From Kate’s Writing Crate…
Last week I wrote about writing advice I gave to an intern. This week, I’m giving advice to more experienced writers.
I have edited three local monthly magazines as well as a state-wide monthly magazine at the same time. The common challenge is filling all the space between the ads on all the pages.
To accomplish this, every month I have to come up with six to ten topics for articles for each magazine, depending on page counts, a month or two before deadline. Then I assign them to writers who will interview people, write comprehensive and well-organized pieces that meet the word count on deadline. I also have five columnists on staff covering sports, gardening, family life, books, and observations on life. Two columnists also write articles.
Finding good writers is essential which means there are writing opportunities out there. Experienced writers with tear sheets (previously published articles from other publications) are good to work with as they know what to do—although it may turn out these writers have been edited heavily. However, new writers are excited and willing to learn. Their energy is infectious and fun.
As long as new writers are serious about completing assignments, they should ask for assigned articles submitting writing samples when requested. I often assign new writers articles I need in two months to see if they can meet a two or three week deadline. This gives me time to recover if they fail.
To get published in a magazine, a serious writer should send editors short inquiries about article ideas he or she would like to write (or have already written) that fit a publication’s style. Be familiar with the publication. Make sure your ideas will be compatible. As I mentioned, editors have to generate a lot of story ideas every month so having good ones suggested by writers is helpful.
Put Article Inquiry in the subject line.
These inquiries should be short and sent to the editor by his or her name. If you cannot be bothered to find the editor’s name, you are making a bad impression and, worse yet, you are unfamiliar with the publication.
It’s best to pitch ideas for the future as issues are planned a month or two in advance. (Example: pitch December topics in September. National magazines may have even longer lead times.)
Introduce and discuss your article idea—what it is, why readers will enjoy it, and why you are interested in writing it. Then summarize your expertise and writing experience. If a new writer, offer to submit writing samples. Then end with: Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you. Include your contact information, phone and email address.
Do not expect an immediate response. Give an editor two or three weeks to respond. If no response, send the inquiry again. Editors receive emails from dozens to hundreds of readers, advertisers, the production department, the printer, press releases, compliments, complaints, and established writers so it might take a week or two for the editor to get to inquiries, longer if your email arrives during deadline week.
Once contacted, be prompt in answering an editor’s questions in response to your inquiry.
Once the editor gives you the assignment, a style sheet, word count, and deadline, deliver what you promised—an engaging and professionally written article about the idea you pitched that includes quotes from at least one person.
Do not procrastinate. Set up interviews immediately as there are always scheduling conflicts. Also, if interview has to be rescheduled, you have time to do so.
Make sure you spell each person’s name, title, and organization correctly.
Have at least 10-12 questions prepared before interview. Ask follow up questions where appropriate.
Make sure some require short or numerical answers to break up all the longer quotes for other questions.
Two questions I always ask:
What do you like best about your job or the event?
(Personality shines through in answers.)
And end of interview ask: Is there anything else you would like the public to know?
(This gives the person a chance to discuss things you might not know about so follow up questions might be needed.)
I write all the questions in the margin of my notepad if it’s an in-person interview.
If emailing questions, double check for spelling errors before sending.
When emailing questions, put the deadline date for answers in the subject line and again before the questions.
Always thank people for their time before the interview or before the written questions in an email.
Listen to answers or read them carefully.
Ask follow up questions as needed.
If handwritten, type up your notes as soon as possible after the interview.
If you can’t read some of your notes or an answer isn’t clear when you are writing your article, contact the person again to get the right answers.
In your first draft, organize your thoughts then include every quote, fact, and point you want to make regardless of word count.
Use the strongest and clearest interview statements as quotes in your article. The rest of what the person said become facts in the text. Weave these facts in with any other researched facts along with the quotes which breathe life into your articles.
Know the correct punctuation for quotes. Also, some publications use said, some use says. Use right style.
Once first draft is written, reread it. Read it aloud. Often you will find you buried your lead (best start to your article) in paragraph two, three, or even six. Reorganize paragraphs as needed.
Then rewrite and polish your article repeatedly until it is the best work you can produce and within the word count.
Look for better choices of words—i.e., one word that can replace a wordy description. (Every writer in my opinion should have and use the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. Read the Introduction “In Search of the Exact Word” by Richard Goodman, pp. xi-xvii, to see exactly what I mean. )
Check spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
For reference: I spend less than 40% of my time writing and over 60% rewriting my articles for publication.
Submit assignments before or on deadline date. No excuses.
I advise that new writers especially submit their articles well before deadline. Editors will remember you for doing it. This means you can be counted on and will receive future assignments provided you also wrote a good or, better yet, a great article.
What constitutes a great article?
In every article emailed to me, I want to see:
a pertinent, even clever, title,
an article with paragraphs,
only one space between sentences,
line spacing of 1.15 or 1.5,
do not start any article with a quote,
people need to be introduced to readers before being quoted,
quotes woven seamlessly into the text,
an attention-grabbing intro paragraph ,
and an ending paragraph that ties up the article well.
In between the first and last paragraphs, I look for:
proper punctuation especially for quotes,
correct spellings of words, names, and titles,
attention paid to details like dates, times, places, etc.,
true facts, statistics, etc.,
word count (within 100 words under to exact number),
and that the magazine’s style sheet was followed.
Q&A articles begin with an intro paragraph or two.
If submitting a photo, write a caption that includes (left to right) people’s names.
Writers can recommend pull quotes, but editor has final say.
Overall, I look for:
a strong writer’s voice and style,
Is lead paragraph enticing?
Is article fun to read and informative?
Are the facts clear?
Are quotes distributed throughout the article?
Is anything jarring? (bad transitions, out-of-order facts, person quoted without being introduced)
Are the contact phone number, email address, & web site listed if readers want more information?
Corrections are made following rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
The rest of changes are made to fit magazine’s style or the editor’s sense of words and style.
Most articles have excess words so editors tighten up the text by cutting these words or replacing them with more exact words.
Magazine editors do not usually discuss changes with writers unless want total rewrites
Writers may ask about changes, but not during deadline week. If you want feedback, ask the editor beforehand to see if it’s possible. Then turn article in early in case has editor has time before publication. Feedback takes a lot of time so the editor may say no. If that is the case, compare what you turned in to what was published. Changes should result in clearer or tighter writing.
If a lot of text is missing, space may have been tight on the page so change may have nothing to do with your writing. (I’ve had ads come in very late. They always go in, so text must be cut. It’s a tough business.)
If you see a pattern in the edits, work on that area of your writing.
Once an editor knows you are a professional writer who turns in great work within word count on deadline, you will get more assignments. More assignments lead to tear sheets to use when inquiring about assignments for other magazines which is the start of a writing career.