Reader’s Digest is an American magazine that comes out in 21 languages in 70 countries and has over 70 million readers. That must be some kind of record, so studying how they write articles should help you in your own writing. Here is the advice that I draw from them:
- Write at an eighth-grade reading level so that even a 13-year-old can understand it. But do not talk down to us, your readers!
- Make it about people. People are interested in people and love stories about them. Even an article about an important issue is best told through the stories of the people it affects.
- The best stories are those about ordinary people overcoming the odds through their own action.
- The story should have several highs and lows and end on a high.
- The headline or title should be eight words or less. It should catch the attention of the reader and make at least the general subject of the article clear. Example: “The Great Eye Test Scandal”.
- The subhead: together with the headline it tells us what the article is about and why we would want to read it. Example: “Undercover for Reader’s Digest, I made a chilling discovery about the people who are supposed to look after our eyes.”
- The opening paragraph hits us over the head with something surprising or terrible or moving. Example: “I’m going blind. Very slowly my iris is breaking up and particles of pigment are starting to clog drainage channels behind my cornea. Because of this, a build-up of fluid is pressing on the optic nerve at the back of my eye. It’s this pressure that is causing damage. This is glaucoma.”
- When we get to the end of your article, do not make us feel like we just wasted our time. Tell us a great story, tell us something useful we can apply to our own lives or help us to understand an important issue and what can be done about it.
- Use plenty of details: Tell us what we see and hear and feel (and maybe even smell and taste), make us feel like we are there!
- Use plenty of dialogue: We want to hear what the people in the story are saying!
- Gather anecdotes about your subject, more than you need, and put the best ones in your article. The Reader’s Digest absolutely loves anecdotes.
- Write only what is true. Check your facts! The Reader’s Digest does. Do not make up stuff or talk in general.
- Write 3500 words (seven pages) and make it as good as you can. Then cut out a thousand words (two pages)! That is what the editors at the magazine do. That allows the fat and the things that do not quite work to be cut out, making the article tighter and stronger. Every word must be there for a reason.
- Write to be read in ten years.