Would you have guessed that how-to articles are among the easiest to write? That they constitute the bulk of articles published in magazines? That you could earn money by producing one about a skill you already have? Interested? Let’s take a look at this often neglected, but rewarding, category of magazine writing.
A how-to piece, which falls in the general category of service articles, is, naturally, about how to do something or improve something, presented in a logical, step-by-step fashion. The most common type of how-to is a recipe, which first provides a list of ingredients in the order of use, then follows with a series of instructions to be executed in chronological order. Other examples are: how to compost, how to avoid computer viruses, how to set up an aquarium, and how to organize a home office.
Related articles are known as list articles and roundups. A list article focuses on a theme and comprises a bulleted list of items; for example, “Age-proof your brain: 10 easy ways to keep your mind fit forever” appeared in AARP The Magazine ’s February/March 2012 issue.
A roundup also concentrates on a theme but collects opinions, suggestions, quotes and statistics from multiple sources. An example is “25 personal health secrets from top doctors,” published in the December 2011 issue of Redbook. In this article, the long list of secrets revealed by medical doctors is broken up by such subheads as “How docs knock out pain” and “How docs amp up their energy.”
For the sake of simplicity, from this point on, we’ll refer to the entire category as how-tos.
Why how-tos are popular
Most readers browse a magazine to be entertained and perhaps to keep up with the latest news and trends. They consider it a bonus if they can also pick up tips and techniques on a subject meaningful to them. How-tos are just such a vehicle. They show people how to overcome a hurdle, satisfy a curiosity, get better at a task, and in general help them to live happier, healthier, more productive lives.
For me, as a freelancer, how-tos have been a staple from the beginning. One of my early pieces, “Putting emotion into your fiction,” was published in The Writer in 1998. That was followed by many others, including this one. Over the years, my bylines have appeared in numerous magazines, with many of the articles following the how-to format. The topics, drawn from my hobbies and interests, include food and cooking, writing reference, travel, computers, running and fitness.
More than likely, you, too, already have enough proficiency to write a doz-en or more how-tos. Start by jotting down a list of your jobs and hobbies. Ask yourself: What activities excite you the most? What advice do friends seek from you? What would you like to teach? Brainstorm with friends. Note that what seems routine to you might be expertise another person would love to have.
If you have a pet, for example, opportunities await you. In Prevention magazine’s April 2012 issue, you can find the article “Healthy from head to tail: How safe is your backyard?” It talks about the susceptibility of pets to toxins on the ground and attack by other animals, and provides suggestions for protection.
Other idea generators: Read a published how-to on a favorite topic and think of possible offshoots. How can you make the idea more up-to-the-minute? What hasn’t been addressed? Can the idea be slanted toward a different gender or a different geographical area?
Before you write
In querying a how-to piece, make sure you choose your topic carefully. It must have wide appeal. At the same time, the focus must be tight. “How to enjoy your vacation in San Francisco” might be too broad a theme to tackle in the limited space of an article. Reduce the scope to: “How to enjoy your three-day weekend in San Francisco.” As an aid to maintaining a narrow focus, you might want to jot down a statement of purpose on an index card and paste it on your computer: “My article is about proper handshaking techniques.” The aim is not to stray from the central issue. Then follow these other pointers:
• Begin with a bang. You might introduce your how-to with one or more questions, as I did at the beginning of this article. Or you might share an anecdote to draw the reader in to the topic. Introduce your topic concisely in the initial paragraph. In other words, tell readers what the article is going to cover.
• Consider your target audience. Who will read this piece? Are they ca-sual readers, or do they have a deep knowledge of the subject? Explain jargon, as necessary, so as not to lose them.
• Focus on benefits. The title of a how-to already suggests benefits. But you can go one step further. Notice the difference when a headline is expanded from “How to make a quick and easy lasagna dish” to “How to make a quick and easy lasagna dish that wows your guests.” Also note that the use of the phrase “how to” is not mandatory in the title. “Run the Boston marathon!” is catchy enough.
• Gather information and find interview sources. A how-to is only as good as the information it provides. Do library and Internet research. Draw on the expertise of other professionals to add legitimacy. In doing a list or round-up, remember to provide enough detail to give the reader a thorough understanding of the theme. Devote extra words, if necessary, to make the meaning clear. If faced with word-count limitations, be sure to select only those elements that best exemplify your end goal. Write clearly and concisely.
• Be specific. Whenever possible, specify expected results at the end of each step and at the end of the article. Append precautions as appropriate, such as: “Too much heat will ruin the texture of the dish.” Insert photographs or other visual aids and/or links to websites to make your point. Actual examples help. “How to write a press release” can be accompanied by an actual press release that illustrates your points.
• Involve yourself (optional). In elucidating a point, a real-life example is always helpful. You can also write strictly from a personal point of view—“How I cured insomnia in five easy steps,” for example. Insert suggestions from an authority in the field to bolster your argument.
• Supply a sidebar. Sidebars are particularly useful tools. If you have information that interrupts the flow of the article, such as graphs, statistics, resources or terminology that must be explained, then consider creating one or more informational sidebars.
How to find markets
Study the submission guidelines of your target publications. The one for Bird Talk magazine is specific about what it looks for: “Bird Talk is directed to the general population of parrot, canary, finch and dove owners and written for the adult audience. … [The editors] publish informative articles on the care of birds; photo essays on historical and current events dealing with birds; how-to articles; and human-interest stories.”
On the other hand, the guidelines for Redbook don’t mention how-tos. But note one sentence: “Many, but not all, of our readers are going through one of two key life transitions: single to married and married to mom.” This is, most likely, a clue that the editors might be receptive to proposals on improving these crucial interpersonal relationships.
In general, heath and fitness magazines are filled with how-tos. (See the sidebar on this page for types of magazines accepting how-tos.) For instance, Yoga Journal indicates that it covers the practice and philosophy of yoga. If you teach yoga or simply study yoga, you might be able to offer a fresh slant on the practice. As with writing any magazine article, it helps to read several issues of the target publication and become familiar with its style and content.
Although this article has been geared toward print publications, you can find online markets for your how-tos as well. Start looking for potential markets by doing a simple Web search.
How-to articles can often be expanded into a book format. Such a book, once published, can be an aid to teaching. It can also enhance your professional status in your chosen field.
Before you go this route, however, make sure you have enough material to fill a book of 300 or so pages. Enclose a clip of your published how-to piece with the book-proposal package, thereby demonstrating to the editor that the idea has market appeal. I did just that early in my career. When creating a proposal for my first cookbook, The Healthy Cuisine of India, I added a clip from an article I’d published in a food magazine.
Once you’ve published several how-tos on a particular topic, you’ll be considered an expert. Editors will be more inclined to give you assignments on that topic or a related one. And you’ll gain repeat business, a freelancer’s dream.
• Child care/parenting
• Fashion/personal care
• Food and drink
• General interest
• Health and fitness
• Home and garden
• Men’s interest
• Sports (boating, golfing, hunting, fishing, etc.)
• Trade magazines (auto and truck, restaurant business, etc.)
• Women’s interest
Contributing editor Bharti Kirchner has written how-to articles for numerous publications. Her fifth novel is Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery. Web: bhartikirchner.com.