Writing for Magazines: What Do Editors Want?!

First, the bad news: the magazine markets shrank dramatically over the last ten years, making it tougher than ever to break in. Even if you do land an assignment, freelancing is no longer remotely lucrative unless you’re writing for top-tier mags (think “winning the lottery”). Expect to pull in a few hundred bucks at most for your effort, and count yourself lucky at that.

The magazine market ain’t what it used to be. But there’s still grand opportunity!

Even so, there are several good reasons to write for magazines. If you’ve got a book, a blog or a website, a magazine article can be a great way to promote it. If you’re eager to highlight to your niche or expertise, a well-placed article can raise your business profile a notch.

Magazine-writing can also be a great excuse to travel. (Just don’t expect to make any money doing travel-writing without years of paying your dues!) Still, the “pittance remittance” you can expect from a travel story can help offset a fraction of your travel costs — a definite win/win if you were planning on going, anyhow!

Magazine assignments also allow you to learn new things and meet incredible folks. Thanks to freelance assignments I’ve had the happy privilege of talking to all sorts of cool people, from top national health experts to pet psychics. I even got to interview Margot Kidder once!

And perhaps the best reason of all to write for magazines: it’s just plain fun. Magazine work can bring you great joy, especially if you’re writing about something you love.

What are magazine editors looking for?

So, what are magazine editors looking for these days?

First off, of course, they’re looking for stories that will appeal to their readers. So start out with a good grasp of the magazine’s demographic. Who are their readers, and what’s the age range? Are readers generally men, women, or both? And what are readers looking for from this particular publication? Craft a pitch to assist or entertain or educate the folks the magazine is designed to reach.

Editors want articles that are fun, lively, and haven’t been done to death. A piece on “How to bake an apple pie”? Utterly ho-hum. “How to bake an apple pie in a Dutch oven on a camping trip”? Now you’re talking!

Come up with something unexpected. (In this case, it’s the rabbit who’s doing a hat trick.)

Come up with an innovative way to do something, or interview an expert no one’s uncovered before. Suggest a unique solution, or find a new way to tackle an old problem, and write about that. Explore uncharted territory, and offer tips for others who might want to experience that same adventure. Even if you think your idea is new, check back issues to see if the magazine has already run a similar story in the past couple of years.

An editor’s time is precious. So they’re eager for clean copy they won’t have to spend hours whacking into shape. They’re looking for writers who’ve already learned their craft. They want words that flow logically from one sentence to the next.

Forget deathless prose. Go for clean copy and smooth transitions.

Show ’em your chops, starting out right in your query. Keep  sentences short and tight. Don’t ramble on and on forever, with strung-on phrases, multiple clauses, and endless digressions that lose the reader before they get to the very bitter end of a wandering sentence like this one. Make sure you have a point for your story; then make sure the story gets there.

Don’t make your editor feel she’s doing this to get your story in on time.

Editors desperately need to know they can depend on you. Editorial calendars are unforgiving. If you land an assignment and your deadline is June 1st, don’t plead for an extension on the last day of May. Do whatever it takes to get that story in on time — or submit it early and really make your editor’s heart sing!

Double- and triple-check your work to make sure all your facts are right. Nothing will kill your chances of future assignments faster than sloppy, incomplete research. Don’t guess. Do your homework.

And last but not least — I know you already know this — proofread everything before you send it. (You spellchecked it, too, didn’t you?)

That’s it! That’s what magazine editors want.

Now go make some editor’s day. Pitch away!

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Karen Dustman is a published author and freelance writer with hundreds of magazine articles in print. She still gets a kick from turning them in early. Karen especially loves writing for history, genealogy, and natural health magazines. Check out her books at Clairitage.com, and her magazine clips and credits on her author website, www.KarenDustman.com.