How to stories

Screenshot from Lifehacker includes lesson on importance of punctuation

In today’s magazine writing class, we are going to talk about how-to stories. Cheryl Wray, author of Writing Feature Articles, considers the how-to story to be a staple of magazines. She writes:

…Readers want to be happy, healthy, loved, financially secure, and spiritually enriched. Editors are eager to get ideas that address any of these issues in a unique way. Because of readers’ needs, most magazines therefore emphasize how-to stories: 1) how to do something or 2) how to be something.

Your how-to story is due Oct. 10. At our next class on Oct. 1, please turn in five how-to ideas. These are story pitches. They must be typed, not handwritten. Write the ideas as if you are selling your idea to an editor. Say why your idea is timely.
A few things to keep in mind:

  • Do not suggest stories telling people how to do things that are illegal. There is already plenty of that on the Web. So do not promote anything that is illegal or offensive.
  • Create a how-to story that will help – and even entertain – your readers.
  • Be original. Come up with a story that is creative and unusual. That will help your piece stand out from the tens of thousands of how-to stories that are already on the Web.

One of the most popular websites for how-to stories is called Lifehacker. Some of the latest headlines on the site:

  • How to Get Reliable Medical Information on the Internet Without Turning Into a Hypochondriac
  • Improve Your Memory with The Chunking Technique
  • Easily Reveal Hidden Passwords In Any Browser
  • Force an Android Device to Check for a System Update
  • Turn Your Podcasts Into a Customized Radio Station
  • How to Get Unstuck: The Big Paper Experiment
  • Get Bacon in Every Bite of Your BLT with the Basket Weaving Technique
  • Build Your Own iPhone 5 Dock for $1 (Because Apple Won’t Make One For You)

Another website featuring how-to stories is eHow. Anyone can submit stories. The website’s motto: Discover the expert in you.

Elements of a how-to story include:

  • An interesting lead. Hook the reader right away, then quickly get to your advice for readers.
  • Tips. Be as specific as you can. Don’t tell readers, for instance, that tipping is encouraged. Tell them exactly how much they should tip.
  • Bullet points, rankings or lists. Example: Top 10 Ways to Avoid Becoming a Victim of Cyberbullying. These make your how-to easier to read.
  • Credible sources. Interview and quote experts who help tell your story. This is a key element, yet student journalists often overlook it.
  • Attribution. Cite sources of key information in your story.
  • Quality writing. Take extra care to make your writing fresh, colorful, interesting, concise and informative.

Tips and guidelines:

  • Google your story topic to see what else, if anything, has been written. Your goal should be to add to the conversation or debate about your topic, not rehash what’s already been covered.
  • Don’t leave unanswered questions in your story.
  • You are not allowed to interview friends, relatives or family members.
  • Your topic should be of interest to Florida readers.
  • You may conduct interviews in person or by phone or by email.
  • You should shoot or obtain a photograph to illustrate your story.
  • Make sure your interview subjects know that the story will appear online for the world to see.
  • Your story must include interview subject’s first and last name, job title or occupation, age and town of residence.
  • You must talk to and quote at least two human sources who are knowledgeable about your subject.
  • Your story should contain at least 400 words. Include the word count at the bottom of your story, please.
  • Include names of sources and contact information at bottom of story.

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