If this article does its job it’ll do me out of one. Because below are my trade secrets for effective editorial copywriting. Or: how to craft engaging articles for magazines, blogs or email campaigns which leap off the page, grab your readers’ attention and boost your reputation as a respected authority.

Clients usually hire me to take care of all that on behalf of their authors, albeit retrospectively, and painstakingly apply the steps below to articles in various states of undraft. Anonymously, I smooth out the inevitable kinks between different authors’ styles and copyedit them into the slick form they would have taken if only they’d read the kindly advice below (and subsequently done me out of a job).

So in the interest of preserving the Internet as a repository of high-quality information (perhaps my job is safe after all) here, for the benefit of every author on the web, are five first steps you can take when you begin writing your article.

1. Pick your subject

More often than not, an author gets asked to contribute an article to a publication then puts off writing it until the day before it’s due. As you can imagine, this extra pressure always fosters a creative writing process that’s incredibly pleasant and productive for both author and editor.

If you’re stuck for ideas about what to write, try considering these suggestions well in advance of your deadline:

  • What problems do you face regularly in your arena? Chances are other people are familiar with them. How do you tackle them?
  • What keeps your readers awake at night? Think about what their success or failure really boils down to
  • Why or how did you get into doing what you do?
  • How will current affairs affect your readers?
  • What are you proud of and how can people mimic it?

2. Decide your angle

This is about the relationship between how you write (style: below) and what you write (subject: above), so give some careful thought to how you want to form your argument or make your point.

My advice is to come at it as if you’re trying to convince someone to take action or appreciate (or even adopt) your point of view. People also seem to enjoy inflammatory opinions on topical issues so don’t be scared to go against the grain of popular opinion.

3. Choose your style

This is what copywriters esoterically like to call ‘tone of voice’. It means how you sound to your readers and it’s affected by the words you use, the things you talk about and even grammar and sentence structure. Big brands depend on poor little freelance copywriters like me to reflect complex values and beliefs in their tone of voice. That’s how important it is.

Articles need personality because it helps people connect with them

The good news for you is that you just have to be yourself because you aren’t a monolithic global brand. This might sound straightforward but so many people hide behind a veil of business jargon, passive voice and long, complex sentences that obfuscate and infuriate because they think it makes them sound important. It doesn’t. It puts an unnecessary obstacle between you and your reader and makes your article more difficult to understand.

In an editorial context, your objective is to be understood. So plump for clarity and simplicity above all else. Write it as you’d say it, but of course feel free to stay professional rather than colloquial.

Should you use humour? Certainly, if it helps you make a point (and you’re actually funny). Articles need personality because it helps people connect with them. So don’t be afraid to stand out because that’s what’ll get your article noticed.

4. Skim your headline

Ask any freelance copywriter about writing short-copy (slogans, strap-lines) versus long-copy – this is a tricky part of copywriting. Essentially you’ve got fewer words to play with, yet you must sum up something bigger and more complex (in this case your article) and grab people’s attention, all at the same time.

Should you use humour? Certainly, if it helps you make a point (and you’re actually funny)

That’s why I recommend you don’t bother with it until the end. Write a crap headline at the beginning (the sort authors often kindly leave for me to re-write) then edit it later when your article has evolved into something more meaningful. Read the article back to yourself and ponder ‘what am I trying to say?’ and there’s the kernel of your headline.

There are actually different types of headline forumla, like factual ones, or the hackneyed yet ever-effective ‘5 ways…’ or ‘How to…’. For more, I recommend you follow copyblogger’s excellent advice.

5. Start your introduction

Another difficult job because you’ve just begun writing and your brain hasn’t warmed up yet. When this happens a curious quirk of evolution causes people to write their introduction like a story: “I was [doing something menial] when [something happened]” or “In 1973…”

I understand why – people intuitively frame memories in the context of stories; events and time and space. But the sad fact is that readers don’t really care about where you were or what you were doing when you realised/observed/did something poignant. If you feel you must add context, do it further into your article not at the beginning when you’re fighting for your reader’s attention.

Good introductions show empathy, sum up a problem or premise in a nutshell then make promises (you’ll keep) about how you’re going to deal with it. Like an executive summary but interesting.

Readers don’t really care about where you were or what you were doing when you realised/observed/did something poignant

So cut straight to the bit when something interesting happened. Or do what you did with the headline – write it anyway then come back and chop out the flummery which inevitably crept into your introduction. Or leave it to a talented freelance copywriter.

Now write!

Apply these steps at the beginning of your writing process and you’re certain to establish solid foundations for that engaging article you’ll undoubtedly create.

If you’re still struggling to write your magnum opus, well, you needn’t worry. Just send your grubby draft to a talented copyeditor and you’ll get all the glory anyway – after all, it’s your name next to the title.

Editor’s footnote

The purpose of this article was originally intended for my colleagues at, and members of, the Youth Sport Trust, whom I recently copyedited a published editorial magazine for. This was a wholly interesting and pleasant experience. Any good-natured pokes above should be attributed to when I content manage articles for other, vastly different corporate clients who really would do me out of a job if I dared to make an example of them.