The 10 Commandments of Article Writing for Credit Unions

Hilary Reeves, Consultant, CU Breakthroughby: Hilary Reeves, Consultant, CU Breakthrough

The ability to churn out professional copy is crucial to maintaining your credit union’s presence, but the writing process can be daunting for beginners. Follow these commandments and the curse of the blinking cursor will soon be a thing of the past:

  1. Know Thy Logistics – When is your copy due? To whom are you sending it? Is there a word minimum or maximum? Are there requirements pertaining to subject matter, tense or voice? Make sure you understand the scope of work before you begin – and don’t forget to schedule deadline reminders. Nothing kills a repeat writing opportunity like filing late, or leaving an editor with an empty hole where your article should have been.
  2. Know Thyself – I’ve written thousands of articles. No matter how many times I tell myself to start working on a story the moment it’s assigned, I know that I will instead spend the 24 hours before my deadline in a haze of caffeine, birthing my brilliant opus from start to finish. That’s just my system, and it works for me. Are you a born procrastinator, or do you require days to complete your process? Do you concentrate better during a certain time of day? Do you prefer a quiet office, or would you rather write on your laptop while watching a movie with your spouse? It’s important to be honest with yourself about your preferences and abilities, and put together a plan for getting your job done. Trying to write when you’re not at your best is like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. It’s a waste of your time.
  3. Develop Thy Topic – Notice I used the word “develop,” not “choose.” Sometimes the topic is chosen for you. Sometimes you think you know what you want to write about, or you might not have a clue. Some of the best feature articles I’ve ever written started from one idea and settled somewhere completely different. It’s important to research your topic and see where it leads you. Avoid a writing a sales pitch for your credit union and instead look to subjects of wide interest or debate for inspiration. Keep an open mind; writing is an ever-changing process, and you might not know exactly what you want to say until you’ve said it.
  4. Map a Reader-Friendly Course – If the point of writing for publication is to attract readers to your article, you need to package your article in a reader-friendly way. There’s a reason most of us don’t reach for a giant Dickens tome at the end of a long day. Ask yourself what attracts you to articles? Is it an eye-catching headline? Sub-headlines? Lists? Photos? Whatever you come up with, I’m guessing you’re not necessarily drawn to large blocks of text. Developing a formatting outline will not only increase your article’s draw once it’s written, but it will actually speed the writing process. Don’t feel obligated to write from start to finish. It’s okay to start in the middle and jump around. If you have a particular topic or sentence you want to be sure to include, start there. Go where the words flow.
  5. Know Thy Fundamentals – The fundamentals of writing were, are, and will forever be important. If you are unaware of the difference between lose and loose, who and whom, or affect and effect, it may be time for a refresher. If you don’t know the difference between the tenses, or what it means to write in a passive voice, you won’t be able to communicate through your writing. Today’s beleaguered editors have neither the time nor the resources to overhaul your copy. A simple style book or a printed “cheat sheet” to help you avoid common mistakes are simple solutions.
  6. Don’t “Bury the Lead” – Traditional newspaper journalists know that the most important information goes at the top. The reverse is called “burying the lead.” While you might not be able to get all the points of your article into the first sentence, you can make sure your opening sentence and paragraph are setting a clear and direct course for the article, drawing readers in and telling them what to expect. On that note, make sure you’re staying on topic throughout your piece. This can be difficult if you’re still developing your topic, but it’s definitely something that needs to be addressed during the revision process.
  7. Less is More – I recently came across a box full of essays and creative writing assignments from my junior high school years. It’s amazing how many words it took for me to say so little. While it’s tempting to “liven up” your writing by adding words – usually adjectives and, god forbid, adverbs – the outcome often reads like a cross between a wet blanket and a teenage girl’s diary, complete with exclamation marks! Keep your sentence structure simple and your descriptors to a minimum. It helps to read your article out loud and assess whether it sounds conversational. Another old journalism exercise: cut your finished article by 30 percent. It will be a much stronger piece.
  8. Choose Thy Title With Care – For many of you, the title of your work is an afterthought. For some, titling your work is the first thing you do. I recommend titling after you’ve finished your piece, read it through and gotten a good sense of what it’s really about. The title is important in that it’s often the deciding factor in whether someone clicks through to read what you’ve written. Put some thought into what might draw readers while still pointing to your topic. Try your hand at being clever.
  9. Polish Thy Work – Just as Little League doesn’t qualify you for the Majors, a semester working on your high school newspaper and/or a passing grade in your college literature class doesn’t qualify you to edit your own work. Even professional writers know that they can’t see the forest for the trees. Your piece may or may not go through a rigorous editing process at its final destination, but it’s always a good idea to have someone look at your article before you file. For higher-profile pieces and writers who are working to develop their own voice, establishing a relationship with an affordable freelance editor is a good idea. At the very least, sleep on your draft. Take another look the next morning. You’ll be amazed what you see with fresh eyes.
  10. Prepare Thyself – This is perhaps the most difficult commandment of all. Prepare to see your article published. Prepare to see your article look different from when you filed it. Prepare for negative comments or, worse, indifference. Learning to let go of your work and accept criticism becomes easier with time.  As long as you created a factually sound piece demonstrating your point of view to the best of your ability, you should have nothing but pride in your work – no matter how it is received.

Any professional skill worth having takes time to perfect and practice to maintain, and writing is no exception. The sooner you put these commandments into action, the less time you will spend staring at a blinking cursor, waiting for your articles, press releases and marketing materials to magically appear. You might even come to enjoy the creative process.

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a journalist before leaving the newsroom to become a freelance writer and editor. She currently works as a consultant for CU Breakthrough, a service of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions. Reeves lives in Seattle with her husband and two young daughters. Contact her at  CU Breakthrough

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a journalist before leaving the newsroom to become a freelance writer and editor. She currently works as a consultant for CU Breakthrough, a service ... Web: Details