Byline Writing: Where Art Meets Process
Mastering byline development takes time, practice, creativity and patience — all things that require a level of mental energy that we don’t always have. This is not a mindless activity, but one that’s truly engaging. Although it can be daunting, there’s actually a very clear structure that, when followed, can break byline writing up into much more manageable pieces. Writing a byline is like making cookies: it should be based on a recipe but can only be special if you add in your own secret sauce.
Let’s first start with the ingredients – every byline should contain these simple pieces.
First ask yourself, who is the audience here? Who will be eating your cookies? Just like you wouldn’t make snickerdoodle cookies for a chocoholic, you wouldn’t write a technical piece for business managers. You can’t please everyone every time, so don’t try to — keep it focused.
Next, gather your basics. Each byline needs to have the three fundamental ingredients:
- Key messaging
- Editorial guidelines
Finally, determine the secret ingredients. A byline needs something special — a reason to keep reading. We only have 7 seconds to grab a reader’s attention, so make sure that you don’t wait too long before throwing in your creativity, thought-provoking statistics, or outside sources.
Now that we know what we need, let’s talk about the process.
Step One: Choose Your Ingredients
This is the most important step — the information gathering. Without enough meat, the byline can become a chore to write and lack purpose. However, if you do a thorough job with this step, the byline can write itself.
There are several ways to gather your ingredients, some include sourcing calls, research, and/or using existing content. Of these, sourcing calls can lead to the most new and exciting content, but they require that you do your homework, ask the right questions, and think like a reporter.
Step Two: Lay it out.
Take the key points from that sourced content and turn it into an abstract to lead you down the right path. Establish a theme and endgame that you can run with and run towards. Set yourself up for success.
Then, create an outline. Organize your thoughts into something that has a beginning, middle and end. Don’t just throw everything in and hope it comes out okay. Each piece should be divided into 5 sections:
- The hook
- The why
- The body
- The kicker
- The call to action
Step Three: Mix it in.
Take that outline you’ve just created and fill it in. Add all of the information that you’ve gathered and tie it all together. This part should happen naturally, so let it. Don’t multitask, and have fun with it!
Step Four: Taste test your dough.
This is the editing process. Editing should involve multiple parties, not just yourself. Take the time to self-edit and ask yourself questions, but also ask a colleague for a reader’s perspective and your manager/client for feedback. The more thorough this phase is, the less likely it is that you’ll have to repeat step three over and over.
Think creatively here — is there anything you’re missing? How can you take this a step further?
Step Five: Bake the cookies.
Step away for a moment. Let the byline sit just for a bit before you come back to it for a final check. Taking a brief recess will allow you to return to the piece with an open mind. There may be minor tweaks to formatting or areas to add color, but if you’ve successfully completed each step along the way, this should be the easiest part.
Writing a compelling byline requires structure, planning, and a personal touch. There’s no fool-proof way to make it just right, but when you do hit that magical consistency, it’s mouthwatering for both you and your client.