Lessons from the top how-to articles that you can implement
Writing how-to articles can take your writing career to wonderful places.
I discovered the art of writing how-to articles about four years ago. Since then, I’ve written many how-to articles that have gone viral (like this one about money or this one on my writing process). I have become obsessed over the last few years with writing better how-to articles that don’t look generic.
Generic how-to articles are forgotten. They’re not worth even writing.
But a good how-to article can earn you a lot of money, make or break your writing career, and allow you to help millions of people.
A good how-to article contains these ingredients:
- Clear, simple, concise advice.
- Writing that can be understood by people whose first language is not English.
- A path to an ending that is not obvious.
- Personal experience.
- Conversational language.
Here’s exactly how you can write better how-to articles:
Start With Why
(Sorry, Simon Sinek, for borrowing that phrase from you, mate.)
Giving people a reason to read your how-to advice right at the top is key. Get to the point. What does someone get by reading your how-to advice? Start with why and paint a picture of a better life for those who follow. Cite examples of people that have that better life because of this advice.
Take an Unconventional Path
Many people have probably written about the how-to advice you’re going to give. The name of the game is to take a different path. How?
Choose an unconventional way to describe your how-to advice.
The Barefoot Investor gives financial advice, but he does it from the perspective of a bogan farmer who doesn’t wear shoes. You wouldn’t expect a farmer to give financial advice.
How to take an unconventional path:
Make the structure unpredictable.
Problem. Solution. Unexpected problem. No solution. Still no solution (anticipation). Hidden solution. Complete 360. Back to the original problem.
The structure is a dance. “Problem, solution, takeaway” is boring. Think of your how-to advice like the story arc of your favorite movie. You can go “Disney” predictable or “Shawshank Redemption” unpredictable.
Clarify a Term and Make It Stupidly Simple
This is an obvious trick many writers forget to do. Don’t assume everybody knows the topic you’re writing about. Clarify the topic and the angle you’re coming from.
“Gaslighting” is a great example. There are many articles written about the topic but very few of them clarify the term. Every time I read the term gaslighting I forget what it means. Don’t assume people know the keyword you’re writing about. And if people do know your topic like, for example, writing, clarify what writing is to you. Here’s an example:
Writing is where you publish a blog post at least once a week on the internet and earn money from it consistently with at least 10 followers.
See how specific that description is about a generic topic like writing? Make your audience experts by clarifying what you mean right at the top of your article.
Cut to the Chase. Get to the Point.
Too many writers waffle on. They have huge intros and long-winded solutions. The best how-to advice gets to the point.
I think of it like this: If you had to give your advice in an 18-minute Ted Talk on stage in front of hundreds of people, what would you say? What would you leave out?
People don’t have all day to hear you talk. How can you help, quickly, please?
Clarify the Problem in a Beautifully Simple Way
How-to advice contains a problem. Many writers forget to take the time to describe it. You want the reader to say to themselves, “I felt like that once too” when they’re reading your description of the problem.
Many writers want to teach a skill like writing and don’t know how. To clarify the problem you could say something like this:
Everybody who has an internet connection has the opportunity to write and that’s the problem. It’s so easy to write online that knowing where to start is a huge issue. And even when you do find out where to start, how the heck do you keep going? You have been writing for 300 days straight and still haven’t made any progress. Do you keep going? Do you switch platforms? Do you build your social media account?
The problem should be clear enough that it’s relatable to some sections of the audience. Use a Google Search to see if people suffer from the problem you want to write about. It will help you realize the different varieties of problems that are broad.
The idea is to go deep into a problem to differentiate your how-to advice.
Enhance the Advice With a Pitfalls Section
People love pitfalls.
What were the pitfalls when you tried to solve this problem? Pitfalls is just another way to say what the mistakes were that you made. Or what the obvious setbacks were that you encountered
By reading pitfalls, the reader gets a flavor for what doesn’t work before they read about what does work. This makes the reader feel smarter.
Make the Reader Feel Smart
Whenever you make the reader feel smarter, they love you for it — that’s how your how-to article becomes highly shareable.
Tell them how hopeless you were when you started or how dumb you felt in the beginning. Poke fun at yourself too.
I tell people all the time that I’m a big-eared Dumbo the elephant with no ability to play sports or lift dumbbells at the gym because it’s true.
Show your human side.
Insert Your Experience (or Get It, Quickly)
Many people write boring how-to advice because all they do is quote experts and paste sentences out of books they’ve read. Adding your experience or thoughts is crucial.
If you don’t have experience, find it.
For example, if you’re giving writing advice and you’ve been doing it for three days, quote a writer you’re friends with who has done it. Mention a YouTube video you watched and the advice you learned and then applied.
Getting the experience to write a how-to article is the easy bit.
You are “the experience” and you can conduct experiments to test theories, strategies, and advice.
If you have the experience then add numbers. People love numbers, dates, and specifics. Here’s an example:
From 2014–2016 I did…From 2016–2017 I did…Now I do…
Be the Expert Teacher
When you’re giving how-to advice, pretend you are a real-life teacher.
Being a teacher means being confident.
Remove phrases such as: “I think” or “I’m not sure” or “some people say” or “I haven’t made up my mind.”
In other words, take a stance and be firm. Give people confidence that you’ve researched the topic and are the expert. Don’t “if” and “but” and “not sure” your way to doubting your talent and ability because the audience will do the same if you act like that. You’re the expert, always, with how-to advice.
Provide a Solution
The internet is littered with complainers and professional commenters.
What makes you a superpower online is when you present solutions. It’s so simple and so obvious that many people forget.
Solution-oriented people change the world. Solution-oriented people inspire others.
Those who present solutions get paid a lot of money and end up on stage, giving talks, and featuring on popular podcasts.
Give a few solutions to the problem. Spend more time on the solution than the problem. Let hope be a defining factor too. When people have hope they implement a solution.
Reinforce the Solution
This one’s a pro tip. Some people give a solution and then don’t reinforce it. People have to hear a solution told to them in multiple ways to understand what you’re saying.
That’s one of the reasons why you can write the same how-to advice over and over and nobody will say anything, according to how-to writer Ayodeji Awosika. This famous sales line from Alec Baldwin applies: “Always be closing.”
Author Robert Kiyosaki used the phrase “rich dad” to describe a person who is an entrepreneur and knows how to invest. When I wrote about him, I used the phrase “poor dad” to describe him and the phrase “rich dad” to describe a person who is nothing like him.
Give the person a name who follows your how-to advice.
Personas can later start tribes.
Each person in your tribe identifies themselves with your message by using the persona you created.
People who follow Mr. Money Mustache’s blog call themselves Mustachians.
Add Takeaways or How-To Sentences Throughout
To drive home your solution and the persona you’ve created, add a how-to sentence at the end of every paragraph/lesson.
When I wrote about how to not be a poor dad and become a rich dad, at the end of every paragraph I wrote, “How to be a rich dad” with a one-sentence takeaway. Here’s an example:
How to be a rich dad: Always be humble even if you are financially rich.
People love this addition because it reminds them of the simple lessons without having to memorize the whole article.
If a reader walks away with one takeaway, there is a high chance they will remember your advice.
Pop links throughout your advice to give it credibility and to allow the reader to go deeper if they choose.
Tie Your Idea Back to Something Bigger
Writing is a way to change the world.
Whenever you give how-to advice, find a way to show people how far they can go if they implement the advice. In other words, present the idea that people can change the world in some small way if they follow your advice.
How-to advice attached to something bigger than the reader motivates them to take action.
Find the Good in the Bad
I wrote an article about how Robert Kiyosaki has lost the plot and now acts like a poor dad.
This article was a reminder to always look for the good in the bad. For example, with Robert, I made it clear that people can act foolishly and still change their ways. He has taught many valuable lessons and I reminded people of those as well as pointing out where he might be wrong.
Finding the good in the bad adds a layer of optimism to your how-to advice that people love. Present both sides.
Even the worst teachers have valuable lessons you can write about.
Go From the Villain to the Hero
With Robert Kiyosaki, he started out as being a villain in my how-to article and then became a suggested hero to the reader.
Changing characters in your how-to advice, to play both villain and hero, allows people to learn from them in multiple ways.
Every person has a good side and a bad side. Use that truth to teach people.
Come Full Circle
Go back to your introduction. Bring the reader back to the start and clarify again what they can learn, what the benefits are, and how their life might change.
End on a Paradoxical Truth
In my how-to advice that featured Robert Kiyosaki, I took people down an unusual path at the end. I concluded with a paradoxical truth.
Robert is both a bad man and a good man because I am too. I told the story of how I was exactly like Robert only a few years earlier and made all the same mistakes as him. The paradoxical truth is we’re all both good and bad at different times of our life. You can be an angel in one area of life and act like a devil in another.
Ending on a paradoxical truth is a way to surprise the reader and show them how far both they and you have come.
That’s How to Teach Anything in a Blog Post
After reading so many how-to articles over the last few years and being lucky enough to write a few viral ones myself, this is everything I can tell you about teaching others through blog posts.
The strange reality is that you might reach millions of people writing how-to articles, but it won’t be the best part.
Seeing people get results thanks to your how-to advice is the greatest motivator you can hope for. You can be anything when you teach others.