A blank page is intimidating. It’s so much easier to look at what everyone else is saying and jump on the bandwagon.
However, it does you no good to become the millionth person to write on a trend that’s happening now. Or worse, a trend that has already happened, and you’re just adding to the noise.
Publications are inundated with countless article pitches, and while publishing numbers have gone up, that doesn’t mean your competition has gone down. New topic areas get rapidly saturated with content, so it can be a challenge not only to get a publication editor to see your article as original, but also to get the reader to press that share button.
How can you stand out?
Before pitching publication editors and beginning your writing process, start by searching the site you want to pitch. You can’t know what’s already been done if you haven’t read the previous articles that made the cut.
Look at the publication’s topic sections, analyze the types of angles the editorial staff found interesting, and research the target audience that reads the publication to determine where your expertise might best fill a gap. Reading the publication’s “About” page is a huge step that not a lot of aspiring contributors will take before deciding they know best. Everything about your article should be tailored in order to stand out from the masses.
Here are some red flags that might mean you’re stuck in the “it’s all been done before” loop:
1. Your byline doesn’t add anything to the story.
The old dating adage still holds true here: “Be yourself.” Publications want to hear your voice, your stories, your unique perspective. If they were looking for a top 10 list or a review on the latest Netflix show, they could easily have a staff writer put something together.
Tell the world why you are the perfect person to be writing about this topic and show them with your takeaways. What have you overcome? What do you do daily that readers could find interesting? Personal examples are a great way to add intrigue and credibility to an article. Just be sure not to come across as too promotional by sticking to what’s relevant and staying away from braggadocious language.
2. “Hypothetically” has become your article’s mantra.
The problem with hypothetical scenarios is that they can vary wildly and make you sound detached from reality. If you’re seeing some gaps in your article, then it’s time to bring in some real-world examples. Look at who is changing your industry or making waves in the news and pull from their experiences.
Research and statistics are also great ways to back up your insights. An authoritative study could add needed perspective to your own viewpoint. Don’t expect the publication editor to do the legwork for you, though. Be sure to find credible sources by looking at household name publications, national databases or reputable companies like Gallup.
3. The reader can’t tell what your advice means.
If you find yourself reciting vague platitudes like “Do Your Homework” and “Listen to Your Gut,” then you might need to take a step back to think about what you really mean. Your recommendations should have enough context that readers can apply them to their situation and get results.
Remember that readers have graciously clicked on your article to get your advice. Give them the specific and actionable insights they’re searching for based on your knowledge and expertise.
4. Reading the subheadings is the equivalent of watching paint dry.
A little creativity can go a long way in making your insights seem unique. For example, “Be authentic” is sure to earn an editorial eyeroll, while something like “Spotlight your good intentions” is better.
No one gets it right on the first draft. Get everything out of your head—in an outline if possible—and then go back to it to add clarity, levity and brevity.
Not everything you write is going to be a good fit everywhere. Each publication has unique guidelines and pet peeves that can prompt an editor to turn down an article submission. However, you can give yourself a lead on the competition by staying away from these editorial red flags.
Katherine Caraway is the senior publication strategist for Influence & Co. A version of this article originally appeared on the Influence & Co. blog.