Thought Leadership Resources

#72 5 gremlins that can stop your articles from being published

“Forewarned is forearmed.” It’s an old saying, but it still rings true – if you know of the hazards that might lie ahead when you start a new venture, you can prepare yourself to meet those hazards.

In this post, I’m going to tell you about the hazards you might face in your efforts to get your ideas published. Maybe you’ve seen articles published in your clients’ niche media by your competitors, or as guest posts on influential blogs. Perhaps you wondered how they did it, when your efforts to get published seem to land with a dull thud each time.


I can’t tell you all of the issues they mastered on their way to a higher profile, but I can tell you some of what I’ve learned, through five potential problem areas, or “gremlins.”

1. You’re chasing a publication that doesn’t take guest contributions

Scores of my clients have asked me to help them get published in leading media like Fortune, Wired or Fast Company. I instruct them to look through the publications in question – do they see any articles written by subject matter experts there?

Most of the larger business publications, this also includes the larger niche publications in any category, have invested in substantial staffs of journalists, as well as their budgets for freelance writers. They see this as a way to provide balanced, well-packaged “news you can use” for their readers.

If they do accept any outside contribution, it’s generally by a leading member of the industry – a CEO of one of the bigger companies in their field, or perhaps the head of a relevant professional or industrial association. Very rarely, they’ll accept an article by an eminence grise with something controversial to say.

Sometimes, while such publications are reluctant to publish expert-written articles in their print pages, they’ll accept them for their websites. That online presence is a bottomless pit in need of constant filling. So, particularly if they’re short of new content for their website, they may be more welcoming.

The online version of the publication may have a program for frequent contributors, who become, in effect, in-house bloggers. You’ll need to establish whether they already have a contributor with your specialty, or if there is an angle to your specialty that they’re missing. If you’re a lawyer, for example, you may find that the publication already has a lawyer as a regular contributor – but that person writes on general legal topics, perhaps without much reference to IP law. If you can convince the editor that IP law is important enough to the readers to warrant its own column, this may be your opportunity.

When you consider writing for a publication, look through it first, to see if it takes guest contributions. The way I usually tell is by looking for author photos at the top or end of the articles. See if there’s an “extended byline” – the name of the writer, their affiliation or employer, and probably a phone number or email address. That’s a clue that the publication may welcome an approach from you.

Also, look for regular columns that appear in the publication: maybe it’s called “Legal matters” or “What’s new at OSHA.” Possibly they simply call it “The Last Word.” The editor may be looking for outside contributions for those sections. Make note of what the publication calls it, subsequently refer to that when you approach the editor with your idea (I did a how-to about presenting your idea to the editor, in post #4).

2. You’re pushing what you want to say, not what they want to know about

Sometimes, one of my clients will come to me with an article that they’ve written, based on what they want to say. Usually, it’s on an arcane topic such as revenue recognition or tax planning (if you’re not an accountant, don’t ask). Sometimes, this type of niche content is valuable, but I find that these articles are based largely on what the consultant wants to say, rather than what their intended client wants to know about.

I had this experience a few years ago, working with a client who is a Trustee in Bankruptcy. These people deal with companies in difficulty – brought in as an agent of the bankruptcy court, to see if it’s possible to bring the sick company back to health, or if it’s best to euthanize it and sell off the assets to satisfy some of its debts.

My client had written a comprehensive (read: long) description of the bankruptcy process. He thought it might be good as a refresher for someone whose company is in difficulties. My view was that this was the kind of information that the client would look to the trustee for help, and wouldn’t be interested in reading about it. Going through a bankruptcy process is the business equivalent of a colonoscopy or a mammogram (not having experienced either, myself), not something that the client/patient actually wants to know more about.

In such a case, there are three main types of content that will work, in terms of piquing the interest of your prospective client.

  • How to work with: There’s the content type I call the “how-to-work-with” article (see post #56), in which the writer describes how to get good results working with someone like them. A “bankruptcy” article would talk about success factors in working with a trustee in bankruptcy.
  • The “how-to” – regarding a topic you know something about, that your prospect would actually want to know a propos. In the case of the “bankruptcy” article, I zeroed in on an aspect of what my trustee client had covered – the need to keep communication lines open during a corporate near-death experience. If the company leadership shuts down all communication with employees, customers, suppliers and other people who have the capacity to help the business succeed or fail, it’s likely to fail. For example, if key employees are not kept informed about progress towards recovery, they’ll likely take that call from a search consultant, and move on to what looks like a more secure future. This is an example of a topic that a trustee would know about, and would be of interest to potential clients.

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3. Your content is outside the niche interests of the publication

Most business publications focus on a particular niche – generally, according to a specific industry such as retail, trucking, railroads or software development. Some meet the needs of specific occupations and professions: actuarial science, consulting, safety, law and health among them.

The editor wants content of interest to the specific needs of the publication’s readers. If it doesn’t relate to those needs, the editor doesn’t want it.

For instance, consider a typically narrow publication, “World Pipelines,” out of London. The editor of this publication doesn’t deal with just any pipelines, though. She doesn’t want to know about oil pipelines or lines that carry water. She just does gas pipelines. But even narrower – she doesn’t cover the small gathering lines connecting each wellhead with the trunk line, or the distribution lines that carry gas to each customer.

In an e-mail exchange I had with her recently, this editor said her publication focuses strictly on big trunk gas lines, the networks that carry gas across countries and even continents. I’d approached her on behalf of a client in Tulsa, USA about an article idea she deemed too focused on feeder lines – so with my client I reworked the article concept so it was more of interest to trunk line operators.

This story illustrates the importance of matching your article idea to the needs of the publication. There are three ways to find out that focus:

A. Read the publication (really!). Study the kinds of articles it covers, and the slant of those articles – in print if possible, online if you don’t have a print copy. As a broad principle, you’ll generally find that a publication is generally in favor of its own industry. For example, a magazine like “World Coal” will be a booster for coal power, and “Solar Builder” equally enthusiastic about solar power (and quite dismissive of coal power).

B. Look at their “media guide” – generally on their website, which will indicate who the readers are, by industry and occupation. While you’re on their website, look for their “writer’s guidelines,” which will tell writers like you what they’re looking for in terms of editorial contributions.

C. Ask the editor: Do this only after you’ve exhausted the first two. In the case of “World Pipelines,” the editor was willing to work with me on the article idea, I think, because my query letter to her indicated I would be able to come up with something acceptable for publication, if provided with a prompt in the right direction.

It’s hard to stress the importance of making your article concept, plus the piece itself, relevant to the needs of the publication. The editor is focused on finding content that the readers will not find elsewhere, and that is specifically designed to help the readers do their jobs better. You will have a much easier time of it if you go with the flow, rather than trying to convince the editor to be more ‘broad-minded.’

4. You’re selling too hard

Along with having a priority on content that suits the needs of the publication, the editor needs to provide information that is useful, not a sales pitch. This includes anything that smells, even to the slightest degree, of you promoting your services or technology through your article.

You may think that this defeats your purpose, which is just that - to sell your services or technology. You need to sell without selling.

To see how this is, imagine yourself at a conference, just sitting down to lunch. You’ve attended some really interesting, useful presentations that morning, particularly one by ABC Inc.

Then the chair of the conference gets up on the podium, taps the mic, and a painful squeal of feedback gets your attention. “Quiet, please,” the chair pleads. “This lunch is generously sponsored by XYZ Corporation. Please pay attention to this message by our sponsors at XYZ.” What follows next is unabashedly a sales pitch by a suit from XYZ. If you’re like most, during the pitch you’ll be checking your email and texts, zoning out, or talking with your neighbor.

The presentations by ABC Inc. and XYZ Corporation were both marketing presentations, designed to sell. The reason you paid attention during ABC’s talk, and ignored that by XYZ, is that ABC gave you some genuinely useful information.

So think of that, next time you’re tempted to add a sales pitch to your article, resist it. You can get better attention from your potential clients if you show them that you’re a useful source of information and you know about the issues that affect them. They’ll connect the dots – that if they want more help, they need to get in touch with you.

One of the “actually-it’s-a-good-thing” aspects of writing for publication is that a sales pitch won’t get past the editor. Meeting the publication’s no-sales-pitch requirements forces you to develop content that is probably more effective at selling your services than an outright sales pitch would be, because prospective clients are more likely to read what you’ve written.

5. Inadequate organization, grammar, spelling

Editors are accustomed to the reality that some of the content they receive, intended for publication, will be badly organized, and full of grammar and spelling mistakes. If it’s too bad, they’ll just ignore it. If it’s salvageable, contains good ideas and they really need the information, they’ll work on it.

But imagine the editor, choosing between two potential articles. Manuscript “A” has been carefully proofread to remove glitches; manuscript “B” is a problem child. It’ll take a lot of work to hammer into shape for publication. So, which one do you think the editor is likely to choose? Hmmmmm….

There’s no excuse for handing in badly written text these days – when the help you need is only a few clicks and a few dollars away.

You can easily get a proofreader to clean up the grammar. I have a proofreader who checks my posts for grammar, spelling and stupidities, and she’s been a huge asset to the team (thanks, Patricia). It’s a fact of life that you just can’t proofread your own writing.

You can also get a substantive editor to review your first draft and do more thorough changes to express your ideas. Then there’s also the “ghostwriter” who will take your spoken ideas and convey them in text form for you to review and correct as needed. All of these professionals are easily available online through sites like Upwork.

There are plenty more “gremlins” to avoid, so you’re not wasting your time and frustrating yourself (and the editor) in your efforts to publish your ideas. Keep watch for future posts on this theme.

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Carl Friesen

Carl is the Founder of the Thought Leadership Resources and helps business professionals gain the skills they need to build their profile as subject-matter experts and thought leaders.

You can connect with Carl on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter

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