Many writers will have an idea in mind for a magazine article then try to find a market for it. To me this would be like designing a wedding dress in a size 6 then trying to find just the right bride who likes everything about it and can perfectly fit into it! I think your chances for success are much greater if you study a particular magazine first, then tailor your article to it.
I realize that there are writers on both sides of this fence, and this post isn’t about changing your mind one way or the other. Whichever way you prefer, I believe the following tips will help you customize your article to match the style and needs of any magazine you choose.
The key to selling your article to a magazine–aside from great writing, of course–is to match the magazine’s style as perfectly as possible. You do this by studying the magazine’s back issues, paying close attention to the following:
1. Word Count and Length–Editors will give word counts in their writers guidelines, which you must adhere to if you want your article to stand a chance in the slush pile. But aside from entire article word counts, also pay attention to paragraph or section word counts. These won’t be given in the guidelines, but after examining several articles of the type you wish to submit, you can get a good idea of how long or short the typical paragraph or section is. By section, I’m referring to each subtitled part of your article. This is an easy fix if you already have an article written. Simply lengthen or shorten your paragraphs or sections accordingly to better match the way the magazine’s articles are written.
2. Type of Article-Determine what kind of articles the magazine seems to prefer: round-ups, expert interviews, folksy-style memoirs or anecdotes, factual/statistical information, etc. Most magazines will probably have some combination of these different styles, but you want to make sure that you’re not submitting something that is completely off-target.
3. Tone–How are the articles written? Do most include some sort of humor? Do they tend to have more of a literary feel or are they written for the common folk? Tone is everything to a magazine. It’s what defines it. Compare The New Yorker with Time Magazine or Family Fun. It’s imperative that you’re able to match a magazine’s tone in order to sell your work to them. To help yourself determine the tone, think of it in terms of mood. What sense do you get from reading the articles? Do they leave you feeling more educated, light-hearted, or maybe with a call to action? Whatever feel you get from the tone of the article is what you’re going to have to capture and present in your own submission.
4. Interviewing Techniques–If you’re writing a non-fiction research piece that requires interviews, search the articles of the magazine to see how their interviews are handled. Who are being quoted as experts? Will you need to reach the company CEO, or will someone in Human Resources work just as well? Are several experts quoted for the same subject, or do the articles focus on only one or two? Also pay attention to how the quotes are woven throughout the text and if the magazine seems to prefer a round-up style of interviewing where the reader hears from each expert on each topic, or if the quotes are more randomly strewn throughout.
5. Openings and Closings--Pay attention to how the articles typically open. I used to write regularly for one family magazine whose editor wanted all the articles to open with an anecdote or a true story about a family. Some editors just want you to be creative with a great hook to pull the reader in. Others prefer more of a journalistic style where you get right to the point of your article. Not knowing a magazine’s usual article opening could kill off your chances of a sale within your first paragraph.
Equally as important are the closings. Take note to see if most of the article endings go full circle and touch on a point you made in your opening. Or, maybe the endings are to be written to leave the reader wanting more with some question still unanswered. Often, depending on the theme of the magazine, closings will drive the reader to a point of action, or at least give him something to think about.
6. Readership Education Level–It’s important to match your vocabulary and sentence length to the magazine’s readership. Think about the difference in terms of type of reader, education level, and preferred writing style among Travel & Leisure readers and a local farming magazine in Iowa (please, no offense meant to farmers or Iowans!). You will notice a very different vocabulary and level of readership. Make sure that your writing reflects the level of reader you’re trying to reach. If you’re not sure about a particular magazine, pay attention to the ads, which will offer definite clues as to who the magazine is trying to reach: the college educated, worldly, vocational school graduate, business savvy, or the middle class family of four.
If anyone has other clues they look for when analyzing magazines for submission that they’d like to share, I’d love to hear about them! If you can master these techniques by matching your own article to the various points mentioned, you are well on your way to a magazine sale…and a huge step beyond most writers who are also submitting.