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Top 10 Ways To Write Rock Star Technical Articles

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Jim Horn
Microsoft SQL Server database developer, architect, and author specializing in Business Intelligence, ETL, and Data Warehousing.
How to write articles for greater odds of being published and maximum points.
Would you like to write a technical article and have it published?  Great! Welcome to our world! This is my tutorial on how to increase the odds of getting your article published and with honors, and is full of witty one-liners from writing around twenty and editing around a hundred articles. 

This Top 10 Ways To Write Rock Star Articles is not the official opinion of Experts Exchange.  It is solely my opinion and that of others like me that write and edit articles, learned from our experiences, and have scars to prove it (and in my case a big photo album called Chicks Dig Scars).

Previous articles in the series
Top 10 Ways to Ask Better Questions - How experts can tailor their questions to get better answers.
Custom Image from a Screenshot - How to create custom images without installing extra software.


In Scope

Motivation:  Why should I write an article?
How to Get Your Article Published
Top 10 Ways to Write Rock Star Articles
Bonus Material


Motivation: Why should I write an article?

"You mean you guys expect ME to spend a TON of hours kicking out an article that's NOT guaranteed points?"

Better interviews  
Have you ever been in an interview when the hiring manager asks 'Have you ever done X?', and your answer was 'Yes I did, and I really wish I could show you x but it was with a previous client and is confidential?'  Me too.  So write an article, sanitized without any confidential info, and get it published.  Then the answer is 'Why yes, and I even have an article out there that shows how to do it, would you like to see it?' , which gets you major brownie points.  

Even better is when they ask 'Do you have good communication skills?'.  Everyone says yes, and many of them are lying.  Now your answer is 'Why yes I communicate well, and you can evaluate that for yourselves by checking out my articles!'

I've also used my articles as a gateway to speaking engagements.  I'm not abundantly sure if it's gotten me anything solid other than name recognition.

Practice your writing skills away from your current employer
Every professional I know, regardless of what they do for a living, will have to communicate their thoughts and make an argument on a course of action.  Writing articles is a way to practice doing that without any immediate or adverse impacts with your current employer.   Just like stupid questions, it's one thing to try that at work and make people who can impact your career path wonder, but this is a fertile testing ground to try it with people worldwide who can't impact your career, and then when all goes well take the successes and apply them to your career. 

Think of this similar to practicing public speaking through Toastmasters.  

Points  
If you write an article on Experts Exchange, you get points out of the deal.

  • 3,000 points once it's published, which we call Accepted, and is eligible for higher statues of Approved (6,000) and Awarded (9,000).
  • Every time an accepted answer references an article, the article author gets an extra 500 points.   This can come in handy if you write an article on a topic that you've answered in questions multiple times before, such as my articles on SQL Server CASE Solutions and SQL Server GROUP BY Solutions.  Answering questions for 2,000 points is great, an extra 500 more for a 'For more info see my article on...' is better.
  • Everyone that 'likes' your article gets you 100 points, and every page view gets a point.


How to Get Your Article Published

Here it is:  The goods,  the secret sauce, the bar you have to jump over.  This is what the guy behind the curtain in the movie The Wizard of Oz is thinking.  I can't speak to other technical websites on their acceptance criteria, but as of September 2015 this is what's needed to do to get your article published here: 

Do this
Minimum 300 words, not counting code.  61 words and a big code block doesn't cut it.  301 words will cut it but it doesn't look too hot, and will be accepted only if everything else rocks.   Anything less than 300 is really a blog post or a tweet.  The articles I've seen with the highest status of Awarded have at least a thousand words.

Technical in nature. You may find the Bangalore (Bangalorian?) real estate market fascinating, but I don't and since it's not technical it doesn't cut it here.  We'll accept anything that's close such as Back Pain Relief, office ergonomics but if it's not close then as Seinfeld would say No soup for you.

Decent intro, body, and conclusion.  It has to have some organization, which means a single premise, paragraphs / bullet points / case studies to back that up, and a conclusion.  If you don't have a good idea what kind of organization works for you, use the Intro that funnels down – three body – conclusion in the video Three Paragraph Essay

Passes spell-checker.  Submitting an article to EE that contains multiple typos is the equivalent of walking down the street with your zipper down.  You might be a TechGopherXMWave rockstar but if you can't spell article and internet then I'm going to question all the other content.  This might not be fair, but that's human nature.

shcool-edited.jpg
Readable.  EE is an worldwide English-language site based in America, and unfortunately your dialect may not be understood by someone with my dialect, so your expressions and cliches may not be understood by everyone.   The article Business Writing Guidelines is a pretty good tutorial.  It also never hurts to ask someone to review your article for readability. 

Don't do this
Plagiarism / previously published  We have ways to check.  Your submission must at minimum 85% unique as EE will index it for Search Engine Optimization so it gets maximum exposure.  Previously published in a language other than English is fine. Previously published in English is not fine, and EE does not currently have an arrangement to syndicate previously published content for its own use.  Shamelessly ripped off from other authors will be deleted with childlike glee.

bart-simpson-plagiarize.png
Advertising   If you've created a sales pitch and posted it a dozen different places Experts Exchange does not wish to be the thirteenth place, especially if you work there.  Believe it or not we've had Marketing Minions from various companies submit articles which were big wet kisses of their company's product.  At the moment EE does not have a 'we'll let you write articles advertising our products if you make it worth our while.'  Maybe someday, but not today, and tomorrow doesn't look so hot either.  And fair warning, we've suspended member's ability to write articles for this reason.

Cheerleading  A little sister of 'not blatant advertising' is 'I think you copied this off of company advertising', where the entire article praises the virtue of a specific product, and has no mention of competing products or provides some perspective from the fact that you've worked with the product, and can state both the good and bad.

And don't be surprised when this happens
Editing  There are currently a handful of active volunteer members that edit articles.  We may not know your technology very well, or even speak your language like a native, but we know all of the above, so when we make suggestions for edits don't shoot the messenger. 

We may make certain allowances if one area is lacking (not typos, try me) if other areas are rock-solid, especially word count.  But if you're going for the minimums, be prepared to be required to make a couple of revisions based on Article Editor feedback. 

If you nail the above then we'll publish it.  Yay!  Post it on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, tell all your friends, show your teacher or professor, tell your mom, and shamelessly include a link to it in question comments.   But if Accepted is just the beginning and you want to get maximum publicity and points out of the deal, here's my Top 10 list that doesn't include the above of how you should write your article in the FIRST place to pull that off.  So here we go, from an undisclosed location, the ..
 

Top 10 Ways to Write Rock Star Articles


jesus-of-copymat.png
Jesus of CopyMat to Jerry Maguire: "That's how you become great man.  Hang your ___ out there!!"

Number Ten ... Tell me a story 
Fairy tales begin with 'Once upon a time...'.  War stories begin with 'No sh*t, there I was...'  Ask any entertainer or media figure about secrets to success and they'll tell you one of the worst things you can do is bore the audience.  So fine, you're a technical rock star, but you gotta write something that is entertaining and flows well so I will stick around in a semi-awake status until the end.  The 'Good Article' button is at the end, not the beginning.  
 
Number Nine ... Write about something you've done before
We can usually spot a mile away when the content of the article and the experience level of the author are wide apart.   We want a story from somebody who has clearly 'Been there and done that', not from somebody that doesn't know the content but can piece together 300 words from other websites, change it around, and create a lightweight article that barely makes Accepted.  Sorry. 

This also means that if you're writing articles to give the appearance that your are an expert on a subject that you're really not an expert, this is a dangerous road to go down as once people catch on they will doubt all of the skills listed on your resume.

spongebob-expert.jpg
Number Eight ... Write to a large audience of varying skills
You’ve coded every tree, but some people don’t know what the forest looks like, or even that it exists, and you have to bridge that gap.  Some experts can read your article and pick it up right away, others are a good distance away and will need to learn terms and concepts to start.  The biggest thing you can do is make sure your introduction paragraph(s) start out very wide, and funnel down to the main premise. 

For example, my world is Microsoft SQL Server.  I can spell Java, SEO, and PHP, but that's it.  So if you want that 'Good Article' click out of me, you have to get me from my skill sets to a position where I can understand why I would care about your article, or at least appreciate what is being discussed. 

Number Seven ... Define your terms
If you name it, you gotta define it, or at least provide a link so that experts that aren't familiar with it can click and learn. Otherwise, if I use the term AED in an article, or XYZ, NaNaBooBoo, HyperMoo, Java Pumpkin Spice Beaners, Microsoft Visual Water Buffalo All-World 2017 Enterprise, Configuramator this, Disgronifier that, a reader might be thinking to themselves 'What the heck is THAT???', and you've lost them.  There goes your Good Article button click and 100 points.

Number Six ... A picture is worth a thousand words, and ten are worth ten thousand.   
We're all IT people and know how hard it is to communicate computer topics in plain text and phone calls as opposed to images and a live demo.  If you're not a graphic artist, and like me your graphic artist friends make fun of you when you try, check out my article Custom Image from a Screenshot for a quick tutorial on how to use MSPaint to make decent screenshots for use in your articles.  

For example...

title-image.jpg


You could explain this in words, but including it in a picture with arrows and highlights makes sure it is understood. 


exec-cal_boundaries.jpgExplain the code and show the results?  You can do both in an image. 
 

This also means that if your article is a 'How to', then it greatly helps to show images for every step of the way, as in Microsoft Excel & SQL Server:  Self service BI to give users the data they want show the finished state in the image. 

EE also came out with the Header Image feature a couple of months ago.  

  • If you have a very good image in the body that describes the article, use it in the header. 
  • If not, or if your subject doesn't lend itself to an image, then go to Images.google.com, search for whatever makes sense, then hit the gear 'Advanced Search' button, set Image Size to 'Larger than 1024 x 768' and aspect ratio to Wide, and search away.  You could really have fun with this. 
  • Try to pick an image with a decent amount of background in the very bottom, as that will be covered by the article title and your name.  You can also size it a little after uploading. 

After writing a lot of articles I've come to appreciate how hard it is to illustrate them. 

Number Five... The title:  Catchy, Correct, and Short  
  • Catchy - Just looking at the title am I want to read it?  Does it 'sizzle'? 
  • Correct - Does the title 'sizzle' back up the article 'steak'?  If not, readers are going to be hooked into your article, read the first three paragraphs and wonder why 'this isn't what I expected by the title', and leave.
  • Short - Is it eight words or less so it fits on one line when looking at a list of articles?

Number Four ... Clean and consistent formatting 
  • Sections:  If your article is divided into sections, have some kind of section header.   Heading 2 works well.
  • Paragraphs:  Have a header of some kind.  This example uses horizontal lines as well. 
  • Sentences:  Try to write in complete sentences as much as possible, as a lot of fragments can be hard to read. 
  • Return keys (line breaks) - If you use one or two between paragraphs, be consistent throughout the article.  Also helps to have a line break between images and text. 
  • Bold, Italic, and Underline - There's no one real best choice, but make one and stick with it, and try not to overuse formatting as a substitute for good content. 
  • Links - Better to hyperlink key words then to copy-paste the link.  For example, Let Me Google That For You. 
  • All code should be in code blocks.  Good to post code where it works in the article, better to do that and include it all in the bottom in a single code block, or as a file attachment if that works better, to make it easy on developers to move that code to their development box and try it themselves. 
  • Please do not use Microsoft Word to write your article, then copy-paste it into the EE article editor, as the formats are not compatible with each other. 

Number Three ... Heavy on facts and light on value judgments
Try not to take this personally, but I really don't need a wompload of value opinions on how great something is unless it is demonstrated with facts.  Most experts here are not going to endorse a product or function just because there's an article that says so, from an expert we've never met.  There's probably a good hundred experts here I trust, and even then I'll attempt to verify all statements in their articles while I'm using it.   I've also met only two EE experts in person over eleven years here:  Belgian SQL Server experts ValentinoV at PASS Summit 2012 in Seattle, and Visual Basic.NET expert dustock while shopping at my neighborhood grocery store. 

So.. value judgment in the title and beginning to frame up the conversation, then prove it in the body, then you can restate it in the conclusion.  

Number Two .. Have enough content for a single article
Star Wars is a nine part series, starting with number four in the script.  You may have nine articles worth of content swimming around in your head, and instead of writing it all in one article it's better to break it up into digestible chunks with navigation from one article to another.  For example, I have a series on calendar tables, and could have written ten thousand words on it, but to make it bite-size and usable it's broken up:
 

The flip side is you might not have enough content for an article.  Article editors will help you with that. 

And the Number One Way to Write Rock Star Articles is ..  Be Flexible
gumby.jpgIn a previous life I was a U.S. Army officer. One summer I was in training and doing tactical missions.  One didn't go very well, as our original plan was too rigidly implemented in the face of various threats.  The training officer was a Captain, Army Ranger - Pathfinder type that could eat steel and spit nails, so we figured we were about to be reamed.  Instead, he asked the cadet leader of our group what went wrong, and as he's explaining it the Captain reaches into his backpack and grabs a foot-long rubber Gumby toy, grabs alternate arms and legs, and starts twisting it all around.

Then the following surreal exchange happened, in the middle of the woods, with all of us tired and in camouflage face paint:

(Captain)  Cadet, what's this? 
(Cadet, thinking the Captain just lost his mind)  Uhh, Gumby Sir. 
(Captain, twisting Gumby all around)  And what's Gumby doing now? 
(Cadet)  Being flexible? 
(Captain)  That's right.  Gumby is being flexible.  And you should be flexible too. 
So if this hardened soldier can be flexible, we can too.   Experts might not like the premise of your article and ask for changes, so change it.  Article editors will likely ask for various corrections, extra information, removing parts that are against the rules.  Make those changes.  Sometimes it will be multiple changes.  In the end what doesn't kill your article makes it stronger.
 

Bonus Materiel


Promote your article
Are you posting this article on social media such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter?  Chance are many of the people that are in a position to hire you are on LinkedIn, and I know technical people that swear by Twitter as the messaging system of choice. 

Writing Style
This article was written in a slapstick comedy style, and you can get away with that with a mostly non-technical article.  I'm not endorsing this style as THE way to write a rock star article, as it might not work with a more rigid subject like troubleshooting Outlook issues, and it might not work if you can't sell the humor.    Some styles that I've seen work are below, and this is not a definitive list.
 

tough-mudder-finish.jpg


 

Thank you for reading my article, feel free to leave me some feedback regarding the content or to recommend future work.  ​If you liked this article please click the 'Good Article' button. 
 
I look forward to hearing from you. -  Jim Horn  ( LinkedIn ) ( Twitter )
 
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Author:Jim Horn
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by:Stuart Scott
Great article Jim! Thanks for the tips!

Cheers,

Stu...
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by:BillDL
Excellent article Jim.
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by:Normand Brien
Thank you for the advice and article
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by:Jim Horn
Thanks for the kind words guys.  I've noticed my better articles practically write themselves.
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by:Yashwant Vishwakarma
Great one, will apply these tips to make my article rockstar !!!
Voted Yes :)
Thanks Jim :)
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by:jorge diaz
Thanks Jim,

Very helpful article.
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