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How to write a contributed article (and one which is actually helpful)

Guest posts, op-eds, and contributed articles are effective ways to get yourself and your brand in front of your customers and peers. They also help you build up your reputation as an expert and commentator on a topic or subject area. All of this means it makes perfect sense to see contributed articles as a great opportunity, but the benefits on the author’s side often blinds them to the most important part of the equation: do you have anything valuable to contribute? 

Companies, spokespeople, or their agencies are often so focused on securing a contributed article opportunity in the first place, that ironically the quality of the articles themselves gets neglected. As a result contributed content is often bloated, jargon-filled, and meandering leaving a reader knowing little more than they did before they read it. 

This wastes the time of your readers and can hurt your own standing with them. But it also cuts down on the efficacy of your own efforts – it’ll mean a piece is engaged with less. So what can you do to make your contributed articles more compelling?

1. Make it useful

In the long run, most traffic towards contributed pieces is going to come from readers who are looking for advice, information, or opinion around the topic you’re covering. These casual readers – people who are looking to build up their background knowledge on the topic, have never heard of you, and exist outside your professional bubble – are probably going to be the bulk of your ultimate audience. 

Always ask yourself: if I were a casual reader, would I feel I had learned something from this? Whether it be background knowledge on a subject, a list of five tips to handle a problem, or an article predicting the future of the field – would the casual reader be able to walk away and confidently say they know something they hitherto didn’t?

2. Make it personal

People are investing their time in reading your piece, so they want to hear something that comes from YOU, rather than something generic; something no-one else could explain as well as you.  Use an anecdote from your experience, a maxim you live by or anything else that personalises the feature to you.  Tips don’t mean much if it’s not clear what gives you the credibility to give your view.

3. Make it accurate

Sweeping statements that sound revolutionary and exciting will generate a view, but interest will only be sustained if you can back them up with fact, rather than your own opinion.  Predictions are always interesting, but they should be evidence-based to a certain extent, rather than pivoted on a wild and personal theory, however fascinating. 

4. Respect people’s time

Brevity is the soul of wit, and of holding onto a reader. There’s obvious good practice – check to make sure that you don’t repeat points, avoid run-on sentences, use fewer words to make the same point.

Most people writing and reviewing by-lines are smart and know this. The more difficult problem is that a lot of organisations and writers love themselves a bit too. The result can be pieces filled with jargon or waffle to appease an internal messaging framework. 

To counter this trend, put yourself back in the shoes of the reader. Would they want to continue reading? Do they feel every paragraph has a point and services an argument? Do they feel their intelligence and time is respected?

5. Make it current

Try to avoid shoehorning, but if you can hook your piece in with a current news story or recently released report then it will stand more chance of generating interest. 

6. Check if it’s a good idea before you pitch it

It’s a story a lot of PR teams are too familiar with: the client or boss gives you a hook and a spokesperson and asks you to pitch it out, you get a placement and excitedly start to draft, but once you get to writing you realise you’re now trying to stretch a piece that should be 400 words into 1000 words.

This is probably the main driver for bad contributed articles: getting placements first, and asking questions about the content later. And it’s usually the result of a communications gulf between the PR team and everyone else – the PR team might incorrectly believe there’s insight from the spokesperson/company than the hook they’ve got so far, or the spokesperson/company might not realise that their hook isn’t that deep.

Either way, these issues can almost always be fixed by everyone involved being willing to have candid conversations about a hook before a pitch. If built out into a full contributed article, would the piece respect the casual reader’s time and be useful? If not, get back to the drawing table and refine the idea before you pitch and secure a placement.

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