Every article follows the same basic structure. It’s like a recipe. The more familiar you are with your ingredients and the more knowledgeable you are about how to combine them, the stronger a writer you will be — and the more you can play with the recipe.
If you’re new to writing articles for publication, it might help to stick to the recipe for a while because it will help you convey your ideas in a way that is clear and compelling. Because readers are also familiar with the recipe, it makes it easier for them to follow along and understand your idea and how to apply your insights to their experience.
Articles are comprised of seven foundational ingredients.
Business writing is practical and efficient. Your readers don’t have time to meander through a story that sets the stage — they want to know what they will learn from your article before they even start reading. So get right to the point and use examples along the way. Here are the seven ingredients to a successful article:
1. The hed. The headline or title conveys the promise you are making to your reader. It should be specific and easy to understand. When possible, it should capture the spirit of the story. It gives readers a taste of what’s to come — and it does all of that in fewer than 15 words.
2. The dek. The deck or subtitle allows you to expand on the headline and give your reader an idea of what's to come. Not all publications include a dek.
3. The lede. According to William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, the lede, or lead, is the first sentence (or paragraph) of your article and is the most important: “If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence [or paragraph], your article is dead.” The lede tells the reader what the article is about and uses a hook to get them to sit up and take notice.
4. The nut graf. The nut graf is the paragraph or paragraphs that follow the lede. It transitions the reader into the body of the article and tells the reader where they are headed and why they should continue reading. It builds on the lede — revealing the point of the article quickly and all at once so that even if a reader goes no further, they know what the story is about.
5. The subhed. The subhead or subheadline appears in the body of an article and divides it into sections. Most articles have at least two subheads that outline your main points in an easy-to-scan format.
6. The body. The body of your article is where you fulfill the promise you made to the reader in your headline.
7. The close. The close is the conclusion of your article. It circles back to the lede and summarizes the key takeaways.
Every article follows some variation of this structure. From journalistic magazines like The Atlantic to business magazines like Inc., Entrepreneur, and Harvard Business Review, you’ll see this same structure used repeatedly. Even industry trade journals, which are much more research-focused, use this basic structure.
To help you get more familiar with this structure, analyze an article published on your favorite business magazine’s website. See if you can identify each of these elements. Then use this structure to outline your next article — you’ll find the structure offers plenty of room for creativity. And once you’ve got the structure down, you can start to experiment. You’ve got to know the rules before you can break them effectively!
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Erica Holthausen is the founder of Catchline Communications and a strategic thought partner to consultants who wish to build their authority and increase their visibility by publishing articles in industry trade journals and business magazines like Inc., Entrepreneur, and Fast Company. To learn how to raise your profile, register for Pitched to Published, a free monthly Q+A focused on writing, pitching, and publishing articles.