Writing for magazines: what you need to know

Many writers dream of seeing their names in print. They don’t necessarily have to be
printed in books, magazines will do. There are two alternatives if you want to
get into magazine writing:

1)
Apply for a full-time position at one
magazine. This provides comfort in the form of reliable income, but can be
limiting if you have very broad interests.

2)
Set yourself up as a freelance writer and
write for a number of publications on as many topics as you like. The downside
to this is that your income is variable; even if you work incredibly hard and
put in long hours there is no guarantee that your work will be accepted by
editors and see the light of day.

 

What do you need to know to break into
the world of magazines?

1)
You don’t need to specialise, but, as always,
it helps if you write what you know. Building up a portfolio of niche articles
will help you land articles at prestigious niche magazines. So, if you’ve taken
a makeup course, you have an advantage when it comes to writing for magazines
like Glamour or Marie Claire. If you’re an avid cook you should be able to
swing articles for food and lifestyle magazines.

Don’t
fret if you don’t think you have specialised knowledge in a particular field.
One of a writer’s most important jobs is to learn and this involves a lot of
research. If you can prove your chops as a writer who chases down accurate
sources and verifies information, you’ll prove your worth to editors. To do
this, you need to build up a portfolio of in-depth articles and interviews.

2)
Magazine articles are different to newspaper
articles. Newspapers make use of the inverted pyramid style of writing.
Magazines tend to tell a story. Of course this depends on the type of magazine
and the type of article. Current affairs magazines that focus on news might
require a more news-like approach, but by and large you need to approach
writing for magazines as you would a short story.

This means you need a beginning, which sets up the story; a middle, which builds on the
events in the story; and an end, which wraps up everything nicely. As with all
stories, magazine articles need to flow logically from point to point.

3)
From practical writing to practical
submitting: you need to know how to approach editors as a freelancer. Nicolah Meyer, who
wrote on behalf of SA Writer’s College, says that there are two ways to
approach editors.

a.
On spec, this involves submitting a completed
article with a cover letter to the features editor of an appropriate magazine.
Meyer says that this approach works well for writers just starting out as
freelancers as it gives editors a chance to assess their work and determine
whether they’ve managed to capture the style and tone of the publication
concerned.  She also says that a good way
to start out is to ask for the magazine’s style guide to increase your chances
of hitting the right note.

b.
The second method involves writing a query
letter or, as some people call it, a pitch. Laura Schaefer says that
standard query letters comprise four paragraphs: a compelling introduction that
explains why your article is relevant, topical and of interest to the
magazine’s readers; the second paragraph builds on the first without laboring
the point and can include clips that you intend to use; the third paragraph
should deal with the practical details, i.e., how long it is, who the sources are
(with credentials), whether you’ll be providing pictures (taken by yourself or
by a professional photographer) and your overall approach; the last paragraph
is where you get to punt yourself, list your previous work experience and be as
glowing as possible.

The letter should not be longer than one page. It should include contact
details, as per the standard business letter format. Also include a stamped,
self-addressed envelope to make it easy to editors to get back to you.

These days many editors prefer to be contacted via email; the same rules still
apply.

4)
You need to be flexible if you want to write
for a number of different publications. Different magazines have different
styles. To make a decent living from freelancing you’ll need to write for a
number of different publications and that means being able to adapt your style.
Editors will not make an exception for you.

5)
You need to be punctual and you need to be
able to stick to word count. Magazines run on tight schedules. Articles need to
be completed in time so that they can be properly laid out and proofread and
checked before being sent to print. If you’re late you’ll throw everything out
of whack and ruin your chances of ever working for that publication again.

6)
You need to be militant in your approach to
grammar, punctuation and spelling. Magazines have proofreaders and editors but
that doesn’t mean you can hand in sloppy work and hope that someone else will
make it look pretty. You may not pick up every single comma but the least you
can do is keep the typos to a minimum.

7)
Find out about the different payment systems.
Some magazines pay when the issue in which your article appears is printed,
which could be a couple of months after you submitted it. Others pay upon
receipt of the article. To get paid you will have to invoice the publication,
so you’ll need to set up a professional-looking invoicing system that complies
with the tax requirements of your country.

8)
You need a very thick skin. Your articles
will be rejected, but just because one magazine won’t run a particular article
doesn’t mean that another one will feel the same. Keep trying.

 

 

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