Thursday, 4 October 2012

How to write for magazines

Why not earn some extra cash by writing magazine articles? Catriona Ross, freelance journalist and author of Writing for Magazines: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know, shows you how.

A recession is an opportunity to explore creative new ways to boost your income. If you’ve always enjoyed writing, moonlighting as a freelance writer for magazines is a relatively easy, low-risk, fun option. Here’s why you should try it: firstly, you don’t need any specific training to become a writer. No competency tests, entrance exams or professional qualifications are required to get your name (or byline, as it’s called) into a magazine. If you don’t have two years’ experience in a newsroom, or a first-class degree in English, or even a school-leaving certificate, nobody minds. All you need is the ability to sniff out good story ideas, pitch them to the right publications in an appropriate way, and write professionally. And these are skills you can learn right now.
Secondly, there’s plenty of work available, as magazines are big business, even in the darkest times. Online magazine store lists over 1,300 US titles; lists a whopping 3,000 UK titles. Some magazines rely completely on freelancers to fill their features pages, while others use freelancers for just a couple of stories per issue. In my experience, the average mainstream magazine buys up to 10 articles from freelance writers every issue. This is excellent news for you, the writer: magazines need you.

  1. A notebook and pen;
  2. A computer;
  3. Something to say
  4. and a desire to say it;
  5. An hour and a half per day to write;
  6. A place to write, preferably with a door you can close.
Carry a notebook. As a freelancer writer, you need to come up with fresh story ideas – and your greatest ally is your notebook. Whenever you hear, see, smell, touch, taste, feel, or do something that makes you think, ‘Hmm, now that’s interesting,’ whip out your notebook and write it down, otherwise you’ll forget it. Trust me, you won’t remember that brilliant insight in a few hours’ time when you’re back home at your desk. Write it down immediately – that quote, book title or place name – and you’ll be able to build a whole feature article around it.
Mine your personal experiences. Especially when starting out as a freelance writer, it’s handy to draw on your stock of personal stories, as these articles don’t require much research. Which aspects of your life would you like to write about? What unusual experiences have you had? Maybe you’re renovating a farmhouse and could write a tongue-in-cheek column about the experience for an architectural magazine. Or you learnt to ride a bicycle at age 21, and want to share the agony and ecstasy of taking your first cycling holiday. Or you’ve been a poker pro since the age of nine, and can write a handful of articles on the subject, from how-to pieces to humour. Or you’d like to tell others how you finally kicked your sugar addiction, and how your new my-body-is-a-temple attitude has boosted your well-being. 
Trawl the press weekly for ideas. Cut out magazine articles and news snippets you find intriguing, plus any articles that make you think, ‘I wish I’d written that’.
Get onto the mailing lists of publicity companies. Public relations companies exist to promote the people, products, events, businesses and organisations on their books. If there’s even a slim chance that you, a writer, might be able to offer them editorial coverage, they’ll happily bombard you with informative press releases, invitations to swanky launches of new restaurants and galleries, contact details of interesting people, and hot tip-offs.
Offer to tell people’s stories. Everyone has a story, from the interesting to the gasp-worthy. When friends, family or strangers share the tale of, say, their amazingly amicable divorce, or the revelation that hit them while being robbed by two young gangsters, or their recovery from an eating disorder, or their fraught adoption of a Russian baby, or how they successfully negotiated a raise at work, gently ask (at an appropriate time, perhaps later) whether they’d like to share their story with others in the form of a feature article. Offer to interview them at a convenient time. Consider rounding out the story by adding expert comment and possibly a couple of other case studies to highlight aspects of the theme. Then pitch your article idea to a magazine. Simple.

Having worked as both a features editor and freelance writer, I feel this is the most practical, preferable sequence of events:
Step 1: Email your story pitch (article idea) to the commissioning editor or features editor of the magazine. This should be a one-paragraph summary of your idea, written in a compelling way. If you have photos to accompany your story, send a couple of samples, but no more. First impressions count, especially in emails, so make sure you spell the name of the commissioning editor correctly when emailing your pitch to him or her. Phone the magazine’s switchboard and the receptionist will usually happily supply the relevant name and email address.
Step 2: Ideally, the editor accepts your pitch and commissions you – in other words, asks you to write the article outlined by you in your email.
Step 3: Email back, accepting the commission. Now is the time to bring up the question of pay rates. The editor might have included a word rate in his or her email to you. If not, simply write ‘My rate is RX per word.’ Try not to get into arguments over your payment rate, especially if you’re offered something lower than you were expecting. Negotiate diplomatically, but keep things friendly and professional if you’re hoping to build a relationship with the editor. Inexperienced writers are often offered a lower rate (from R2 a word) while experienced writers earn from R3 per word upwards. In the US, pay rates range wildly, from 14c a word up to $3 a word, with the average at $1 a word. In the UK, mainstream consumer magazines pay between £375 and £500 per 1000 words.
What if you’ve sent out story pitches but nobody’s responded? After a week or two, follow up on the article ideas you emailed. Simply resend your pitch or phone up, and say in a friendly way, ‘Hi, I’m just wondering if you’re interested in this story.’ Don’t take their silence personally. Don’t threaten, plead or whine: editors are frantically busy at all times. You may need to jog their memories, but never stalk them. If you get no response after two more tries, send your pitch to another magazine.

Magazine editors want punchy, well-written, quick-to-read stories that convey relevant information to their readers with clarity and ease. Flair, individuality and a dash of humour – where appropriate, of course – are appreciated too.
First, soak up the magazine’s style. Read through recent issues to gain a solid sense of the appropriate tone and style of writing. What’s the profile of the typical reader? What’s the magazine’s voice? And what’s the right tone for a story like yours? (Within the same magazine, a humorous column will differ in tone from a serious investigative piece.)
Always write in good, proper, grammatical, standard English. Email- and chatroom-speak (writing everything in lower case, sans punctuation; using abbreviations like ‘rofl’, ‘imho’ and ‘lol’) and text messaging abbreviations such as ‘c u l8er’ and ‘2nite’ aren’t acceptable.
A magazine article needs three key components:
  1. a seductive introduction that lures readers in and promises lots more where that came from;
  2. a body that’s fleshy, fascinating and satisfying – and keeps them interested right to the last paragraph;
  3. an ending that leaves them with something to think about.
Remember to…
·          Keep your writing clear, crisp and direct. Avoid long, convoluted sentences and words which might make you sound erudite but whose meaning you aren’t 100% sure of. Don’t preach, and don’t try to impress anyone. Calmly put your ego aside, and try to communicate the story as succinctly as possible.
·          Cut or rewrite any waffle. This includes 1) any boring sections, 2) anything that impedes the flow of the piece (don’t devote too much space to tangents or minor points; if they’re truly interesting, consider a sidebar instead), and 3) information that adds nothing to your story.
·          Get a second opinion. Ask a trusted friend or colleague (preferably a writer) to read through your work and point out any problem areas that require rewriting.  
·          Back up your statements with information from reliable sources. This might include statistics published by recognised authorities, results of reputable scientific studies, and quotes from eminent specialists in the field.
·          Credit all sources. When you present information you haven’t thought up yourself, you need to credit the source, whether it’s a book, newspaper, another magazine, a movie, a study or report, an organization, company or person.
·          Pepper your story with spicy anecdotes, interesting quotes, and relevant facts and examples.
·          Kill all clichés. Sure, we beat around the bush, can’t believe our eyes, never say never, wear rose-tinted spectacles, take leaps of faith or avoid them like the plague – but a good magazine journalist never resorts to clichés.
For more helpful advice, plus tips from magazine editors and successful freelance writers, read my book Writing for Magazines: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know. Good luck, and get writing! 

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