Thursday, February 19, 2009

How To Write a "How-to" Article

_An old recipe for rabbit stew begins with this instruction: “First, catch a rabbit.” The writer of this recipe believes in starting at the beginning, and one can assume that she also referenced dressing and butchering before moving on to the cooking part. This recipe points up the necessity of determining the scope and detail of your article when you try to answer the question, “How do I make a rabbit stew?”
_Today’s cooks do not usually have time for a recipe that starts with an explanation of catching and butchering a rabbit. Some will already be proficient in those skills and want to get right to the culinary details. Others will only be willing to cook rabbit meat if it comes wrapped in plastic and clearly labeled “rabbit.” Likewise, any number of people may be interested in an article that tells how to refinish an old rocking chair, but only the novices in the group will need an explanation of sandpaper grades and varieties of wood cleaning chemicals. If you want to help people with minimal or no skills while retaining the attention of your experienced readers, explain how to catch rabbits or how to select varnish in separate articles. Writing a set of articles that educate people at various skill levels not only enhances your portfolio, but it also increases your credibility as an expert in the field. Every time you write an article about a new task, whether it is a recipe or a woodworking project, you can refer readers to your ancillary articles that constitute a complete education in your field of expertise!
_Every how-to article has the same basic elements:
^ Tools
^ Materials
^ Instructions
_You can give the article extra zip by listing a few tips for success, but be sure the tips are truly related to the process you are describing. Sprinkle nifty tips for success through all the articles where you build your reputation for cooking or woodworking.
_When writing articles about cooking, a list of tools is not always necessary. Most people who cook already have saucepans and measuring spoons. However, as Alton Brown has demonstrated in his television program, you could make a career out of writing articles about how to select cookware. People who want to refinish furniture or repair a lawnmower are more likely to need a list of tools appropriate for the task, and novices will need guidance when purchasing their first tools.
_Whether you are teaching the preparation of rabbit stew or a good method for refinishing old cabinets, a list of materials is essential. The reader can use the list for shopping and for setting out all the materials prior to starting the task. Cooks consider this preparation so critical to success that they invented the term mis en place to refer to the value of having all the ingredients out and ready before cooking begins. Every skill benefits from the practice.
_If you really are an expert, do not make the mistake of thinking it will be easy to write the instructions. It is common for people experienced in any skill to say, “I could do this in my sleep.” This cliché encapsulates the truth that if you know a great deal about any task, you complete a lot of the steps without thinking about them. Write the instructions as a numbered list. Put it away at least overnight. Then try to complete the task by doing only what you have written on the list. As you discover gaps in the instructions, add them to the list. If you follow this process two or three times, you will give your reader a much more reliable guide to success. If you can persuade a friend to try following your instructions before you submit the article, you will have the opportunity to improve your article further.
_Any parent who has tried to assemble a bicycle on Christmas Eve will attest to the value of instructions that actually work. You can build a loyal following if your articles help your readers to achieve their goals. When writing “how-to” articles, the success of your readers builds your success!

(c) 2009 Katherine Harms

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