At Rhetoriq, we help clients develop thought-leading content. The hardest pieces for us to work on are often those the author has already drafted but has not thought through why he’s writing it in the first place.
In Alice in Wonderland, the Mock Turtle advises Alice never to go anywhere without a porpoise. That’s good advice. Without a purpose, articles will leave readers asking “so what?” pretty quickly, usually before they finish, no matter how much information and data the author packs in.
Here are a few questions authors should ask themselves before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
- Who is my reader? A common mistake professionals make is to write as if their intended reader is a professor or boss who will grade their paper according to how much the author knows. But, if your intended reader is a CFO at an oil company (for instance), she really doesn’t care what you know about her business. She already knows about her business. She’ll only be interested in something she doesn’t already know. That will be useful. So write with her in mind, and forget about the bosses and teachers in your head.
- What do I want my reader to do after reading my article? If an article does not inspire a reader to do something, there is no point in writing it. Granted, few readers will immediately pick up the phone to call the author to come help save their company; complex sales usually involve multiple touchpoints. But at the very least, an article should inspire the reader to think about what they might do differently on Monday morning. For a book we helped write, that difference was to set a price for a product before developing it rather than after. At Rhetoriq, we refer to that as a “call to action.” Make sure you have one.
- What is the problem I’m addressing? The key to inspiring a reader to do something is to talk about a problem or opportunity that’s relevant to them. For this article, the problem is the creeping standardization of service in the luxury sector. This topic is relevant to executives in hospitality, automobile, and retail businesses. For this one, it’s how to keep poor quality goods out of your Asian supply chain.
- How will I keep my reader’s attention? If you address a problem your target audience cares about – and you have a relevant, eye-catching headline – you’re going to get their attention. Keeping it is another matter. Your lead, the first paragraph or two, should be crystal clear about the issue being addressed. That will encourage your reader to keep going. If you begin with a real example, it will make it harder for the reader to put the article down. Another way to hook the reader is for the lead to presage a solution to the problem. This article, about investment risks in emerging markets, promises right away to explain how to avoid them.
If you can’t answer these questions to your satisfaction, ask what will happen if you don’t write the piece. If the answer is nothing, then save yourself the trouble. If you can answer them to your satisfaction before you start, you will most likely produce a good article. If you are not a good or natural writer, an editor can sort out the flow and tempo for you afterward with modest effort. But if you start writing without a clear purpose, you may produce something no editor can salvage.