Magazine writing is a craft that stands apart from the kind of writing you might encounter in a newspaper, journal, essay, or full-length book. Even within the broader landscape of magazine writing, many subgenres demand different styles and skills—you’ll approach a long feature article differently than you would a human interest story; tackling an investigative exposés requires a different skill set than writing reviews and cultural criticism. So while your approach to magazine writing will vary depending on the publication and the nature of the article itself, you’ll still need to master the skills that set magazine writing apart from other types of writing.
6 Tips for Writing for Magazines
If you aspire to write for magazines, you’ll have to adapt to a medium that’s been rapidly transformed by digital technology. Many of today’s magazines are primarily consumed online, either in web browsers or in apps like Apple News. Some famous weekly magazines now come out monthly or even quarterly. On the other hand, new online publications sprout up constantly and many are seeking new writers who have a great story idea to pitch. Here are some writing tips to help you break into the world of magazine writing.
- Target your pitches carefully. Freelance writers typically have to pitch stories via a query letter before being given an assignment. Be judicious when you pitch to editors. Anna Wintour isn’t going to publish a dissection of the Cincinnati Bengals’ run defense in the pages of Vogue, so don’t waste her time with a query letter on the topic. Even if your pitch isn’t accepted, by engaging with a magazine you’ve begun a relationship with its staff, and you always want to impress them at every encounter. Make sure you follow a publication’s submission guidelines when you approach them with article ideas.
2. Become a specialist. Today’s media world values specialization. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst was well-versed in all professional sports, but he strategically chose to hone in on basketball when he began penning articles for ESPN: The Magazine. He credits it for his rise within that company (even though the magazine itself no longer exists). If you have specialized know-how in a particular discipline (such as medicine, music, or mobile computing), lean into it. The best stories you pitch will likely tap into your personal experience and specific knowledge base. Specialization can help you breakthrough as a new writer.
3. Do more research than you think you need. It’s always better to have more sources, quotes, and statistics than you can use in your story. Often times a magazine writer’s document of notes will be longer than the first draft of their story. If you have a great article planned, the urge to start writing immediately can be intense. But before you begin, make sure you are truly overloaded with the substantive facts that will populate your story.
4. Consider the magazine’s target audience. A magazine’s most important relationship is with its readers. If you meet those readers on their terms, you could have a long career in magazine journalism. For instance, if you’re writing pop astronomy articles for national magazines like Wired or Discover, you cannot weigh down your prose with technical jargon that interferes with your storytelling. On the other hand, if you’re writing for trade magazines in the telescope industry, you should absolutely pepper your article with tech specs. It’s what your readers want.
5. Keep track of personnel changes among magazines. Editors frequently leave one magazine and join a new one. Your connection to such people is ultimately more important than the company they work for. Even if you think you have the perfect story for Rolling Stone but you don’t know anyone there and you do know the managing editor at Pitchfork, you’ll have a much better shot with the latter. Study a magazine’s masthead and article bylines to learn who’s working there. Online resources like LinkedIn can also provide this information.
6. Be flexible. Flexibility is one of the greatest writing skills a journalist can be endowed with. Even with the greatest degree of planning, the writing process can lead journalists in strange directions. You may find that your planned 1,000-word article needs 10,000 words to do its subject justice. Conversely, you may find that what you thought would be a voluminous feature should be far more succinct. Writing is hard work even when everything goes as planned. If your story demands a different approach from what you’d originally expected, embrace flexibility. It will make the revision process all the more pleasant.