You want to pass on your knowledge, become known with your topic, maybe even achieve opinion leadership? Then it comes down to one tool in particular: regularly publishing high-quality technical articles. Find out here how to write a professional technical paper in four steps.
Is there a formula for success for technical papers? The answer is yes! Not just one.
For a simple article, for example, all you need to do is put a few arguments under a gripping headline, along the lines of "Winning customers – the five biggest mistakes in the initial interview". A well-known, tried and tested scheme.
However, if you want to write professional articles that stand out from the daily flood of articles in blogs or on PR platforms and also find favor with the editors of renowned trade journals, the bar is much higher. Then your article needs a different, more in-depth structure.
You will get to know a proven solution in the following.
A formula for success from magazine journalism
A magazine such as Spiegel or WirtschaftsWoche faces the challenge of attracting as many readers as possible to the topic with each article. This has to be done under high time pressure, as there are often only a few hours available for writing a story.
This makes it clear that an editor cannot think long and hard about how to structure an article. As a rule, it follows a proven pattern – the typical structure of a magazine story. As an editor of WirtschaftsWoche, I used to work with it on a daily basis.
When I started my own business as a ghostwriter for consultants, I transferred the scheme to professional articles, adapted it to the requirements of professional editors – and have had good experience with it for many years: It is easy to apply. And my customers, for whom I write articles, are very satisfied with the result.
I have reduced the scheme to a success formula for professional articles, which consists of four components – whereby the fourth is often overlooked, but is crucial for success. Like a four-leaf clover: Only the fourth leaf brings luck and success.
Curtain up for the cloverleaf principle, part 1.
Writing professional articles – Step 1: Formulate the message of your article
The cloverleaf principle: A successful professional article consists of four structural elements. The first and most important is the message or core statement.
A well-known recommendation to journalists is: "Be clear about what you want to say. Formulate your statement compactly in two to three sentences. Post this statement prominently in your workspace and use it to guide your writing."
Various terms exist for what gives this orientation: Message, quintessence, core statement, thesis. Whatever you call it, this is the heart of an article that has a clear function: It narrows down the topic, makes it manageable for the author and comprehensible for the reader.
The idea can be transferred: as a technical writer, you too are faced with the task of presenting a difficult topic in an understandable way. You also need a kind of fixed point for your article, to which you and later also the reader can orient themselves.
This brings us to the first structural element of a professional article – the message.
A technical article has exactly one message
A professional article needs a message – and exactly one message. No two, three or four messages. The following rule applies: one message, one article.
Every journalistically written magazine article follows this rule, but the micro article commonly used in knowledge management also strictly adheres to it. For good reason: Only a clear message makes a topic catchy and interesting. It arouses curiosity – and in the end also sticks in the reader’s mind. Ideally, the core message of the article provokes a kitchen call.
At the same time, the message serves as a common thread. The text is aligned with it – it determines what belongs in the text and what is left out.
Remains to be noted: If you want to write an article, the first thing to think about is the core message you want to convey. The following guiding questions can help:
- What do I want to achieve with the article?? What should the reader know after reading, perhaps also do?
- Is this message important for the reader?
- Do I offer the reader a high benefit if I elaborate on the message?
If you have several theses, statements or messages, decide on one of them. You can make a note of the others and use them for later articles if necessary.
So, in one to three sentences, formulate the message of your article. You have thus worked out the first component of the success formula. Three are missing ..
Writing professional articles – guide step 1
- Be clear about what you want to say with your article.
- Check to see if this message is relevant to readers.
- Formulate the core idea in one, at most three sentences.
- Post this statement prominently in your workspace.
- Use this as a guideline for further work on your article.
How to find and formulate the message of your article: Please also read my e-paper!
Writing professional articles – Step 2: Make sure you have a fallback position!
A technical article – we have found – needs a message or core statement. And only one. The message conveys to the reader what it is all about. Compact, in one to a maximum of three sentences.
The key message, however, should not stand on its own. It is much more important to put them in context – because the reader wants to understand: "Why is this topic so important that I should deal with it?? Why should I take the time to read the article?"
This brings us to the second cloverleaf: the fall height.
The cloverleaf principle: A successful professional article consists of four structural elements. The second is the height of the fall.
Magazine journalists speak of drop height when it comes to highlighting the importance of a topic. This is done using data and facts that serve to support the core statement. The goal is to build up as much fall height as possible – in other words: It should be clear that the stakes are high for the reader on this topic. The greater the drop, the more dramatic the situation presents itself to him – and the more exciting the article becomes.
The principle of the fall height can be transferred to professional articles. Here, too, it is worthwhile to first make the scope of the topic clear to the reader. He will be much more likely to win if he understands: "This matter is obviously highly relevant to me. It might be worth reading the article."
How you create case height
You have formulated the message or core statement of your article. Now comes the second step, the staging of the case height. To do this, describe in one to three paragraphs the Scenario, In which the message or key message is embedded.
Put the core message into a larger context and at the same time work out its meaning for the reader. It is therefore important to keep two aspects in mind:
- Orientation. By putting the core message in context, you give the reader orientation. The reader can classify the topic and decide to what extent it concerns him or her.
- Relevance. By emphasizing and proving the importance of the core statement, you signal to the reader: "The topic concerns you, it is really important!"
Example of the case height of a professional article
Let’s take the example of an article by a consultant who specializes in the topic of corporate succession. From the abundance of possible topics, she has picked out one aspect and formulated the following core statement:
When the junior succeeds the senior in the company, worlds collide: conflicts due to different values are inevitable. As a junior, you need a strategy for how to handle the situation and avoid escalation.
In the second step, she placed this core statement in a larger context and built up the case height:
The junior has grown up in a different world from the senior entrepreneur. He uses social media as a matter of course, cultivates a different management style, relies on cooperation, and perhaps would like to set up an internal "Facebook" where employees can exchange information across hierarchies. The senior dreads it: this is not his world, it is foreign to him. Different values clash; the resulting conflicts quickly jeopardize the entire handover process.
The section could be expanded a bit, for example, by quoting a study that supports the core thesis. But already in this way it becomes clear to the reader: This topic is not about a trivial matter. The success of the handover is much more at stake – failure here can mean failure.
Let’s keep in mind: to create case height, place the message of your article in a larger context and use meaningful facts to prove why the topic is so important to the reader. You describe the scenario in which the message is embedded.
Admittedly: Just like figuring out the message, this second step also takes some time and effort.
But the scenario is worth describing in three ways:
- Work on the scenario to see if an article theme really carries. If the case height cannot be built up, the topic lacks the necessary relevance for the reader. Then it’s better not to write the article in the first place.
- If you offer the topic to a trade magazine or online editorial office, you need the scenario. An editor reviewing a topic proposal is primarily concerned with two criteria – relevance and newsworthiness: why is the topic important enough to merit an article? What is the special meaning for the reader?? Why is the topic so important right now? By working out the pitfall for your topic, you are at the same time answering the editor’s most important questions.
- You can use the scenario later in the article almost unchanged. An important passage of your text is thus already written.
Message and case – you have worked out the first two structural elements of a technical article. Still missing two..
Writing professional articles – guide step 2
Stage as large a case as possible for your planned article. In other words, place your message or core statement in a larger context and justify its relevance.
- Start from your message and think: What is the special significance of the topic?? Why it is so important that the reader should spend time for this?
- Collect data and facts that justify the importance of the topic.
- Formulate one to three paragraphs from these. Justify why the topic is important to the reader and why it is absolutely worth their time to read the article. Design a scenario that is as drastic as possible!
Writing professional articles – Step 3: Execute the content
After message and pitfall, let’s turn to the third building block of a technical article: the subject outline. Only now is it a matter of the actual contents! Now, in the third step, you will finally write the technical article. Time, then, for the third cloverleaf: the executions.
The cloverleaf principle: A successful technical article consists of four structural elements. The third is the content.
Sail hard on the outline
The executions – what does that mean? If it is about now to write the actual text? Correct. But be careful, do not start right away! The danger of getting tangled in the undergrowth of your own thoughts on a complex topic has not yet been banished. True enough: You have a message that dictates where the journey is headed. Like a lighthouse, it points you in the direction you need to go. However, this by no means determines whether you will reach your goal safely. This requires additional signposts to guide you safely through confusing terrain. These signposts should be placed at short intervals, so that it is almost impossible to stray from the right path. Meaning: As you write, you need a detailed outline to guide you from point to point. It forms the red thread that you can hold on to while writing. By moving from one bullet point to the next, you stay consistent with the topic – and avoid going astray or getting lost in sidebars as you write. In addition, there is a side effect that makes writing much easier for you: Thanks to the outline, you have already "thought ahead" the text quite precisely. This will allow you to get into a writing flow quite well and quickly create a first rough draft of the technical article.
Create a meaningful outline before you start writing your article. And then sail hard on the outline as you write.
How to find the red thread
Each of us has our approach when structuring and outlining a complex topic. For larger texts, I usually create a mind map, for shorter articles, a few keywords on a sheet of paper are sufficient. One approach I personally like to use with complex topics can be described with the following steps:
- Collect in keywords which aspects are important for the topic. Here I strictly follow the message or core statement of the article.
- I assign the collected aspects to headings and put them in a logical order.
- I reformulate each generic term into a guiding question from the reader’s point of view: What is the reader wondering at this point, what would he like an answer to??
- I note the answer under each leading question – as a simple statement, supplemented by some keywords or sub-points. Usually the statements can then be used immediately as subheadings.
This creates a content-enriched outline that can be adopted as a framework for the technical article. It forms the red thread that leads through the topic while writing.
Criteria for creating the outline
No matter what method or tool you use for outlining, two criteria are crucial:
- The outline is strictly based on the message or key message. The aim of the article can be, for example, to deepen the core statement, to justify it or to discuss it.
- Outline from the reader’s perspective. The guiding question for each bullet point is: What does the reader want an answer to??
This way, writing is easier and faster
If the outline of the technical article is in place – what else can help facilitate the writing process and achieve a good result with as little effort as possible??
In my experience, three rules matter:
Rule 1: Write your first draft quickly and consistently.
In most cases, it is a good idea to first roughly write down the content and then to work on this first draft in several passes. Write the whole body of your article quickly, without getting bogged down with individual phrases. Don’t let yourself get out of the writing flow!
Rule 2: Write in the language of the reader.
Imagine a reader to whom you are presenting your topic. For example, a customer you know well. He sits across from you, is interested in the topic and asks you questions. How would the conversation proceed? Write as if you were talking to him or her. In this way, you automatically write in the language of your customer. If the text ends up being a bit too colloquial, this can be easily remedied with some rewording.
Rule 3: Stick to the outline when writing consistently.
I know I am repeating myself. But the point is crucial: take the reader by the hand and lead him step by step through the topic based on the outline. Lead him directly to the target without digressions, stay hard on the topic. You can later put a secondary aspect that seems particularly important in a separate box.
Message, case and content – you have now become familiar with the three structural elements of a technical article. One thing missing..
Writing professional articles – Guide step 3
- Create a meaningful outline based on the message of the article. Take the perspective of the reader.
- Write through in one go if possible. Your outline serves as your guide. Stick to it, don’t digress .
- Resist the temptation to immediately ask for missing information. You can research and supplement later. Try to stay in the flow of writing – until you have a first draft.
- Leave the rough draft overnight. With fresh forces and from a certain distance in time, it is easy to check and revise the text.
Writing professional articles – Step 4: Set the magnet in focus
Message, case height, explanations of the topic – at first glance, this sounds rounded. Assuming you’ve done these three steps, that is, formulated a clear message for your article, built the case in one or two paragraphs, and elaborated on the topic: What’s actually missing then?
It is true: you already have a good text that gets to the point. It is tempting to leave it at that.
In fact, your article still faces a major problem: your target audience must be able to spot it in the endless stream of information. The article must immediately catch the reader’s eye. Only then is there a chance that its importance will be recognized and it will be read.
The article faces a "three-second challenge" that must be mastered.
The three-second challenge
"Our consciousness is characterized by a temporal stage of about three seconds," explains brain researcher Ernst Poppel. "We can only keep track of time accurately up to about three seconds."
The brain is constantly checking what’s new in the world, the scientist explains in an interview with WirtschaftsWoche: "That’s why decisions are made unconsciously every two to three seconds: Do I stay tuned or do I turn to something else?? It’s like TV zapping: after three seconds, I have enough information and can decide whether to switch over."
This is also true for the reader who flips through a magazine or skims the articles on an Internet platform. He jumps from one topic to the next. His window of perception remains open for only three seconds at a time.
So the exciting question is: How does an article manage to attract the necessary attention in this extremely short period of time so that a prospective customer does not "zap on"??
This brings us to the fourth element of our success formula: A technical article needs a magnet that attracts readers and draws them into the text.
How to give your article appeal
Who pays attention to clover with three leaves?? Only the four-leaf clover is exciting. It stands out from the crowd, catches the eye, brings luck and leads to success. So it is with a technical article: If the fourth structural element is missing, it remains largely ineffective. It lacks the necessary power of attraction.
The cloverleaf principle: A successful professional article consists of four structural elements. The fourth is the magnet.
What do I mean by magnet? What exactly attracts the reader?
It’s all about the seemingly minor details here: Headline, lead, the first sentence, subheadings, captions.
Most authors are reluctant to deal with this. The text is written, you think you’re done; you don’t want to worry about the annoying appendages anymore. So you leave it at the original working title, don’t give any further thought to the lead and introduction, and dispense with meaningful subheadings.
In fact, these "incidentals" are crucial. In sum, they form the magnet that pulls into the text:
- A potential reader sees the headline, skims the lead – and decides within three seconds whether the topic interests him or her.
- If this first judgment is positive, he is ready to review the article. Now he wants to know if the reading is worthwhile. To do this, he looks at subheadings, illustrations and captions – and starts reading.
- The first sentences decide whether the potential reader continues reading. The introduction therefore has the task of picking up the reader and leading him into the topic.
The recommendation is:
Devote a separate work step to the supposed trivialities – set the magnet in focus.
A proven rule for exciting introductions
It would go beyond the scope of this article to go into more detail at this point about writing the headline, lead and introduction. How to write good headlines, you will learn in a separate article. A good introduction is also a broad topic: it can, for example, provoke, arouse curiosity by asking a question, or use a metaphor to create an image in the reader’s mind. That sounds ambitious – and it’s true: The first lines of an article are proof of the author’s skills.
For everyday use, however, a simple rule has proven to be effective, which actually always achieves a usable introduction:
Start the article with an aspect that really moves the reader. Where does he or she feel a real sense of suffering? Pick up the reader at this "pain point" – and signal that the article describes a solution for it.
Writing professional articles – guide step 4
- Check the headline of your article. Now it’s time to rephrase the previous working title into a catchy headline.
- Write a short introduction that describes the topic but also makes them curious about the article.
- Consider an introduction that picks up the reader at a real pain point and leads directly to the message.
- Make sure you have meaningful subheadings and captions.
Summary: Writing professional articles according to the cloverleaf principle
Let’s summarize and look back at the four steps of the cloverleaf principle. A professional article is composed of four structural elements:
- In the first step, you make clear what you want to say; you work out the message of your article.
- In the second step, you describe the importance of the topic from the reader’s perspective; you stage as much of a fallback as possible. You can also use the arguments gathered here to "sell" the topic to an editorial team.
- In the third step follow the explanations. Based on an outline, you write the main part of the text.
- In the fourth step, you install a magnet that captures the fleeting reader and draws him or her into the text.
I have neatly separated the four steps for didactic reasons. In fact, in practice, steps two to four are sometimes also worked out in parallel. Only the first step is clear: The message must be worked out, because everything else is based on it. If a clear message exists, you can structure the main body of the article and create a first rough draft (step 3), while you may want to do some research first for the case level (step 2).
Ideas for possible headings, introductions or graphics often arise while structuring the text. Note immediately! In this way, you are already developing the magnet (step 4), even before the explanations (step 3) are completed.
Assemble the building blocks into the overall work
How do the four structural elements come together to form the article?? The sequence is obvious: Magnet, message, case, explanations.
First of all, we need to capture the reader as long as the three-second window opens. This is the task of the magnet – i.e. above all the task of the headline and the introduction. Once we have their attention, let them know what the article is about (message) and why it is worth reading (case level). Only now follows the main part with the actual explanations.
At a glance: The formula for success for your professional article
The formula for success consists of the four components magnet, message, drop and executions. These are four structural elements of an article, arranged as follows:
Part I: Introduce the topic
- Magnet (headline, lead, introduction)
- Message (one to three sentences)
- Falling height (one to three sections)
Part II: Execute the content
- Introductions (main part of the article)
The Introduction to the topic (Part I) consists of magnet, message, and case height. Go to Magnet Include a headline, lead-in and introduction that pick up the reader and draw him or her into the topic. With the description of the Fall height the article gets its meaning: the reader is shown why the topic is so important for him or her.
Only now follow the actual Executions (Part II). They fulfill the expectations that were raised with the introduction to the topic. Here it depends on a clear argumentation aligned with the message.
My aim was to present the topic in a comprehensive and comprehensible way – and to provide you with everything you need if you want to write a successful technical article. Nevertheless, there are of course still questions that you are welcome to ask me. Just use the comment function. I look forward to your feedback and will be happy to answer you!
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