Some Basics on Magazine Writing

by W. Terry Whalin

Blank page. You roll the paper into the typewriter and sit there poised with your hands on the keys. Or maybe you turn on your computer and sit with an empty screen. What do you write?

Many writers and would-be writers have told me how that blank page petrifies them. In this article, we'll explore my technique for putting together a magazine article from idea to finished product.

Getting over the Hump

It's a rare day that I have trouble putting those initial words on paper. I always do some preparation ahead of time, then use a slight trick. Ideas for magazine articles are everywhere and the places to write are just as plentiful. Maybe you have an interesting personal experience story that you can capture? Possibly you have been involved in a ministry and created some unique materials that you'd like to tell to others through a how-to article. Maybe you've compiled some teaching on a topic from the Bible and would like to get that into print.

Or if you don't have any material from your own experience to write about, consider interviewing some interesting people around you and writing their story for publication.

The first question to ask is: who is my audience? What publication will use this article? The possibilities are end-less: adult, women, men, children, teenagers, or youth. Are they in a specialized occupation such as pastors or school-teachers? Are they a certain age? The important thing is to be sure to target a specific audience--not simply Christians in general.

Every writer meets with rejection and projects which are never published. In fact, I have files of material which has circulated and never been published. I caution you that rejection and unpublished articles is a part of the writer's life and the road to consistent publication.

Increase Your Publications Odds

The bulk of my magazine writing is done on assignment. How do you get an assignment? Which magazines do you read on a consistent basis? Your familiarity with these publications and the types of articles that they publish, gives you some needed background.

Pull out the magazines that come into your home.

Organize them with several months from the same publication. Then study the contents. What types of articles do they publish? How-to articles? Personal Experience? For example, at Decision almost every article is a first-person, personal experience story. If you send them a how-to article which is not written in the first person, you are asking for rejection. Or if you write a story about someone else in the third-person, you will again invite rejection.

After you have studied the publications, then write the publication for their writers guidelines. Almost every magazine has guidelines for their author. Write a simple letter asking for guidelines and enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the response. You can find the address for the publication usually on the masthead of the magazine under editorial offices. Or use The Christian Writers Market Guide by Steve Laube. This guide is a critical tool if you are going to write for the Christian marketplace. After reading through the guidelines, you will have some additional information. Does the publication accept query letters or prefer full manuscripts? Some magazines have a query only system. This means that you have to write a query letter and get a letter of request from the editor, before sending the full manuscript. Other publications like Decision do not look at query letters but only completed manuscripts.

What's a query letter? Entire books have been written on this topic and one of the best is Irresistible Query Letters by Lisa Collier Cool (Writer's Digest Books). A query is a single-page letter which sells your story idea. It has a four paragraph formula. The first paragraph is a creative beginning for your article. You don't write the entire article--only the first paragraph which captures the reader's interest. The purpose of this first paragraph is simply to capture the editor's attention. I won't walk you through the day of an editor but since I've been one for years, I know they are involved in a multitude of tasks. For editors to read query letters, it is often done at the end of the day, late at night or in a car pool on the way home. It must be interesting.

The second paragraph includes the main points of how you will approach the article. The third paragraph gives your personal qualifications for this topic and your writing credits (if any). It basically answers the question, why should you of all the writers get this assignment? Highlight your own area of expertise in this paragraph.

The final paragraph says how soon you could write the article (give yourself enough time for example, "three weeks from assignment") and says you are enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope and looking forward to their reply. I often send the letter to as many as ten different publications at the same time.

Within the magazine business, there is an on-going discussion about simultaneous submissions (where you send the same finished article to several publications). If you do this, you may end up on the black list of authors. Each publication has a list of people that they will not work with. You don't want to be on that list. Also each publication has a list of authors they use regularly and call with ideas. Your goal is to get on this particular list of regular contributors.

From my perspective, a simultaneous query is not the same as a finished article. Go ahead and query several magazines at the same time on the same topic if you think you can write several different articles on the same subject. One magazine may ask for 500 words on the topic while another may approach it from an entirely different viewpoint and ask for 2,000 words. Your illustrations and information will be considerably different. If you send it to ten magazines, you may get ten rejections. On the other hand, perhaps you will get an acceptance or two, or at least a request to see the entire article on speculation. "On speculation" means that the editor is not under obligation to purchase your article if it doesn't meet the periodical's standards or expectations.

A word about rejection of your queries and manuscripts

An article or query may be rejected for many different reasons. Maybe the publication has already purchased an article on that topic. Maybe they've recently assigned it to another author. Maybe they have an article on that topic coming in an issue which is already in production but not printed. There are many different reasons for rejection which are out of your control as a writer.

Sometimes even out of rejection comes an assignment. Several years ago, I had queried a number of magazines about writing on listening to the Bible on tape. I targeted the January issues of publications for this short how-to article. Every magazine rejected it.

Several weeks later, I received a phone call from a new editor at Christian Life magazine. They too had rejected the idea earlier. "We're sorting through some old queries," she explained. "Would you be able to write 500 words on the topic in the next three weeks?" No problem. That little article turned into one of my most popular articles for reprint in other publications.

After Deciding Your Topic

You've decided what publication and what type of article you are going to write. What next? Research. One word of caution about research. Make sure you have a specific ending to your research. Some writers spend huge amounts of time in research and never sit down and write the article. How will you collect the information for your article? Will it come from your personal experience? Will you need some stories from other people? Will it involve library research for statistics?

At your local library, make friends with the local librarians. They are a gold mine of information and resources.

Sometimes a story will require interviewing several people or one person. While this article is not about interviewing, make sure you prepare as much ahead of time before the interview with your questions. Also use a recording device for the actual interview. I have a small micro-cassette player which is almost immediately forgotten by the person that I'm interviewing. Any number of times, I've had people lean closer to me (speaking closer into the machine) and say, "I've never told this to anyone."

For some stories, the interview doesn't have to be very long--even ten minutes on the telephone can get some useful stories and quotations--provided you're asking pointed questions.

Just remember for interviewing:

* no matter how famous the person, don't forget they are a real person too with feelings and concerns. It will help you treat them naturally.

* if it is a telephone interview, you have to tell the person that you are recording the conversation for legal purposes and also use a good recording device (try your local Radio Shack for ideas).

* if the person is well-known and seemingly unreachable. Try asking their publisher to set up an interview. Explain your purpose and the amount of time that you need. Most publishers are more than willing to help you to schedule an interview with their authors. These publishers will furnish you with complimentary books as background for your research and schedule the interview time. After the article is published, make sure you send or arrange for the magazine to send, a copy of the article back to the publisher. Publicists for book publishing houses, have dozens of projects going simultaneously. Your article will appear months after you set up the interview. Some of these interviews result in articles and others do not. You want to establish your track record with the publishers for following through on your ideas and getting the information from their author published. This step of sending them the article builds your credibility and reputation as a writer for future writing projects.

After the Research

If you've written a query letter, then you've already written the opening for your article. Otherwise, the first step in the writing is to create a motivating opening story. The key phrase is to make it motivating. The opening has to propel the reader into the rest of the article so they can't stop reading.

Here's one example from my own personal story: "I've gone to church most of my life but I lived off my parent's faith until half way through my sophomore year in college." How is that? Would it propel you to keep reading?

Here's the way my story began in a published article, "I slapped the snooze alarm for the third time and finally opened my eyes at Chi Phi, my fraternity house. Last night had been a late one. After covering an evening speech and inter-view for the school paper, I worked frantically on the story until just before midnight, when I dropped it into the hands of a waiting editor."

Compare these two examples. Notice the detail in the second version. I am not telling you about the experience, I am showing you. Repeatedly the writing books and teachers say, "Show don't tell." They are saying to include dialogue and the type of detail for a story which will propel the reader into the article.

After writing the opening for the article, how do you continue? If you've done your research for the article, you will not write 2,000 words for a publication that only takes 500 word articles. So you will have a target length for your article. This word count helps give some definition to your plan.

Also if you've done your research, you've thought about the article and focused it. Can you summarize the point of the article into a single sentence? Complete the sentence: My article is about _____. After you've written this sentence, never wander away from this goal. Sometimes in articles, I saw at Decision, the author would begin well then wander around and finally conclude. The articles lacked focus and the sentence statement will help you keep the article on track.

I write from an outline. Normally my article will have a number of points or illustrations. A standard outline would be the problem, the possible solutions and your solution. If you're writing about a person, your outline might include different aspects of the person's life such as childhood, life before Christ and life after Christ. Write out the different points for your outline. When I write a short story, I use the same approach. What is the beginning, middle and ending? An outline keeps the writer focused on the goal of the article.

Also be realistic with yourself and your writing life. Can you only write for thirty minutes a day or maybe it is only ten minutes? Are you motivated to write the entire article in one session? Possibly you write only one point from your outline during a session. Whatever your writing goal, the point is to write consistently and keep moving the article toward completion.

After you've written the article, put it away for a period of time. If you are on a tight deadline, that might involve eating lunch and then returning to it. If you have the time, it might involve several days or a week. When you return to your article, read it out loud. The ear is less forgiving than the eye. Reading it out loud, will point out areas for you to revise and rewrite.

Good writing is rewriting

Here are some questions to consider: Does it make sense? Are there areas that are missing? Can you tell some of the stories with more detail and emotion? Is the article focused and targeted for the assigned publication? How about the ending? As a reader, how do you feel about it?

Try to look at your writing through objective and impersonal eyes. Consider the purpose of your article. Was it to motivate readers to action? Did it achieve it's purpose?

Sweep through the article and check it for spelling and grammar mistakes. You'd be amazed to know how many articles are submitted for publication with typing errors and simple grammatical mistakes. As a writer, you want to present the best article possible. Give it an additional check.

If you have the opportunity, you might want to allow a friend or a fellow writer to read your article and give you feedback. One caution about this process. Ultimately you are in charge of the contents of the article that you will submit. Don't soak up criticism like a sponge but consider each comment. Does it have validity? If so, change it and if not, ignore it.

The final step is to submit your material to a publication. In your cover letter to the publication, explain your familiarity with the magazine. If you've been taking it for years and faithfully reading it, say so. Don't exaggerate but this familiarity shows your professional stance. Also express your willingness to make changes in the direction and make revision. Maybe an editor will like your opening illustration but have a completely different direction for the article. If you've expressed willingness to revise, you will have an opportunity for publication. If you've said, I wrote it and this is it, then you'll miss that opportunity. The professional stance is to show flexibility to the direction from an editor.

There are many excellent books on writing magazine articles. They will include greater detail than I can provide in a single article. You can get these four titles throgh the links on the titles. The ones I recommend are:

* Introduction to Christian Writing by Ethel Herr (ACW Press). This is a good basic Christian writing text with hands-on exercises at the end of every chapter.

* The Magazine Article, How to Think It, Plan It, Write It by Peter Jacobi (Indiana University Press). Dr. Jacobi regularly teaches at Folio seminars which is where editors of the major magazines get additional training. He teaches magazine writing at Indiana University.

* Basic Magazine Writing by Barbara Kevles (Writer's Digest Books). This book covers seven different types of articles.

* Handbook of Magazine Article Writing (Writer's Digest Books). Here is a compilation of some of the best articles about magazine writing from past issues of Writer's Digest magazine in one volume.

A Final Word

Writing for magazines has no formula.

Each article is unique from a creative source--you the writer. But there is an expected format for articles. Your manuscript needs to be in a professional manner--typed, double-spaced with good margins, etc. Some publications have a formula to be followed for a specific section of their magazine (word length, essential elements, etc.).

Each writer has to discover their place with words. The process of discovery takes initiative on your part to step out and try. Also it involves getting some rejection but persistence. Maybe you can't write teaching articles but you have a creative bent for teenagers. This process of self-discovery begins with a single step.

Several years ago, I received a letter from a prisoner who had read my biography about Romulo Saune (One Bright Shining Path). Other times, I have received letters from children who have enjoyed my books. We'll never know the impact of our words and articles. As I read magazine articles and they motivate me to action and change, your articles can have the same impact.

Take the step and begin to fill that blank page with words.


W. Terry Whalin understands both sides of the editorial desk--as an editor and a writer. He worked as an editor for Decision and In Other Words. His magazine articles have appeared in more than 50 publications including Writer's Digest and Christianity Today. Terry has written more than 60 nonfiction books and one of his latest books is Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams. See more about Terry For more than 12 years Terry has been an ECPA Gold Medallion judge in the fiction category. He has written extensively about Christian fiction and reviewed numerous fiction books in publications such as CBA Marketplace and BookPage. He is an Acquisitions Editor at Morgan James Publishing and creator of Sign up for Terry's free newsletter, Right Writing News. Terry and his wife, Christine, live in Colorado.

© 2023 W. Terry Whalin

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