While all journalistic pieces are, by definition, written with the intention of teaching the reader something, service articles (or service pieces) are designed to teach the reader how to do something. This is how and why they are also (commonly) referred to as how-to pieces or articles. They can be about arts, crafts, cleaning, food, computers, or just about anything else. Service articles are a common magazine staple; my second-year feature writing professor told me that they're in demand, but few people can write them well.

So what sets a service article apart from the instructions you pull out of a box?

For one thing, this is a feature article. The tone is supposed to be light and conversational; the writer should be teaching readers how to do something in a fun and interesting way -- not in a manner that screams "You're such a tool, I can't believe you don't know how to do this." A set of instructions is also generally only applicable to a certain product, whereas a well-written service article will likely be relevant in several situations. Instructions are most often written in chronological order; a service article might contain a bunch of advice that can be used in any order. Further to that, a service article might include (horror) stories from people who wish they'd had the kind of advice you're getting and information from experts. A set of instructions is usually just a list.

How does one go about writing a service article?

Glad you asked. Firstly, you should choose a topic about which you're reasonably knowledgable; if this isn't possible (or you're actually interested in learning how to do something yourself and then passing the knowledge on), it should be about something for which lots of related materials are available. Think about it this way: are you going to be talking about something people generally don't know how to do -- or don't know how to do effectively? Is it something you'd be interested in learning how to do? Is this going to benefit the greater good?

Once you have your topic and have done your research, you need to make two lists (mental or otherwise, though I'm a big advocate of writing stuff down). The first should list reasons why this particular topic is important. The second should list directions or advice for accomplishing the task you're setting out in your piece. These two lists will become the main parts of your article. You still have to flesh them out, but that comes later.

As is usually the case, there is no one set formula for writing a service article. That said, things usually do tend to end up in one general order. I'm using the method I was taught for the purpose of this writeup, but this isn't to say that variations don't work.

Part One: Why this is important -- You need to pitch this article to your reader and convince him or her to spend the next few minutes reading through it. Share your own horror stories (feature writing often includes the writer's own experiences), explain why you want to impart this information, or provide a brief introduction to what your topic is.

Part Two: The nut graf -- Here, you sum up your entire article in one sentence. It's usually something along the lines of "Here are x things to remember when (insert topic here)."

Part Three: The good stuff -- Sweet, sweet information! It's often recommended that you number your points, or at least give them subheadings. If your topic involves chronological advice (something like 'how to change your oil' is one example), numbers are a good idea. Each point or suggestion should be its own paragraph, and if you have examples from people backing up each idea it's common for each point to involve several paragraphs. First-hand stories and expert advice are great; people take that sort of thing seriously.

Part Four: Sign off -- Close with a brief recap and explain again why this sort of information is important. You're teaching, after all; don't just leave off with your last point and stop there. An effective conclusion will help people remember your ideas.

Service articles on E2

There are a lot of great service pieces on Everything2. Here's a sampling:

  • How to link to individual user searches
  • How to fold a map
  • How to use chopsticks
  • How to get in touch with your feminine side
  • How to simultaneously ruin two pieces of hardware
  • How to Muddle
  • How to drink urine to survive
  • How to break in a baseball glove
  • How to escape a sinking car
  • How to Shit in the Woods
  • How to get rid of Telemachus
  • How to find good nodes
  • How to scare the living shit out of an arachnophobe with a black shoelace
  • How to check the coolant, and what to do if it is low
  • How to heal a bleeding nose
  • How to read to a child
  • How to kick a football
  • How to improve your orgasms
  • How to short out a phone line
  • How to open a banana
  • How to hurt yourself on one of those giant inflatable bouncy things
  • How to be a friend
  • How to not fight and not get your ass kicked
  • Beating the Montreal metro system
  • How not to bring in new comic book readers
  • How to cool gases with lasers
  • How to shoot a bow
  • Get two quarters from a soda machine using a dollar and smaller change
  • How to find something which has been lost
  • How to entertain young children on little or no money
  • How to wrap gifts
  • How to buy a stereo system (without winning the lottery)
  • How to make a weapon out of duct tape
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