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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Seven Ways to Write Better--and Better-Selling--Service Articles

As a freelancer, my specialty is service articles. Service pieces tend to be “how-to” in nature that provide readers with information about a particular topic and show them how to do something (or do it better), and the potential payoff of doing so.

At first glance, service articles are relatively straightforward to research and write, but they also contain a minefield of potential pitfalls for would-be service writers. Here are seven common mistakes to avoid when writing service pieces:

Mistake #1: Insufficient Background

A common mistake writing service pieces is assuming too much—namely, that the reader of the piece knows as much about the subject as you do. For example, I cover nutrition so I know what fiber is, how it works in the body, and why it’s important. But a typical reader may have no clue what about it. Here’s how I highlighted the difference between the two types of fiber in a fitness magazine article:

The two types react differently in water—soluble fiber dissolves, becoming gummy, while insoluble fiber holds water. “Soluble fiber acts more like a sponge,” says Jackson. “It helps suck cholesterol out and lower bad cholesterol levels.” Insoluble fiber acts more like a broom than a sponge, essentially sweeping out your intestines and keeping the area clean, adds Jackson. “They both play different roles but they’re equally important in promoting general health,” she says.

See how I've given readers a mental picture of what the two types of fiber do? Simple yet essential.

Mistake #2: Boring Quotes

Unless you’re the only source for a story, you’ll rely on interviews for the piece. Whether you’re quoting an expert or a “real person,” make sure the quotes you use “pop.” For example, an interview transcript with a registered dietitian for a story about how stress impacts your waistline included the following:

“Eating when you’re not hungry makes people feel bad afterwards.”

“No one feels empowered when they’re on their third row of Oreos.”

The quotes mean the same basic thing, but I used the latter—the language is stronger, more specific, and more arresting. Choose direct quotes that are compelling and strong; otherwise, take the information out of direct quotes and attribute to the source.

Mistake #3: Too Few Sources—or Too Many

Speaking of sources, the number you use will depend primarily on the length of your story. My rule of thumb is one or two sources for stories of up to about 500 words; two to three for stories of up to 1000 words; and three to five for 1500-word stories. Your mileage may vary but I don't want to over-research or under-research a piece.

Mistake #4: Returning to the Well Too Often

If you write about a particular subject area, you probably already have your “favorite” expert sources who can be counted on to give you great information. But falling into a habit of always hitting up the same sources can hurt the quality of your work.

Make sure you include new experts and check what's happening on the topic, even if it's one you cover frequently. And if you write about ever-changing topics like technology or health, this is critical for accuracy.

Mistake #5: No “Real People”

Yes, experts can explain why something is the way it is. But for color, and more memorable articles, include “real people” sources as well.

For example, in a piece I did on the benefits of eating breakfast, I reported on recent research on how eating breakfast improves memory and cognition—and boosts mood and energy. I included quotes from registered dietitians explaining why breakfast is so important. But I also included quotes from people who had found that eating breakfast helped them lose weight and have more energy. ”

These “real people” anecdotes liven up a service piece and provide readers with real-life examples that they can relate to as well.

Mistake #6: Insufficent Service

Service articles are about service, right? But it’s easy to forget this when you’re working on a story—or gloss over what readers need to know. For example, in a piece on toddler tooth traumas, I explained why parents should brush their children’s teeth regularly. But how do you actually do this? I included specific tips like “hold your child’s head steady,” “choose a child’s brush with extra-soft bristles,” and “brush along the gumline, not just the teeth themselves” so that parents would be able to put the advice from the article into practice.

When it comes to service, you want to be specific—writing generalities usually get the story kicked back to you by the editor.

Mistake #7: Skimping on Sidebars

Finally, sidebars are often a great addition to a service piece. For example, when I wrote a piece for The Writer on the effectiveness of letters of introduction, or LOIs, my sidebar included two examples of LOIs that readers could use as models. My above-mentioned piece on the health benefits of fiber included a sidebar listing foods with high-fiber content, their serving size, and the total grams of fiber in each.

While magazines may be shrinking in size, service articles will never go out of style. Readers are always looking for advice about how to improve their lives, which makes this writing genre a lucrative one. Make your service articles focused, interesting, and helpful, and you’ll have your editors coming back for more.

Coming soon...another query critique series, so get your queries ready! I'll also be offering my ghostwriting e-class again in April; dates TBA.

Finally, I'm still between ghostwriting projects. If you know of someone who's looking for a ghostwriter, coauthor, or editor for a book-length project in the health, fitness, wellness, psychology, or nutrition field, I'd appreciate a recommendation!


  1. I'm just sitting down to research a new service piece, so I really appreciate this helpful advice!

  2. The quote about Oreos is perfect. Thanks for that example.

  3. Thanks, motherlogue. That's an actual quote from an interview, too, that made it into a piece on emotional eating! :)