10 Rules For Writing Thought-Provoking Articles
Over the past five years, I’ve written nearly 400 articles and reached millions of readers. While some articles got more views than others, that’s not the way I measure myself.
I look at engagement: How many readers take the time to share, comment, or even email you their thoughts about the article? That’s how I know my article and topic made a real impact.
Here are 10 writing rules I always apply to do that.
Have something to say
There’s a difference between an article that has something to say, versus a piece written for superficial reasons like money or ego. F. Scott Fitzgerald puts it best:
“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.”
We read because we want to be informed, to expand our views, and sometimes, to be entertained. Having something to say gives your article a genuine perspective. That’s something we can never get enough of.
Contrary to what people think, writing articles is not all about grammar. I intentionally ignore a lot of grammar rules because I like to focus on my message. People who only look at grammar are short-sighted in my book. Sure, we still need to make our writing understandable.
But you really don’t have to play it by the book — that’s what the IRS does. Focus on what you have to say. That’s what matters the most. Not whether its’ “whom” or “who” or how you capitalize headlines (as you can see, I ignore those headline rules).
Know your subject
Why write about something you barely know about? Faking it might work for a while, but it’s not sustainable. It’s also not credible.
But you also don’t need a Ph.D. if you want to start writing. This is how writers get stuck in the research phase. You don’t need to know everything in the world to write a good article. And you don’t need to make things up out of thin air either.
Targeted research is the key. Don’t collect useless information. Write your ideas first, then just leave blank spaces or notes on parts you’re unsure of, do your research, and come back to them later. Good writers merely assemble words.
Once you change your perspective on writing and research, it’s easier to write better content.
Pick a unique angle
So, you’ve got something to say. Now what? Do you just write ahead and say it? That’s what most writers do. That’s also a sure way for your article to end up on the 105th page of the Google search results.
Whatever you’re saying, somebody else likely said it already. Maybe major publications like Forbes or HBR probably discussed it in great detail. How are you going to compete against those? Only a unique angle can make your article stand out. Ask yourself these questions:
- What’s something new you’re sharing about the topic?
- Check existing articles. What’s something others haven’t covered yet?
- How about old advice or stories? Can you debunk those ideas or share a different perspective? One of my most read articles is The Purpose Of Life Is Not Happiness: It’s Usefulness. It’s a different take on the age-old idea that the purpose of life is to be happy.
A different angle makes your article stand out from the crowd.
Tell personal stories
Write something only you could write. You can only do that by sharing personal stories, not by quoting others or regurgitating other peoples’ ideas all the time.
In many of my stories, I lay out an issue I once struggled with and describe how I worked through it. I usually don’t write about stuff I’m still working on. I want to offer the reader a solution. So if I’m going through something, I keep it for later.
In this piece, “How To Beat Procrastination” I wrote about the inner battle I used to have with procrastination.
I took readers through my personal journey, citing examples they may also find relatable, and by the end of the piece they learned the lessons I learned.
When writing a story, ask yourself: What do I want the reader to know or feel by the end that they didn’t know or feel at the start? Like any good narrative, there should be tension and discovery.
Write for one person, not everyone
If you can appeal to everyone, your article becomes more successful. Right? It’s so tempting to do just that.
But no article appeals to everyone. If you try to appeal to everyone, you’ll end up appealing to no one. Don’t waste your time and energy doing that.
The more effective thing to do is think of one person. Then ask yourself:
- Who is this for? What kind of person am I writing for?
- What lifestyle does this person have?
- What major problems are occupying this person’s mind?
For example, this article is something I wrote for my friend who felt stuck in his career. In the article, I talk about my own experience getting out of grad school, managing my own business, and reinventing myself every three years to overcome my career ceiling.
You don’t need to please everyone. The important thing is that your piece resonates effectively with your target audience.
Write like you talk
A unique writing style will help you to stand out. But that doesn’t mean you need to make something up. Just write the way you talk. Everyone talks differently so if you write that way, it automatically makes it different.
You might ask: Is the way you talk the best writing style for you? Or is it better to create a writing style that’s different from how you talk?
First, writing will become more difficult when you write differently from how you talk. “But the way I talk is boring!” You might say. It’s okay to get some inspiration from others. Check the next two points (Only emulate two writers, and keep it simple).
But the truth is that we often hide our style because we’re trying to please everyone. Have the courage to be yourself.
Only emulate two writers
Every writer is inspired by others. Writers are often voracious readers, so it’s natural for us to admire other authors. But avoid trying to be like all of them. You risk ending up like no one — not even yourself.
I recommend picking two authors you absolutely love as role models. I have two main writing influences: Ernest Hemingway and William Zinsser. Both always got to their point quickly, bent grammar rules when needed, and used short sentences. There’s no pretentiousness in their work and writing.
Emulating great writers improves your overall writing. With enough practice, you’ll eventually find and develop your true writing voice.
Keep it simple
Even if you’re not a fan of Hemingway or Zinsser, short and simple writing keeps your article focused and more likely to leave an impact on the reader.
If you have something to say, get down to it! It doesn’t matter if it takes 500 or 5,000 words. If you’re making a complex point, you obviously need more words
The key is to NOT use more words than necessary. Keep your writing clear and to the point.
Edit after you’re finished writing
Drafts aren’t supposed to be perfect. It’s good if your first draft looks like your final version, but that’s usually not the case. And that’s okay. Whatever your draft looks like, only edit once you’re completely finished writing.
Editing while writing makes the process much longer than it should be. You lose significant time by constantly going back to that sentence or paragraph you want to edit. When you allow yourself to write freely, things become much faster and more efficient.
Writing is already hard. Why make it hard for yourself by editing and writing at the same time?
While the content matters most, also make sure your article looks good. What does that mean?
- It’s formatted for visual appeal — The font style, size, and layout is easy to read.
- It has relevant visuals — If you can, stay away from using free stock photos. Everybody else uses those.
- It’s varied — Avoid using the same formatting for too long. Switch things up. Use bullets, short paragraphs, long paragraphs, and so forth. When writing looks monotonous, it’s annoying.
Writing isn’t only about words. Aesthetics matter too.
Keep on writing
Everyone can write a few articles here and there. The question is: Why do you want to write articles in the first place?
If you want to get rich fast, I don’t recommend pursuing this as a career. Try starting a business or getting a career in finance.
But if you actually enjoy writing and connecting with readers; keep on writing. You’ll only get better at this!