5 Ways to Draw Readers Into Your Articles

A guest post by Linda Formichelli from the Renegade Writer blog

Readers are short on time.

So when someone starts reading your article, you have just a few seconds to draw her in and convince her to keep going. The same applies to a query letter — you have only a sentence or two to grab the editor and make him want to finish reading your pitch.

Remember, your articles and queries are competing with TV, Internet surfing, chores, administrative tasks, meetings — not to mention hundreds of other pitches and articles. To help you draw the busy, distracted reader into your writing, I’ve compiled my five best tips.

1. Start with a quote.

Imagine starting an article on infidelity like this:

“I knew I never should have trusted my best friend,” says Sarah Johnson of Lawrence, Kansas.

A quote that surprises readers, entices them, or leaves just a little to the imagination is a great way to keep their eyeballs on the page. Just be sure not to overuse this tactic: It’s so easy to use that many writers are tempted to rely on it for all their articles, and editors do notice if you’re a one-note.

How to get this magical quote? The more you practice interviewing, the better you’ll get at eliciting great quotes from your sources. Write up a list of questions, but don’t stick to the list — use it as a guideline, but ask other questions as you think of them during the conversation. You’re more likely to get a source talking freely if you approach the interview as a conversation than if you fire questions at her from a list shotgun-style.

2. Jump into the action.

Too many writers start off their queries and articles by hemming and hawing, giving too much background, and generally boring the reader. One trick professional writers use is to simply lop off the first paragraph or two of their piece so that it starts right in the middle of the action.

For example, say you’re writing about your experience having a heart attack. Instead of explaining what happened to you starting at the beginning or describing your health status previous to the heart attack, start with yourself being wheeled into the emergency room with medical workers swarming around you. For example:

“Code Blue! Code Blue!” Those were the last words I heard in my delirium before I went under — and when I woke up, I found myself in a hospital bed, tethered to machines with tubes sprouting from my arms. I’d had a heart attack while I was getting ready to leave for work that morning.

3. Use a startling statistic.

If you were shocked by a statistic, chances are your readers will be, too. So if parents of only children and five times happier than parents of multiple kids, or bullying victims are 8 times more likely to commit suicide (I just made those up), be sure to put that somewhere in your opening paragraphs.

4. Find a compelling anecdote.

This is one of the best ways to start an article, and is related to my tip to jump into the action. Many women’s and health magazines start a good portion of their articles with a personal anecdote as a matter of course.

An anecdote can come from someone in the magazine’s target demographic, or from yourself if you’re part of the mag’s demographic. They’re easy to find, too…think of what kind of anecdote would best illustrate your topic, and ask around on relevant forums and source-finding services like Help a Reporter for people who have been through that experience.

Here’s the lede I used on an article about perfectionism for Oxygen magazine:

Elisabeth Andrews, a fitness instructor in Bloomington, Indiana, used to get anxious before every class and worry that she would forget her routine. “Then one day, when the class was especially packed, we were doing a stretch with our arms in the air and I loudly told everyone over the microphone to ‘Keep your head between your ears,'” Andrews recalls. “Everyone laughed so hard, including me, and it turned out that a lot of people felt more comfortable asking questions after I had shown my imperfection. As a result I was able to be a better leader and connect with my class.”

A personal anecdote like this helps the reader relate to the situation you’re writing about and makes him want to keep reading.

5. Use specific language.

Readers are drawn in by precise language and strong phrasing that gets your point across — not vague generalities. For example, when I pitched an article about health-hazard clothing, I didn’t write:

If your shoes are too small, they can hurt your feet.

Instead, I wrote:

If you’re teetering around in too-tight Manolos, you can get hit with foot woes ranging from simple soreness to bunions.

See how many specifics I used? A brand name instead of the general “shoes.” “Teetering” instead of just “wearing” or “walking.” “Soreness” and “bunions” instead of merely “hurt.”

Here’s another example: This is the lede to a query that led to an article in the now-defunct $1/word market Zillions:

It can happen to even the savviest shopper: The Levis you bought disintegrate after just one washing, or maybe that Game Boy cartridge isn’t nearly as exciting as it looked in the ad. Don’t toss your new purchase and hope for better luck next time — write to the company and tell them what you think!

I could just as easily have written:

It can happen to even the savviest shopper: The jeans or toys you bought aren’t good quality. Don’t toss your new purchase and hope for better luck next time — write to the company and tell them what you think!

Do you agree that the second version is weaker and more likely to cause the reader to give up and move on to more interesting things? In the first version, by using brand names and giving concrete examples of what happens to those products (“disintegrate after just one washing” and “isn’t nearly as exciting as it looked in the ad”), I help the reader form a clear vision of the situation in her mind — and keep her reading.

Have you ever used these tactics, and if so, how did they work? What tricks do you have for drawing readers in to your articles, and editors into your queries? Please post your tips in the Comments below so we can all learn from them!

Linda Formichelli, a WTD Top 10 finalist for 2011, is the co-author of  the Renegade Writer blog. Together with Carol Tice of Make a Living Writing, Linda is offering their popular Freelance Writers Blast Off group mentoring program in January  to help new writers skyrocket their earnings in 2012 [aff link].

About the author

Linda Formichelli

Linda Formichelli is the author of The Renegade WriterShe has written for more than 130 magazines and is the co-author of The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success. She is also the author ofHow to Do It All: The Revolutionary Plan to Create a Full, Meaningful Life - While Only Occasionally Wanting to Poke Your Eyes Out With a Sharpie.

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