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Write From Home
Kim Wilson
P.O. Box 4145
Hamilton, NJ 08610

E-mail: kim @ writefromhome.com

Easy As 1,2,3: Writing the Standard Checklist Article
by Carolyn Burch

In writing and selling your work, there are lots of different things to focus on, but one sure standby in most venues is the service piece. A service piece is one that tells the reader how to do something, usually step-by-step, which increases its value since most people are reluctant to try new things unless they are reasonably sure that what they are attempting is something they can in fact accomplish. Step-by-step instructions are guidelines that people feel confident about and therefore more often will actually attempt since they don’t feel that it is as easy to go wrong. In any bunch of national magazines at any one time, then, there are usually at least six or eight 1,2,3 pieces and you could be the author of most of them.

It’s a Sure Thing
It’s never a sure thing that you will sell an article, but it is a sure thing that you will catch attention if you submit the 1,2,3 piece because it labels you as a professional and not an amateur by showing the editor that you are aware of his number one desire in an article. Most people do not realize that the number one item most magazines on the newsstand today are looking for is the article that will accomplish the key three motives of the editor. One, catch the interest of the reader, two, is eminently doable so that the reader is going to go away from the piece with confidence in the expert that wrote it and be able to actually do whatever the article says, and three, is going to come back to the magazine for more such pieces.

So to sell a piece like this, what you have to do is be able to write with authority on how to do a thing, taking care to outline all the steps and think ahead about what could go wrong if a novice attempted it, etc.

The key parts to the outline of a 1,2,3 piece are the introduction and lead, the description of the project, the middle ground or meat of the article, and the ending which sums up all the details and finish factors of the project. Some of these also include a materials list as a sidebar if it happens to be that kind of project where the reader will need to know what to buy or have on hand for the project. The best project pieces generally have a minimal list of these items, as too large a list can be overwhelming to the reader and can shake his confidence. Also, photography can be a real asset to this kind of piece. Don’t worry if you’re not a certified photographer, most of these such pieces only require the basic knowledge to capture how-to illustrations for adequate use. Often an editor will choose your article based on your photos and then using them as an idea of what to photograph, will have their own art department do mock ups and re-photograph the piece if they feel it is a promising piece. 

In any case, sometime just giving the editor an idea of what the finished product will look like is worth the extra time and trouble to include basic illustrations with it.

Anyone Can Do This Project!
It is however, key that you do not oversimplify your descriptions when you write the how -to piece. Remember, especially in cases where the item you are writing about is something with which you are very familiar, not to skip any steps in the process. If you are showing canning tomatoes, for instance, make sure that you start with a good old-fashioned outline on paper and then walk through it once, not merely relying on memory to support the piece. It is often a good idea to have a novice to your subject read it once and see if they feel confident in attempting it after reading your instruction. If anything at all isn’t clear, now’s the time to find it and fix it. Especially with food related articles, avoid using any unusual or unclear directions or measurements, and don’t leave out anything, even if it seems obvious to you. Things like the difference between a 12 quart pot and a 8 quart pot will matter. Even things as common as a pinch of salt can be confusing for some readers, so lay it all out in order, direct every aspect, and then double check it for accuracy and clarity.

Sell The Sidebar
You might include a section for a second sidebar on choosing good tomatoes for canning, preparing the jars, or different methods of heating the jars pre-filling.

Remember when you sell an article, the article is the bread and butter, and the sidebar is the desert. It is a form of up-sell, along with photography, artwork, graphs and charts, and a few other things that can always increase your pay since most publications pay extra for these items. Just like when the guy at McDonalds asks you “Any Fries with that today?” you are using a form of suggestive selling that can net you extra $$$$.

Sidebars can also show other things besides ingredients. You can list items like where to buy supplies, or in a cooking piece, an additional recipe section might be nice. The point of a sidebar is to fit anything in that wouldn’t go smoothly into the piece itself. Also, a sidebar is good for slightly off-topic items such as a story about your grandma’s preparation of canned tomatoes, or a story about the company that made the first tomato canning jars, that, while of interest and some relevance to the story, are not able to fit directly into it. A sidebar is your opportunity to change tone and use a slightly different voice for readers that is of interest but separate from the base story. 

Target for Success
Of course you want to read the guidelines thoroughly before querying on any piece, but it is especially important that you target the readership with a 1,2,3 piece. You especially want to know anything you can find out about the specific demographics of the publication for this kind of piece in order to gain the widest scope of interest in it.

For instance, if your magazine is directed at Baby Boomer Women a good idea would be things you know to be of interest to that market segment. Things such as children, long distance relationships with relatives, home cooking and crafts, family oriented activities such as group camping or family reunions, and so on.

If your magazine is targeted at retired people, you might try something like managing money on a budget, preparing your home for an upcoming move, easing the transition of an active lifestyle to a more relaxed lifestyle in the wake of an illness, and so on.

Properly done, targeting or “slanting” an article requires very little effort other than learning initially about the likes and dislikes and the common lifestyle of the people for whom you are writing. We are all alike in more ways than we like to imagine, and almost any idea for a story can be changed to make it applicable to a certain group or demographic of people with a little ingenuity and purpose. 

And best of all, almost any idea or existing service piece can be turned into a 1,2,3, checklist piece by simply aligning the most important points briefly and succinctly into numbered items in order of how they should be done. 

More About Sidebars 

A sidebar is usually one of three kinds of accompanying pieces to an article. The best way to sell a sidebar is to make it of interest to the piece directly, but editors needing to fill space will often buy a sidebar even if it is only remotely related to the main piece. But one word on the sidebar all writers can use: try. Can’t ever hurt to try it.

Here are some sidebar ideas:

  • Sidebars that sell the best are directly related to the main topic but not stated in it, such as in the tomato canning example above, an almost irresistible one would be the differences between tomatoes that are suitable for canning and those varieties that are not. How to tell, where to get them, etc.
  • Sidebars that are also good would include: human interest perspectives on the very tightly written directional topic, such as “My grandma’s favorite canned tomato recipes”, or “Mr. Olson’s Roadside Tomato Stand In The Ozarks”
  • Sidebars that are good with softly written human interest stories would be also direct opposites, such as “Tomato Consumption in the USA today”, or “Blight Almost Wipes Out Canning Tomato Crop in USA Last Year”, or perhaps “Tomatoes Originally Thought To Be Poisonous, Brought Over From Orient”, or even “Love Apples: Now One of American’s Favorite Vegetables."
  • Sidebars should be written in under about 500 words, should always be offered to the editor as a optional piece in addition to your article, and should always offer information in a factual, brief, and more rapid pace than a standard piece of an article, preferably with bullets, numerical delineation, or some other way of identifying that they are separate from the main piece.

Carolyn Burch is an Internationally known freelance parenting writer from Phoenix Arizona, and the lead instructor of creative writing at http://www.cornerstoneconsortium.com
 online writing academy.









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