Tips from an Editor: How to Write an Article

So, you wrote an article, and the editor sent it back to you and said that it “wasn’t an article.” Or, you’re thinking about writing an article, but you’re concerned that maybe it’s just a personal essay. Either way, now you’re sitting in front of your computer screen, losing your mind over where creative nonfiction ends and article starts.

The truth is, there are a lot of similarities between the two. You’re not alone in being confused. Good news is, it’s pretty easy to turn anything into an article with five steps.

Step 1. Use headings.

Give your readers headings so that they have a visual signpost to follow. Articles tend to be skimmed, so it’s important readers can quickly surmise the major points. In simpler terms: they need to pick up what you’re putting down, and they need to do it quickly. Ideally, you’ll take note of the publication’s vibe and match the tone of your headings accordingly. Editors expect these to summarize the content that falls under each heading for SEO purposes— in my case, I have completely ignored this rule in favor of humor (and because I like to break rules.)

Step 2. Remember that this isn’t about you.

Articles need to go a step beyond personal experience. If they rely too much on the personal then they tend to foray into creative nonfiction. Readers seek out articles when they have a question about something that happened (“What happened, who did it happen to, why did it happen, when did it happen, and how did it happen?”). Conversely, they read CNF to find a part of themselves in someone else’s experience– they want to feel seen, identified, or validated.

Step 3. Acquiesce that it’s a little bit about you.

None of this means that articles can’t include your personal experiences. Don’t be afraid to use “I,” talk about how you came upon your subject, why you feel it’s important, or how it impacts your life. Depending on the publication, your article may sound like you’re giving advice to a friend, speaking with a colleague, or giving a report— this is where you’ll need to do some research on the publication you’re pitching or submitting to. Your perspective is invaluable (when it comes to articles that are not strictly research-based) because you understand the need for this article to exist.

Step 4. Understand that it’s mostly about the takeaway.

The key objective of any article is not to wax poetic on your topic. The most common issue I see as an editor are articles that use “I” more than “you.” In most cases, these are not articles. They’re personal essays, memoirs, or journal entries. The best way to fix this issue is to revise your article by highlighting areas in which you’re talking about yourself and then reframing them to talk about how they impact the reader. So, for example, “I learned how to write an article by reading tips from an editor,” can become, “You can learn how to write an article by researching tips from editors.”

Step 5. Take it away.

The reason articles need to highlight reader impacts over personal experience is because the purpose of reading an article is to learn something or take something away. Readers need to finish the article equipped with new knowledge. Therefore, look for ways to provide your audience with some kind of tip, trick, how-to, research, takeaway, action items, etc., that engages with them, and be sure to summarize throughout– specifically, at the end. I’ll leave you with a very meta example that does just that: if your reader has learned something by the time they’ve finished reading, you can confidently say that you’ve written an article.