Formula Writing

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I had a chuckle at this article on How to Write an Article in 7 Minutes, which shares that it's all about formulas for writing articles. I remember well when this was news to me! 
The best articles are ones that are a list of tips, contain “how to” in the title, or seems to indicate it will be simple to pick up some quick facts from. For most articles, I only need three main points. I find them as soon as possible.
If I can not find them in ezine articles, I then go to wikipedia. For each main point I find, I then jot down two or three single words/short phrases for every point. These are reminders of the things I will cover to support the main point. Once I get two or three key ideas from each point I go to work on writing the article. Source
As long-time readers know, I captured my formula for writing the list article ("listicles" as they are called derisively) in several looks like this:

  1. Start out with an engaging question, quote, or scenario.
  2. Develop a list of follow-up questions (e.g. frequently asked questions are a good source of these kinds of questions) off the main topic. For maximum effect, you will want to develop an engaging quote, or scenario for each question before offering a short, pithy solution.
  3. Conclude with a short summary or end with the final question that references how you started the article.


As a columnist for a published magazine and blogs, here are a few examples of engaging questions, quotes, scenarios I’ve used in the past.  Can you identify problem in each that seeks to engage with a quote or scenario?
  • "Miguel," a dear friend and colleague asked me, "have you read the new superintendent's book?" At my blank stare, she pointed to the purple book in her hand entitled, 5 Temptations of a CEO"Oh," I responded, "Yes, I have. But have you read the other 5 books he's proposed the Cabinet read?  "No," she replied. "There's more? Unfortunately, there was. While I wasn't asked to read the books, I read them. In the end, it didn't matter because while my friend and I were ready to adhere to the principles of the books, no one else--including new leadership--was. The end result? Hypocrisy.  Read more.
  • “I can’t wait for my mobile phone to ring. And, if they don’t call me,” shares one beleaguered principal trapped in a principals’ meeting, “I call them as I walk out pretending that I’ve received an all-important ‘Please deliver us!’ call from my campus.” Like a child playing an online action game at, principals roll from problem to problem, guns blazing, from meeting to problem to meeting. Read more.
  • "I'm desperately unhappy in my current position. Would you write me a letter of recommendation? wrote a friend.  If you've had to write a letter of recommendation for a colleague, then you know the challenges involved. It must be articulate, quickly unearth the treasure that the prospective employer can seize and spend to the benefit of the organization, as well as provide subtle direction on the best uses of a person's skills. Writing such a letter can be difficult. In this blog entry, you'll find a simple formula I follow.  Read more.
In each of article, I start each of the articles with some question or quote, usually a real quote I’ve heard from someone or that has come to me via email. What an easy way to jump into the questions that need to be answered. Another neat approach is to incorporate into the response of each follow-up question a short scenario. Example follows below in the response to this next follow-up question.


Writing a list of follow-up questions—the list of frequently asked questions—is also pretty easy. In preparing for writing an article, I often do some quick research. My goal is to find content that has quotable quotes I can include in the article. The search takes approximately 10-20 minutes and I use Evernote Clearly to highlight and save notes on great stuff I can include. Everything goes into my digital “writer’s notebook."

Often, the source for questions comes from casual conversations with people I connect with during the work week, as well as the hundreds of emails that drop into my inbox. I keep a special notebook for a friend who is constantly sending me questions (she’s a professional development facilitator who encounters scenarios and fields questions from adult learners). I’ve been augmenting my access to questions by reading a variety of blogs, email lists that also share solutions without problems. From that point, it’s easy to make my own connections and I usually write them up in my 
Around the Corner blog, which is an education-centric blog. Often those blog entries end up, depending on their topic, in other publications. The reason I recommend that YOU start a blog in based on Evernote is that this will increase your exposure. More exposure usually translates into more pay when editors are looking for content to share with their readers.
In my article on What CTOs Should Get Fired for, I developed a list of what they should be terminated for. Each of the items on this list can be developed with a scenario. Here is one of those, but you can find the complete list online:
  • CTO failed to anticipate the next big thing or passed it off as something evil to leadership when other districts are clearly embracing it.
As I shared in the previous section, enhance this item with a mini-scenario. It might look like this:

Reason #1 - The CTO pretended that a new technology innovation was evil to District leadership to avoid implementation.
“In conclusion,” Mark Zorin said, “We shouldn’t use GoogleApps for Education because it exposes our critical data to the cloud, will certainly result in FERPA violations, and we won’t be able to archive staff or student email."

You can see that there are several false statements in this scenario, this real quote which flows from something a CTO actually said. In fact, the whole statement is false. Yet, because the assertions are so outrageously wrong that this quote serves as the perfect lead into this follow-up question on What CTOs Should Get Fired For

In response to the question, Where can I find an easy to use staff appraisal tool for my mobile device?, I wrote the following mini-scenario:
“When I do a staff appraisal,” shares Suzanne, a district level appraiser for a large Texas school district, “I walk into the classroom, pick out a spot, take my legal notepad, draw a line down the middle, and start writing. It’s not until I get back to the office that I start pulling the notes together, doing the reflection needed, to do my appraisal.”
By including these mini-scenarios to the top of my response for each individual follow-up question, the reader is more engaged because the problem is relevant and real. And, like my Dad would say, “When I open something to read, if it doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, I don’t bother reading it.” 


Ending a list article can be easy. Here are some of the ways I’ve ended other list articles; note that each bullet represents a conclusion to a list article:
  • One of the key components of writing is sharing and publishing. While there are many tools for organizing our writing, Evernote + make a winning combination for enabling students and teachers. Specifically, it enables them to pull back the veil between that moment when ideas arise from the chaos, when those ideas are shaped and informed by information, then blended into a draft of non-fiction writing. Making this living, ever-changing draft of writing, updated as it happens, available online makes a critical tool.
  • Next time you find yourself sitting in a meeting, and someone says, “Hey, when you get back to the office, find out what’s been done about this,” you won’t be limited to a simple affirmative. Instead, email your secretary and find out what IS happening and report back to the group. Or, keep your inbox clear as you multi-task your way through a meeting. Even more so, you can share data with students and teachers. All the data is in your mobile device, and data-driven administration is what it’s all about these days.
  • While some see the use of encryption tools like those discussed in this article as the recourse of the paranoid, remember that identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the United States. If you are a victim of identity theft, you may spend an average of 607 hours and at least, a $1000, in clearing your name. Make sure that your computer is not one of the sources of confidential information. Protecting yourself online is as much a digital literacy as being information literate. Pass it on!


Remember that the list article format can be used for almost anything—a blog entry, a memo to your boss or your team, an article to be published, email, summary meeting notes—and is adaptable to ANY subject you might want to share about. What is even more thrilling about the list article is that you can write anything and use writing you have published elsewhere as examples, exactly like I’ve done here.

Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure


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