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How to Write a "How-To" that Sells

(from an article by Gail Luttman in The Writer's Handbook. Boston: The Writer, Inc.,1991 Edition.

Any activity that interests you--from art to cooking to collecting stamps to how to cut your own hair is a potential article. But where do you begin?


Many times these motivators will overlap. A hobby can also be an income. Good health can also make you feel better about yourself. A unique and romantic vacation can bring your family together, can be something not everyone does, etc. The more motivators your "How-to" has the more your audience will love it.

OK now you know how to get your reader's interest. What is next?


Next you have to provide your reader with the sense that they CAN and WILL be able to do the subject of your article. Begin your article with simple facts. Can they begin this endeavor in five (5) easy steps? Can they do this by investing a short amount of time? Can they use things they have around their own home? Unfortunately, for most readers, if it sounds too involved they may not read the rest of the article.

Keep technical data as a sidebar or at the end of the article. These sidebars might include: tools needed, definitions of terms used in article, etc.. Many editors favor sidebars in how-to articles.

Draw comparisons, in your article. Take your subject and liken it to something in their everyday lives. For example, if there is the making of something, such as cement...tell them at what point it might be perfect: the consistency of butter, like peanut butter, like molasses, or whatever. Of course, if you are writing a cookbook, you must be more specific. Recipes usually only work when using the correct ingredients and in the correct amounts. Here you might specify: Note: Butter must be used, since margarine will make it too runny.

Clarity is necessary in many forms of "How-to" articles. If you are telling how to make Scottish Shortbread, let you reader know that they must sift the flour first or the consistency will not be correct when rolling out the dough. You must tell them to flour both the rolling surface and the rolling pin, or the batter with stick. If they were making a Key Lime Pie, they must be warned to separate the eggs carefully or the topping will not get stiff. Anyone who gets even a small amount of water or egg yoke into egg whites, knows that this will not produce the desired results. Just as granulated sugar and powdered sugar will bring different results. So clarity is VERY important!

Use illustrations, when possible. Illustrations will clarify things even more for your reader. Include sketches or photographs that might facilitate the progression of your task. If you aren't an artist, ask a friend who is to help you. These will give the editor guidelines for their own illustrator. Illustrations are necessary for any kind of "hands-on" type of project. If, for example, you were submitting an article on knitting, you would need illustrations showing what various stitches might look like. You would illustrate the position of your knitting needles, and show the steps (this is especially important for a beginner's article).


Make sure you have your steps in the CORRECT order! Arrange things chronologically (step-by-step) or begin with the simple and go to the advanced. Use repetition for some articles, this will reinforce certain techniques, and is very useful in longer articles. This will save the reader from having to flip back and forth from the beginning to the end of the article.

Be sure and tell how long to boil an egg, how long the glue needs to set-up, etc. Tell them of any variations that may occur (such as at different altitudes, temperatures, etc). Are they any signs to look for? For example, when cooking pancakes on a skillet, you can tell when they need to be turned over by the formation of air bubbles in the batter. Onions are usually sauteed (cooked in butter), until they turn glossy and translucent.

Include what can go wrong tips..."what to avoid." However put this in a sidebar or at the end. Some people are "turned-off" by anything perceived as "difficult." This could also include a HOTLINE number to call for assistance, or a source list of supplies

Use research. Who are the experts on this subject? Lend a sense of clarity by saying that "Mr. Smith, a design expert says that blues and greens are in vogue this year. Or make-up expert, Guy Michelle Anjou says that lips will be darker this year, and that autumn tones, for clothing, will be in the russets and green shades.

Be sure to clarify materials used. For example, one person's (yard) fencing might be another person's combat sport. It is always good to show a number or thickness used in silver jewekry wiring. Obviously, too thick or too thin wire would spoil the project, if you are making wire jewelry. Give names, addresses, and URL for companies carrying these items.


Know your target audience! Is this geared to a beginner or an advanced reader. In the case, of craft projects, this should be stated: This project is for beginning knitters. If it is for an advanced knitter, you may not need to describe each and every knitting term; such as knit, purl, sesame stitch, rib stitch, or cable needles. In the case of knitting, you may simply say use knitting worsted with size "6" needles for this project. For a beginner you would have to tell them the difference between knitting worsted and baby yarn. So THINK about your audience VERY CAREFULLY!!!

As a "how-to" writer the burden of success is on your back. People will not be happy to invest money in a project that has one important step "left out." They will not be amused, especially if it was expensive. You should include a cost estimate, and any possible substitutes that will work EQUALLY WELL.

Engage your reader as you would when writing a letter to a good friend. If you sound too stiff, your audience will infer that this project is too difficult. Use anecdotes, if appropriate. For example: "When my friend, Agnes, and I first began to paint, we were not aware that cleaning your brushes is a very necessary skill. The next morning they were ruined because we didn't take the time to do it correctly. When cleaning latex paint brushes always use soap and water and clean until the water runs clear." OR: "When wallpapering, always prepare the wall correctly with sealer and sizing. I learned that lesson when I took down my old wallpaper, and took half my drywall with it." The fact that you are sharing your own personal experiences will delight your readers, and it sets a personal tone to your writing. People always love to hear about personal experiences. So use that to your advantage!

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This page was last updated on October 16, 2001