If you want to improve your article writing skills, the Central Intelligence Agency probably isn’t your first place to look.
Yes. I’m talking about that CIA. The organization that feeds the President and senior officials information to keep us safe. I was an intelligence analyst for the CIA for 8 years, and spent most of my time writing for top policy makers.
Ever wonder what happens behind the scenes at the CIA?
It’s not exactly like living in a Jason Bourne movie. But there is a lot of information that requires article writing skills to keep people informed. Along the way, I uncovered article writing secrets at the CIA that helped me go from analyst to full-time freelancer.
It wasn’t easy. In this high pressure environment, I quickly learned to kill my purple prose, prioritize readability, and create impeccable work under pressure.
Want to improve your article writing skills, land better clients, and earn more?
Here are six secrets from inside the CIA to help you be a better freelance writer:
1. Use reliable information
Think about this. An entire article can be undermined by one faulty source or piece of bad information. Heard the phrase “fake news” tossed around recently?
You don’t want to cite a website that publishes sensational stories just to drive traffic. Your readership deserves writing based on reliable information, and your editor should expect it.
When you put on your article writing hat, where are you getting your information?
- Somebody’s blog post
- An article by another writer
- Interviews with experts
- Official documents
Hopefully, you’re going straight to primary sources like interviews and official documents. Credible sources can make or break an article, and most editors expect you to seek out primary sources.
For example, if your piece is about a new start-up, a direct quote from the CEO is more reliable than an article that paraphrases what she said.
2. Cite your sources
It might seem obvious, but there’s a lot of article writing out there that either doesn’t attribute information to the sources or mischaracterizes the source information.
Ever found yourself reading an article and start questioning the validity of the information?
Far too many websites out there mischaracterize and sensationalize otherwise truthful information to trigger emotional responses in their readers… and entice them to keep reading. Don’t do this.
Make it a habit to cite your sources. You’ll have to if you want to write for major pubs.
If you land an article writing assignment for a major magazine, be prepared to provide source information like:
- Transcripts of interviews
- Audio/video recordings
- Copies of articles/documents referenced
- Contact information for sources
Here’s an example. When I write for American Fitness — the journal for the National Academy of Sports Medicine, their in-house fact checkers go through every detail in an article. It’s a requirement to provide the first page of every article referenced in a piece.
3. Self-edit your work
It’s easy to get sidetracked by interesting facts and figures when crafting an article, but you must stay on topic from headline to final sentence.
A little self-editing can go a long ways. You probably have your own article writing process. But I generally think it’s a good idea to:
- Start with an outline
- Organize your research
- Write a first draft
- Take a break
- Return for editing and rewriting
- Repeat, until it’s good enough to submit
You’ll save yourself a lot of time if you dial in your outline and research before writing a first draft. Ask yourself, “Does this sentence or reference support my headline?” If it doesn’t, move it or save it for a future article.
4. Know your audience
When I was a CIA intelligence analyst, my target audience was senior policy makers and advisors. Busy people with voluminous amounts of information to digest every day. And that dictated the format for a lot of the writing: tight copy, bite-sized paragraphs, condensed.
- What about niche jargon? While some article assignments might call for industry-specific jargon, it’s best to avoid it.If you’re not sure what jargon is appropriate for a certain audience, make sure you read other articles in that niche. Keep a list of industry-specific terms as you go.But when in doubt, use the clearest language you can. Jargon can be trendy and alienating. Plain language has more longevity and will resonate with a wider audience.
- Anticipate questions. Whether you’re writing an article for a trade magazine or a business blog post, the best writers will try to predict what kinds of questions your audience might have and integrate those answers into the piece itself.Here’s two strategies I use:
- Give your draft to someone not familiar with the subject matter. Ask them if it makes sense, or if they have any questions.
- Before writing, talk to experts to get a general idea of what they’d like to know more about on the topic.
5. Find a fresh angle
When I was an intelligence analyst, any piece of information shared with policy makers needed to provide new insight. If it didn’t, it wasn’t worth writing.
That’s a lot like pitching ideas for articles and posts to magazines and blogs An article must provide readers with ideas that they either haven’t seen before, or a fresh angle on a familiar topic. Here’s what I like to do to look for new ideas or a different angle for an article:
- Read past issues or blog posts
- Search the site of a magazine or blog based on keywords
When you do this, you’ll find out what’s already been written about on your topic. And that gives you valuable intel you can use to find a fresh angle to land an assignment from your next pitch.
6. It’s not about you
As you might expect, getting a byline wasn’t part of my gig as a CIA analyst.
The stakes might seem a little lower when writing for, say, a trade magazine, but your article still isn’t about pushing your agenda or opinion. It’s not about you.
When you land an article assignment, you’re not only representing yourself, but the publication for which you’re writing. In most cases, accepting your editor’s corrections and input gracefully, is the road to take for freelance success.
Sharpen your article writing skills
Here’s another secret. You don’t have to work at the CIA to sharpen your article writing skills. Just pay attention to where you find sources and information, take time to self edit, know your audience, and check your ego at the door. And you’ll be able to move up and earn more.
Have article writing tips to share? Let’s discuss on Facebook.
Abigail Keyes is a freelance writer and blogger based in Berkeley, Calif. After 8 years as an intelligence analyst for the CIA, she made the move to full-time freelancing.