Knowing Your Audience
If rule number one for effective writing is "know your subject," rule number two certainly is "know your audience." Before you submit an article for publication, think carefully about what kind of people read that periodical or visit that website. Read previously published articles so you have an idea of what topics, content, and writing styles appeal to the readers and—just as important—to the editor. Are the articles highly technical in nature, perhaps including code fragments or research data? Or are they written in a conversational and informal style? Are figures, diagrams, or tables commonly used,? Are most of the articles how-to tutorials, or opinionated essays, or reports of trends in the computing industry, or what? Do the authors incorporate much humor in their pieces? How long are the articles on average? Are the articles broken up into sections with subheadings? It's a good idea to make sure that your article will fit nicely with the content that people expect to find in a particular periodical or website. You might be able to get a lot of this information in the periodical's writer's (or submission) guidelines.
I work hard at trying to make my submissions look like a natural fit for a particular magazine. For instance, I always try to get a sense of how many words the editor wants. Magazine articles typically range from 2,000 to 4,000 words in length. Articles intended for website publication are generally shorter, perhaps 700 to 1,500 words. If an editor asks me for 2,000 words, that's what he gets. If you submit a 3,000-word article, it simply won't fit in the space the editor has in mind for it. The most likely outcomes are either rejection or substantial editing if he likes your story but needs something shorter. In rare cases you might persuade the editor to run a longer article as a series of shorter pieces, but don't count on it. (As a side note, a figure is generally counted as 200 words.)
Through some amazingly good fortune, I have managed to publish every written piece that I have ever submitted for publication. Sometimes it took me several tries. If the first periodical rejected my submission, I would modify the article to fit in with the next one to which I submitted it. On a few occasions, it took me up to four attempts before my piece was accepted for publication, but eventually I succeeded.
It's not always necessary to submit a full manuscript. If you have an idea for an article, float it past an editor who you think might find it interesting and see if you get a nibble. If no one is interested, maybe you don't need to spend the time writing and polishing the piece. One year, I outlined a series of nine possible articles for one magazine editor. After we agreed on the topics, I began writing them at my convenience. The more you understand about the readership the magazine is targeting, the easier it is to get a proposal accepted.
Delighting the Editor
My philosophy is to make the editor's job easy. I want the editor to immediately sense that my submission feels right for his publication and audience. That's why I try to make my manuscript conform to the publication's house style as closely as I can. As an example, if it is not customary for the publication to have sections titled Introduction or Conclusion, then my submission won't contain them either. It's an old dictum that in an article or a presentation you "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them." That's not a bad policy, but you can do that without having sections explicitly (and mundanely) titled Introduction and Conclusion.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I've always had the impression that the less work an editor has to do to turn your submission into a published article, the more favorably inclined he will be toward you in the future. For each of my professional interactions—an article, a book, a presentation, a consulting gig—my goal is for the other party to think, "I'd be happy to work with Karl again." Making an article require as little editing as possible is one step toward this outcome. Of course, it's also essential to actually deliver what you promised or were expected to deliver!
If you really want to get on an editor's bad side, missing deadlines will do it. Magazines come out at fixed intervals and websites have to deliver a stream of fresh content; they aren't going to wait for your late article. I take great pride in having never missed a deadline for delivering articles, conference presentation materials, or book manuscripts. Not everyone is like this, though. More than one frantic editor has called me to ask if I can plug a hole in the magazine because some other contributor didn't deliver when promised. Editors will come back to you if they know they can count on you to deliver on time. Emergencies do arise, so if you find that you cannot meet a writing commitment, tell the affected parties as soon as possible so they can adapt.
Dangling the Bait
Editors also appreciate catchy titles and intriguing opening paragraphs. These are often the places that editors need to work on to make an article fit the magazine's style or format. Often, the editor will replace the title the author supplies, so don't get overly attached to your initial title.
A clever title initiates the connection between author and audience. Some of my article titles promise a certain number of tidbits of wisdom: 7 deadly sins, 10 traps to avoid, 21 success tips. Other titles are intended to make the reader ask, "Hmm, I wonder what this is about?" Some examples are:
- "See You in Court" (about an engagement I had as an expert consultant for a party in a lawsuit)
- "When Telepathy Won't Do" (key practices in requirements engineering)
- "Know Your Enemy" (a tutorial on software risk management)
- "Just Too Much to Do" (described a project prioritization spreadsheet tool)
- "Stop Promising Miracles" (about a project estimation technique)
Setting the Hook
I work hard on the opening paragraph for each article. You have a very short window in which to grab the reader's attention. If you don't engage readers with the first paragraph, it doesn't matter what you say in the rest of the article; they likely won't read it. Busy people aren't likely to forge ahead, patiently hoping the article gets interesting at some point. Make your opening catchy enough that a reader can't help but keep going. I often start with something that will get the reader nodding in agreement with me from the outset, such as an indication that I feel the reader's pain and frustration:
- Software managers sometimes assume that every skilled programmer is also proficient at interviewing customers and writing requirements specifications, without any training, resources or coaching. This isn't a reasonable assumption. Like testing, estimation and project management, requirements engineering has its own skill set and body of knowledge.
You Have Arrived!If you establish a reputation for writing high-quality material, delivering it on time, and stimulating reader interest, a magazine editor might even offer you a column. I remember how excited I was in 1986 when I received an invitation to write a tutorial column on assembly language programming for an Atari computer magazine. I could write about anything I wanted, knowing that it would be published, and that I would have a sustained income stream to boot. That was a lot of fun.
(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)