Writing Better Byline Articles: 3 Key Mistakes to Avoid

Aug 28, 2019

For establishing thought leadership, there are few more effective tools in the public relations toolbox than byline articles.

Like the opinion column in the editorial section of our increasingly vanishing newspapers, the byline presents an opportunity for the author to share her personal take on a topic that is generating media attention or controversy. Generally, a byline represents the best way for an executive to showcase and explain her viewpoint in an in-depth manner to a targeted B2B audience of industry peers.

But writing bylines can be tricky. Publications are increasingly inundated with contributions, and several have changed their business models, now treating contributed bylines more like advertising meaning if you want to play, you have to pay. That means the media outlets that still publish contributed content can afford to be more selective than ever in terms of what they will accept, and some bylines will inevitably be rejected by editors.

To ensure your byline article doesn’t quickly end up in editors’ trash folders, make sure to avoid the following common mistakes.

Too self-promotional: For those unfamiliar with the nuances of bylines, this may be the most difficult concept to grasp: It’s not about you. The vast majority of publications expect bylines to be vendor-neutral, meaning authors cannot sell, promote or generally even mention their own company, products or services. Rather than viewing a byline as a means of converting your go-to sales deck to paragraph form, consider it an opportunity to share an inside perspective on a specific, well-defined topic of interest from an experienced industry veteran.

Doesn’t deal with an industry problem: While most readers who come across your byline aren’t interested in learning the intimate details of the widgets your company sells, they are interested in learning about real problems their industry peers have encountered and the steps leaders have taken to overcome those problems. That’s where the real value of a byline is found, in the straight talk of one industry leader providing others with an inside story of a challenging situation that they struggled (at least initially) to conquer. Extra points are awarded for honesty, clarity, surprise or even controversy.

So for example, a byline on the topic of “why hospitals need to account for patient’s social determinants of health” doesn’t have a great chance of pick-up, because everyone knows that social determinants are important by now. In contrast, an author could get much more mileage from a byline topic such as “why hospitals’ social determinants initiatives are doomed to fail without A, B and C” because that’s a topic that may tell readers something they don’t already know.

Too long: Renowned prize-winning authors may have the luxury of slowly setting a scene by painting a picture with words, drawing the reader in with multiple anecdotes and examples and then getting to the meat of the story. Business executives who contribute content to health IT publications are rarely granted that indulgence. In other words, keep it short. The sweet spot for a byline is about 700 to 1,000 words, and most editors prefer the shorter end of the spectrum. A good rule of thumb: If your byline exceeds two pages of a Word document, it’s time to make some edits.

Bylines are a wonderful tool for demonstrating industry expertise and thought leadership, but they can quickly go off-the-rails if authors don’t incorporate best practices. To interest readers (and editors) in your unique viewpoint, remember the above guidelines.

Brandon Glenn

Brandon Glenn is a veteran journalist and marketing and communications professional, with experience in content marketing, social media, media relations and news writing. He gained a deep knowledge of the health IT industry while working as a reporter and editor for MedCity News, which covers the business of innovation in healthcare, and as a senior editor with Medical Economics, a publication that focuses on issues of importance to primary care physicians. In these positions, he also wrote extensively about the hospitals, pharmaceuticals and medical devices industries. Brandon began his journalism career as a reporter with Crain's Cleveland Business and, later, Crain's Chicago Business. Earlier, he was an analyst with consulting firm Accenture. Brandon earned a master's in journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Purdue University.