How to start writing articles

I was reading through a content marketing forum recently when I saw something strange. Someone had asked the best way for a beginner to learn to write. It’s a simple question, but nobody managed to answer.

There were some helpful book recommendations, but everything else fell into the same generic buckets: read a lot, copy the best writers, take a course. One person even suggested finding popular articles and putting them through an article spinner (don’t). Perhaps the most frustrating response was a list that went as follows:

  • Know your message, style and voice
  • Know your keywords
  • Know your target audience
  • Be motivated
  • Be knowledgeable
  • Be passionate
  • Make it readable
  • Have a good headline

Some of this is flat wrong (too much passion can be a bad thing), but it also leaves the reader no closer to their goal. How do they learn these things? Where should they start? I’ve been writing professionally for close to a decade and I couldn’t tell you the practical difference between style and voice. In any case, you develop both over time, and it changes based on your audience.

So, I’m answering the question. Starting from zero, this post will walk you through everything you need to write well. This alone is enough to get you started, but I’ll be writing more on each area in the coming weeks for those ready to go deeper.  

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Contents

Know your audience

The most important thing to know is who you’re writing for. Your writing isn’t about you, it’s about your audience. People will tell you to focus on expressing yourself or finding your voice. Don’t. Your first job is to find your audience, get to know them, and then write a bridge from them back to you.

It helps to be a member of your target audience — if you’re a web developer, for example, you’ll have a stronger sense of the challenges, opportunities and aspirations web developers have. However, if you’re selling products or services into a specific area, such as an accounting for freelance musicians (they do exist), your first step should be to get to know your audience. The best way to do this is by talking to them. Post questions on Reddit, set up calls, go to events. This can sound terrifying, but that’s good. Half of your competitors will be too scared. As well as speaking to them, look at what is being discussed in relevant subreddits, publications, influencers and social media groups.

Listen for what makes them either excited or frustrated. Consciously or not, energised people are giving you an authentic look into their lives. If they have a strong emotional response to something then, by definition, they care about it.

Keyword research is great here in showing what people are searching for. That said, it’s easy to be distracted by keyword research in the early stages. SEO is immensely useful, but it takes time. You’ll find it much easier to get your first ten, hundred, thousand readers by focusing on making a human connection.

Come up with ideas

When you’ve spoken to a few members of your audience, you’ll notice a few things that come up again and again. Your job is to solve problems for your audience, so find their problems and get to work. By the way, this should be an ongoing process — An ongoing dialogue with your audience is one of the greatest advantages you can have as a writer or business.

Of course, people don’t only read how-to articles. Use your position as a writer to analyse and provide context on events. Identify topics for analysis by asking yourself the following questions:

Are there developments in the wider world that affect my audience?: Everyone can now see how the Covid pandemic has changed the world, but when it started I was a reporter covering the luxury sector (among others). One of the first times I heard about Covid was in a piece written about how it could impact luxury goods companies, as China was going into lockdown and the Chinese market is by far the industry’s largest.

If you know your audience well, you can recognise things that could impact them. You can also uncover solutions by learning how others have handled the same challenges. For a particularly creative example of this, take this piece on what people experiencing lockdown for the first time can learn from prisoners.

Are there developments in my industry that will affect the wider world? People are often too stuck in their day-to-day work to look outside of their area of expertise. If you’ve ever tried to buy a new gadget, only to have the sales rep talk endlessly about technical specifications, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Being able communicate what’s happening in your industry to the wider world puts you in a powerful position.

If you do struggle to communicate with people outside of your industry, the best first step is to take the features that excite you and try to explain them in terms of the benefits they offer your customer. If you sell cars with airbags, you’re really selling safety. If you sell enterprise blockchain, you’re really selling security and trust.

Where can I find the latest research, surveys and data on my industry?: People love to know what’s happening in their sector, but they rarely have the time to read reports, analyse data and draw conclusions. Do it for them. Follow the relevant consultancies, think tanks and law firms. Read announcements from industry organisations and regulators. Look at data published by government departments. You can also think about who your customer’s customer is, and look at what affects them.

Is there a new topic people are just starting to talk about?: If so, it might be a good candidate for a feature to explain its development, what impact it is likely to have, where it might go next, etc. Remember, something (or someone) that is causing change is usually a good subject for a feature.

The most important thing to bear in mind is that it needs to be relevant to your audience. The best one liner I’ve ever heard on this was from Notion’s Camille Ricketts: “Content only works when it’s high utility or deeply emotional”.

Research and structure — come up with a story

Once you have an idea, you can begin to structure and research. To begin with, all you need to do is write down the areas you want to cover. These can change as you learn about the topic, but I’ve found that laying out a basic structure to begin with helps to focus your research. You have the skeleton, now you’re just adding some flesh to the bones.

Of course, it’s easy to just tell you to structure your piece without telling you how. This comes back to thinking about your audience. Think about how you would explain the topic to them over coffee. If you’re writing a how-to, just take it step-by-step (like I have with this piece), but if you’re writing a longform feature or analysis piece, there are a few basic structures to start with.

For features, I like to use this one, which I adapted from William E Blundell’s The Art and Craft of Feature Writing:

  • Start with a strong hook (see next section, and don’t worry if you don’t know what it will be yet)
  • Explain a brief history of your subject.
  • Give some sense of the size and scope of your subject — does it affect a lot of businesses? Is it life-altering for those affected? Is it getting better or worse? Growing or shrinking?
  • Provide context on why change is happening now, or is likely to happen soon.
  • Explain who will be affected — will new businesses be formed? Will old businesses struggle to keep up? Will it give some people radically different capabilities?
  • Talk about the likely responses. Will those affected seek regulatory change? Will they protest? Will businesses hire in new areas to keep up with demand?
  • Talk about the likely future if nothing is done — have any studies been conducted? What do experts say?

For analysis, here’s a basic outline I often use:

  • Introduce your thesis — what is happening? how it is happening? Then, flesh it out with some additional context (perhaps use some parts of the feature structure above as inspiration).
  • Provide evidence, a quote and/or some data.
  • Repeat stage 2 for your next strongest point. Generally try to include three points in an analysis piece, but you can do more or less — don’t include three if you only have two good ones!
  • Summarise the strongest counter-argument to your position…
  • …Then explain why your position is stronger.
  • Repeat stages 4 and 5 up to three times as necessary.
  • Summarise your thesis once more, then extrapolate it out to the future — what will the world look like if the action you suggest is taken? What happens if it isn’t?

When I worked at a magazine, I would write out dozens of flashcards for each longform piece, one for each argument, anecdote or data point I wanted to include. When the time came to write the first draft, I would lay them out on my desk and arrange them into an order that made sense. Doing this ended up saving me hours of writing time, as I always knew where I was trying to get to next. If I couldn’t think how to make something work, I could just skip ahead to a different section and come back to it later.

This brings me to another important point: expect your research to take 80% of the total time of writing your piece. Take your time to understand what you’re writing about before you start writing and it will come far more easily. As the author Sebastian Junger once said: “If you have writer’s block, you don’t have enough ammo”. This is true unless you already have an expert level knowledge of your topic — in which case you did your research when you were learning in the first place.

Some writers advocate keeping a ‘commonplace book’ or a Zettelkasten to keep track of your research. I endorse this wholeheartedly. I only discovered the Zettelkasten method last year, but I wish I had known about it when I was a journalist. It would have saved me hours and improved the quality of my work many times over. I use Obsidian.md, but some people prefer Roam Research or physical paper flashcards.

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Develop a hook

Listening to your audience is the strongest possible start you can make when working on a piece of content, but it’s not enough on its own. Imagine you’re trying to grab readers by the collar as they walk past — a good idea gets you a few steps closer, but you still need a strong hook if you’re going to make contact.

As the name suggests, the hook is the combination of headline and introduction that hooks the reader and makes them want to keep reading. By far the most common question young reporters hear from their editors is ‘what’s the hook?’. It’s not enough to simply say what has happened, you also need to give people a sense of why they should care.

I could talk about the art of the hook all day (and I will soon), but I’ll keep it simple for now. Think of the hook as one of three things: a promise, a mystery, or both.

A promise: If someone has clicked on your article, your first obligation is to show them that they haven’t wasted their time. If you’re writing a how-to style article, your intro should tell them what they will learn by reading, and what this will mean for them. Say you’re writing about foam rolling for people with knee pain — your intro should explain that you’ll show them how to treat their pain in x minutes a day, meaning they don’t need to rely on knee support, painkillers or physio every time they feel a twinge. If you’re writing an analysis piece, your intro should briefly introduce your central thesis and its consequences.

The promise tells the reader what their reward will be for reading. Needless to say, never make a promise you can’t keep. If you’re going to get to the end and conclude the matter is still open for debate, don’t imply you’re going to get to the bottom of it in the intro.

A mystery: When you’re writing a broader, feature-style piece, you usually have to do a little more work to make the reader want to continue. The best way to do this is to start by giving them a sense of the conflict and stakes of the topic you are writing about, and the best way to do that is to create a sense of mystery. Take this intro from a recent piece in the Financial Times about the UK’s ‘hidden migrants’:

When you read the intro, you automatically ask yourself “What does Bilqis fear more than her abusive partner?” This makes you want to read on, and in doing so you learn about the threats faced by undocumented migrants.

Your reader also needs to care about the mystery in question. The best ones combine high stakes (either the risk of loss or potential for gain) with proximity to the reader — it’s happening in their industry, their town, to people like them etc. Your reader needs to wonder what will happen next or how it will affect them.

The easiest way to do this is simply to introduce the topic and then ask “so what does this mean for the XXXX industry?” But this just looks lazy. You want to make readers ask themselves the questions. A better way would be to write “this development, if left unchecked, could fundamentally alter the way XXXX industry operates forever”. Your audience will say to themselves “oh my goodness, how?” And you have a committed reader.

Start to write

By now you’re well set up to write. That said, many people still find it daunting. That’s common, and it’s completely OK. There are a few things you can do to make it easier.

The first is to forget what you ‘should’ sound like at this stage. Talking is far easier than writing, so imagine you were sitting down with someone (ideally someone close to your target audience, whom you feel comfortable with) and explaining each part of the topic in turn. Follow the structure you’ve laid out, and focus on getting the words down. You can even speak into a recorder and type it up if that’s easier. Polish the words later.

Even when you are doing this right, you can still struggle to settle into the work. This is also OK. It won’t always happen straight away, so look for the easiest bit you can do right now, and put some words down. You aren’t wasting time if you’re just sitting there struggling to get one word out every minute. It’s part of the process. Don’t browse the internet or social media while you wait to be ready. Sit there and do what you can. The drip of words will slowly turn into a trickle, and maybe into a stream.

If you have made a start but are now struggling, it might be time for a little break. As above, the key here is what I call a ‘boring break’. Don’t go and do something that is more interesting or entertaining than writing. Get a glass of water, walk around the block (without putting a podcast or music in). Create some space in your mind rather than adding anything new.

Finally, if you’ve done a decent amount of writing (anything over 750 words/three hours) as a general rule), you might have hit your limit. Put some bullet points in covering where you want to go next, then leave it for the day. Creative work tires you in a way that doesn’t feel like physical tiredness. When I’m done I often feel mentally fried and a bit dopey, or like my brain has just stopped working. You’ll probably find you’re still able to carry out non-creative tasks, but remember recovery is important too.

Eventually, you’ll find you’ve written up everything in your structure. Don’t worry if you feel that most of it is bad — it’s seldom as bad as you think, and your job at this stage was simply to give yourself something to shape in editing.

Don’t jump into editing straight away. Do something else before rereading. The task of editing is very different from the task of writing, so it’s important to let the writing part of your brain power down before you move on. Treat a piece of writing like a freshly baked pie — you have to let it cool down before you can see how it tastes.

Editing

Once you’ve taken at least an hour away, it’s time to edit it. Editing is a skill that you’ll build over time, but there are a few things you can do to make a start:

Read it aloud: even if you think you don’t have an appreciation for what good writing looks like, you’d notice if someone was speaking in a strange way. Start by reading your piece aloud and if anything sounds strange, reword it. Writing that reads like speech is as much work on ‘finding your voice’ as any non-professional writer will ever need. Make sure you do this a few times (I do three) as you’ll usually catch something new each time.

As you read, try to put yourself in the shoes of your reader. What questions would they ask at each stage? Are there any terms that you need to explain? This can be difficult to do, but as you get to know your audience better it gets easier.

After the first round, it’s time to cut. Everyone puts too many words in their first draft. Go through every sentence and ask yourself if it would still work if you cut it out or shortened it. Aim to cut your wordcount by around 20%. Once you get to the stage where things would stop making sense if you removed any more, you’re done. For reference, the first draft of this piece was 4,706 words, the final version is 3,882

You should be in good shape by now, but some people go further. The writer Neil Strauss advocates writing three drafts: one for himself, one for his fans and a final one for his critics. I recommend the same thing for editing. After your first round of edits, read your piece from the perspective of someone who really wants to learn about your topic. Have you answered all of their questions? Could they now explain it to someone else?

Now read it as critically as possible. What would someone say if they were trying to tear holes in the piece? Is it too brief in parts, or long-winded in others? Do you go off on too many tangents? Whatever it is, consider what critics might say, then make changes until you feel you could defend it.

Next, consider showing it to someone else. Another person is always going to be able to view your work with outside eyes, which can lead to extremely helpful feedback. Even if they don’t see themselves as good writers, they can tell you whether it is clear.

One thing that you commonly see in journalism that hasn’t yet caught on in content marketing is the reader panel. A reader panel is a group of people in your audience who get early access to content, one-on-one calls or other benefits in return for feedback on articles and periodic check-ins.

I am in the process of setting up my own reader panel at the moment, and am offering free editing to anyone who takes part. In exchange for up to one call a month and periodic feedback on posts, I will give feedback and professional editing for your business content. If you’re interested, email me here and with ‘reader panel’ in the subject line.

Content that pays for itself

Our research shows the vast majority of in-depth content more than returns the cost of creation. We guarantee that you'll love our work, or we'll offer revisions until you do.

Publishing

You’ve come this far, well done! However, all your effort will be wasted if you don’t publish your piece. This is absolutely crucial if you’re ever going to get better as a writer. Publish on your business website, then promote through the social channels and groups you found in your audience research.

Experts differ on the amount of time you should spend creating vs promoting your content, but in the beginning split it 50/50. Adjust as necessary over time.

I am working on an in-depth piece about how to promote your content, but all the promotion in the world won’t help you unless you’re sharing something of value with your audience. The way to do that is to focus on the writing to begin with. Speaking to people helps, but it is also crucial to put things out into the world and see how your audience responds.

Improving over time

The best way to improve at writing is to write, so do more. As you go through it again and again, you’ll grow comfortable with each stage. As that happens, experiment with new approaches or more ambitious pieces. The key is to publish every time and monitor the response.

Keep an eye out for techniques or turns of phrase you use a lot. If overused, they can sound like a cliche, so ask yourself whether there is a better way to make your point

Read the work of people you admire critically. If something catches your eye, save it and read through asking yourself why it made you stop and look. ask yourself why they made the structural choices they did. What questions are they trying to make you ask yourself? Reverse-engineering can be extremely rewarding. You’ll be surprised by how much method goes into the magic sometimes, as you can see from Amazon’s leaked email template

Writing is a hugely rewarding pursuit, and when used properly it can be make or break for winning customers and closing deals. Always remember that it’s difficult for everyone, and any challenges you are facing have probably been shared by thousands of people before. Just stick to the process, and if you need any additional help, you can always reach me here.

Content that pays for itself

Our research shows the vast majority of in-depth content more than returns the cost of creation. We guarantee that you'll love our work, or we'll offer revisions until you do.