write a first draft and get your ideas out. Then do another pass to look for stories, stats, and studies to support your ideas. Trying to make a point without at least one of these is at best difficult and at worst empty hype. Professionals in your industry are less interested in platitudes and more interested in results. Having some evidence for your claims goes a long way toward demonstrating your expertise and proving your point.
Going back to my first article in A List Apart, on defusing workplace drama, I had an abstract point to prove, and I needed to show that my insights meant something. My editor on that article was fantastic and asked the right questions to steer me toward demonstrating the validity of my ideas in a meaningful way. Personal stories made up the backbone of the article, and I was able to find social psychology studies to back up what I was saying. These illustrations of the ideas ended up being more impactful than the ideas themselves, and the article was very well-received in the community.
Storytelling can be an amazing way to bring your insights to life. Real accounts or fictional, well-told stories can serve to make big ideas easier to understand, and they work best when representing typical scenarios, not edge cases. If your story goes against common knowledge, readers will pick up on that instantly and you’ll probably get some nasty comments. Never use a story to prove a point that doesn’t have any other hard evidence to back it up—use stories to illustrate points or make problems more relatable. Good stories are often the most memorable parts of articles and make your ideas and assertions easier to remember.
Stats are one of the easiest ways to make a point. If you’re arguing that ignoring website accessibility can negatively impact the business, some hard numbers are going to say a lot more than stories. If there’s a good stat to prove your point, always include it, and always be on the lookout for relevant numbers. As with stories, though, you should never try to use stats to distort the truth or prove a point that doesn’t have much else to support it. Mark Twain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” You shouldn’t decide what to say and then scour the internet for ways to back it up. Base your ideas on the numbers, don’t base your selection of facts on your idea.
Studies, including both user experience studies and social psychology experiments, are somewhere in between stories and stats, and a lot of the same advantages and pitfalls also apply. A lot of studies can be expressed as a story—write a quick bit from the point of view of the study participant, then go back and explain what’s really going on. This can be just as engaging and memorable as a good story, but studies usually result in stats, which usually serve to make the stories significantly more authoritative. And remember to link out to the study for people who want to read more about it!
Just make sure your study wasn’t disproved by later studies. In my first article, linked above, I originally referenced a study to introduce the bystander effect, but an editor wisely pointed out that there’s actually a lot of evidence against that interpretation of the well-known study. Interpretations can change over time, especially as new information comes out. I found a later, more relevant study that illustrated the point better and was less well-known, so it made for a better story.
Kill your darlings
Early twentieth century writer and critic Arthur Quiller-Couch once said in a speech, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Variants of this quote were repeated by many authors throughout the twentieth century, and it’s just as true today as when he originally said it.
What does that mean for your article? Great prose, great analogies, great stories—any bits of brilliant writing that you churn out—only mean as much as they contribute to the subject at hand. If it doesn’t contribute anything, it needs to be killed.
When getting your article ready for submission, your best friend will be the backspace or delete key on your keyboard. Before submitting, do a read-through for the express purpose of deleting whatever you can to trim down the article. Articles are not books. Brevity is a virtue, and it usually ends up being one of the most important virtues in article submissions.
Your intro should have a clear thesis so readers know what the article is about. For every bit of writing that follows it, ask if it contributes to your argument. Does it illustrate the problem or solution? Does it give the reader empathy for or understanding of the people you’re trying to help? Does it give them guidance on how to have these conversations in their workplaces? If you can’t relate a sentence back to your original thesis, it doesn’t matter how brilliant it is—it should be deleted.
Humor can be useful, but many jokes serve as little more than an aside or distraction from the main point. Don’t interrupt your train of thought with a cute joke—use a joke to make your thoughts more clear. It doesn’t matter how funny the joke is; if it doesn’t help illustrate or reinforce one of your points, it needs to go.
There are times when a picture really is worth a thousand words. Don’t go crazy with images and illustrations in your piece, but if a quick graphic is going to save you a lengthy explanation, go that route.
So what are you waiting for?
The industry needs great advice in articles, and many of you could provide that. The points I’ve delved into in this article aren’t just formalities and vague ideas; the editing team at A List Apart has weighed in, and these are problems we see often that weaken articles and make them less accessible to readers. Heeding this advice will strengthen your professional articles, whether you plan to submit to A List Apart or anywhere else. The next amazing article in A List Apart could be yours, and we hope to see you get there.
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