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5 types of nonfiction articles your editor wants you to know how to write
Are you writing the right article for your goals?
When you think of “genre,” what comes to mind?
Vampires? Chick lit? Stephen King?
Writers and readers tend to recognize distinct genres of fiction, but clump nonfiction into one — distinguished topic instead of style. Think of sections in a bookstore: Mystery, romance, young adult in fiction… and religion, history and psychology in nonfiction.
“History” isn’t a way of writing; it’s something you write about. To figure out how to write about it, you need to start with why you’re writing — you need a purpose.
When an editor assigns you a piece, they have a purpose in mind. That purpose should dictate the genre of your piece. Following a genre’s conventions helps your writing achieve its purpose — full circle!
Nonfiction articles tend to fall into a few buckets. I assigned genre names below, but there aren’t standard terms for these types of articles. That makes it tough to clarify expectations when you get an assignment.
If you’re not sure what your editor is expecting, try asking about their goals for the piece. Those should steer you toward a genre and help you write an effective article.
5 types of nonfiction articles your editor wants you to know how to write
1. Authoritative guide
Sites publish an authoritative guide or “ultimate guide” when they want to be the go-to source on a topic. These articles cover a topic soup to nuts and leave no question unanswered.
To write an authoritative guide, understand its purpose. It exists to showcase a site or brand’s expertise — authority — in a subject above all competitors. Authority helps:
Serve readers by giving them comprehensive information on a subject.
Make sales/conversions by showing prospective customers you’re the best at what you do.
Improve search ranking by telling Google and readers you’ve got the best answers to searchers’ questions in your niche.
When authority is the goal, avoid quoting outside experts or linking to other sites. Leaning on third-party information shows readers and search engines your site or brand doesn’t have the best answers to their questions.
When you’ll use it: If you do any SEO copywriting or content marketing for businesses, they usually want authoritative guides to boost their site’s authority (even if whoever hires you doesn’t know how to articulate that need).
An essay shares ideas, usually in the first person. It might cite sources to back up claims, but it mainly focuses on the author’s perspective.
An essay’s purpose is to share what the author has to say — to illuminate an experience, express an opinion, make an argument or explain a concept. They might teach the reader something, get them thinking or entertain them.
Blog posts are often essays.
You might connect the term “essay” to the classroom or creative writing. But understanding where the format lands in digital media helps you recognize what you’re writing. You’ll know better when to share your perspective rather than to answer readers’ questions.
When you’ll use it: Your personal blog might be full of essays, and you could get paid to write essay-style posts for other blogs. Magazines (including media sites that act like magazines, like the Bustle properties) often publish essays from freelancers.
Examples: Michael J. Mooney’s article in The Atlantic on why Bob Ross is still popular, Josh Gondelman’s article about marriage in The Cut and Lindsey Danis’s article at The Penny Hoarder on merging money with her wife are all essays, even though they wouldn’t all use that term. (Danis’s article, a blog post, includes clear takeaways for the reader, but it’s centered on her experience, not a comprehensive guide.)
3. Reported story or guide
You can use reporting and research — quoting people, citing data or linking to sources — in any kind of nonfiction article. But it should align with the content’s purpose.
A reported piece’s purpose is mainly to inform — sometimes entertain — the reader. It works against goals of establishing authority for a brand or thought leadership for the author, because reporting leans on third-party expertise. (Use an authoritative guide or essay for those, respectively.)
When you’ll use it: General-interest publications — like newspapers and magazines — use reporting to create feature stories and informative content, because reporters aren’t experts. You’ll use reporting in content marketing to write customer profiles or success stories, and on blogs to write aspirational profiles.
Examples: Tim McKeough atthe New York Times taps into an expert for advice on how to shop for shelving, Terri Williams draws on data reporting and expert sources to explore the future of work for The Economist, and I interviewed entrepreneur Jaclyn Schiff for this profile at DollarSprout.
The word might be cringey at this point, but lists have always been valuable content in any medium — from David Letterman’s “Top 10” series to Buzzfeed’s uber-clickable lists of 12 memes only people born in the 90s will understand.
A list could serve the reader in pretty much any way — entertain, inform, teach, influence. Its purpose, for the site or publication, is usually to generate traffic, because these articles are oh-so-enticing and bingeable.
When you’ll use it: You could pitch a list to any kind of publication, but they’re most popular online. This format is useful when you’re new to freelance writing or blogging, because you can focus on the information you want to share without fretting about the content’s organization.
Example: ProBlogger’s “10 Steps to the Perfect List Post” is a how-to in list form, and The Write Life’s “100 Best Website for Writers” is a bookmarkable list you can browse and choose which items to read in depth.
This word is a fun, internety way to say, simply, “news.” An article at a news site or in a newspaper that simply reports a recent or upcoming event is a newsy article.
The purpose of a true newsy piece is to tell readers what’s happening — not to teach or analyze.
Niche publications and blogs often use a newsy hook to draw readers into a more comprehensive post — like Harvard Business Review does in this guide to managing remote workers with a coronavirus hook. The article’s purpose is akin to an authoritative guide, but the newsy hook attracts readers.
News analysis publications like The Atlantic or Time magazine also use a newsy hook and write about timely topics. But the purpose of their content goes beyond simply reporting what’s happened — their authors opine, explore and illustrate in ways news doesn’t.
When you’ll use it: You can write newsy pieces for any kind of publication, depending on its goals. They can be tough to pitch cold as a freelancer because of their quick turnarounds. But if you have an established relationship with an editor, pitching a news story could demonstrate your initiative and reliability.
Example: This Tampa Bay Times story reports the latest events regarding a tropical storm — but isn’t a guide to how to prepare for a tropical storm or a comprehensive explanation of what a tropical storm is. This Cap Times article reports the results of a primary in Madison, Wisconsin, but doesn’t reveal the author’s opinion of any candidates.
🧡 5 things your editor wants you to know about SEO writing (Notes): Yeah, this one’s from me! If you missed this quick guide a couple months ago, go back. It’s got a few basics every writer should know about SEO and my favorite resources to help you dig deeper into the subject.
💚 The Ultimate Guide to Creating a True ‘Ultimate Guide’ (Search Engine Journal): From an authority on writing for SEO, this guide explains how to plan and execute an authoritative guide to serve your reader and attract search traffic.
💜 Which Format Is Right for Your Next Blog Post? (Hubspot): Copywriter Pamela Vaughan lists 13 types of posts you can publish on a blog. Most of these fit into the genres I listed, but it goes deeper to show different angles you can use to approach a subject. Bookmark this to spark ideas for your blog content!
💙 How to Earn Well Writing Reported Articles (Make a Living Writing): Stuck in a loop of writing marketing content? Reported articles can enrich your career and showcase your writing brilliance, but they can be time consuming. Pro writer Carol Tice shares tips for efficient reporting to help you earn well with this kind of writing.
💛 Six Rules for Writing Good Articles (Mission.org): Regardless of your genre, consider these tips from writer Hannah Frankman to polish anything you write online.