Magazine Writing Basics

With so many options available for writers to get published today, I thought I’d get back to basics regarding magazine writing. As one award-winning magazine editor once said, “If there’s a subject out there, there’s a magazine for it.” Granted, some niche publications pay very little, but if you’re looking to establish your publishing credentials, consider writing for magazines, even if the magazine serves a small readership.

Consider these tips as you research your market.

  1. Perception is everything. You want to present yourself the best you can, so use professional letterhead for your query letter, for example.
  2. Success spawns imitators. If a magazine is successful, you can be assured imitators will follow, so why not offer additional (not the same) ideas to the rest of the magazines in the field?
  3. Look for new twists on old ideas. When I took a semester-long college class on writing for magazines, the one nugget I’ll always remember is, “If you’re not getting at least three different angles for articles out of every subject you research, you’re not working effectively.” I interviewed an antiquarian bookstore owner once and sold four articles to four different publications: (1) what used book booksellers look for when buying books, (2) what improper storage does to antiquarian books, (3) a literary event (an Emily Dickinson poetry reading) held in the store, and (4) a personality profile of the bookstore owner.
  4. Try to plan at least six months out. This post is written in November, which means you should now be thinking about sending query letters pitching summer vacations, lawn care, summer safety, home remedies for insect bites, sun hazards, honeymoons, keeping kids busy when school’s out, etc.
  5. Request writer’s guidelines from each magazine you want to write for. And, even more importantly, once you get those guidelines (many are available online, by the way), follow them! Don’t make it easy for the editor to reject you.
  6. Consider the magazine’s audience. You can often find this information without too much difficulty, but if you can’t, do your own analysis to determine the obvious such as percentage of readership that’s female or male and the primary readership age group. Then, think psychographics as well demographics (urbanites, suburb living with its associated commuting to work, country lifestyles, collateral interests readers may have, etc.).
  7. Care about your topic. You write better if you’re genuinely interested in the topic rather than just researching an article simply to make a sale.
  8. Tune into the news for ideas. Granted, magazines have a longer lead time and can go into more detail than the news media, but I still got an idea for an article by simply watching this morning’s news. The story noted the word of the year for 2013 is selfie and it beat out twerking. I think magazines would buy articles on how words make the list, how new words get into the vernacular, who decides the yearly winner, and how language/dictionaries/word processing programs/etc. are impacted with the addition of new words each year. I haven’t given it much thought, and you can have the idea if you like, but my point is to underscore how the news can get your ideas flowing.
  9. Go through the past six issues (if possible) of the magazine you want to query to see if it has recently published an article on the topic you want to write about.
  10. Send your query letter  to the managing editor. If there’s no managing editor listed on the masthead, try the articles editor. If no luck there, send it to the third name down on the list because that  person most likely has some decision-making authority.
  11. Be sure you let the magazine know how to contact you. Some still want to hear from you via the postal service until they’ve established a relationship with you because they don’t want their email flooded. However, you always want to include your email so they can get right back to you if they want to.
  12. If you include samples of your published articles, make sure the samples are relevant to the topic you’re querying. I almost lost an assignment to a national magazine because my “clips” weren’t relevant. Thankfully, the editor decided to offer me the assignment anyway and it worked out, but I’ll never forget that lesson!

Whether you’re a seasoned magazine writer or just beginning, it never hurts to review the basics. But you can’t get published if you don’t write, so get busy. Happy writing!

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