Probably one of the hardest parts about writing is deciding what exactly to write about. When it comes to writing magazine articles this can be especially tough because there are such a wide variety of angles, or approaches from which to write.

As you’re searching for a story, you’ll need to keep the breadth of your focus in mind. You can think of this like the lens on a camera, zooming in and out to include more or less of the overall picture. Remember that when determining an angle, or focus, for your article, you must keep it general enough that you have adequate information to write about–zoom out to give your reader a wide enough view of your topic. But, at the same time zoom in enough to provide a clear focus on one specific area of your theme. If your focus is too broad, you will lead your reader down too many paths at once.

Always keeping this balance of focus in mind, you can set out to find your story. My suggestion when writing for magazines is to determine what magazines you want to approach before writing your article. Some people write the article first then try to find a magazine to sell it to. But because all magazines have different guidelines, word counts, themes, and so forth, to me that’s a lot like designing a wedding dress then trying to find that one bride who not only likes it, but who fits into it perfectly–it’s a hard sell!

So, start with what the magazine wants–what themes or topics are they looking for? How should the article be structured: a how-to format, an anecdote to open, an interview style? What’s the overall tone of the magazine: lighthearted, scholarly, humorous? Who is the magazine’s target market?

Answering these questions will also help you narrow your search for an appropriate story. After reading through several issues of the magazine you want to submit an article to, you should have a very good feel for what your story should look like. Now your job is to keep your eyes open! Stories can be found anywhere–if you’re looking.

Here are some places that may generate story ideas:

1. Current news stories or topics–Dig into the stories you see in your local paper or on the internet. Look beyond the story itself to find another story, and then consider all the different angles from which you could approach that new story. One example is a story about a local robbery in your area. From that one story you could research robbery trends–how much have robberies increased due to a bad economy? Which places are most likely to get robbed? How has the typical robber profile changed in a poor economy vs. a good economy (and it has!)? Questions like this help you see a story inside another story that other writers may have not considered. This approach can be taken with just about any news story.

2. Local events–What’s going on in your town or state right now? State fairs? Sporting events? See what kind of stories you can pull from things happening around you. Go to the event, if possible, interview those involved in putting the event together, research the economic effect such an event has on an area, an so forth. You might be surprised at what you can learn about a local 4-H competition, or the inspirational story that may come from it!

As I write this, our town just finished its third day of a Labor Day weekend Balloon Classic, with hot air balloon launches every morning at the crack of dawn and balloon glows every night after sunset. If I wanted to write about hot air balloons, I could get several angles from this one event: the origins and history of ballooning, what goes into organizing such an event (and I would interview the organizers), what it’s like to pilot a balloon (I’d interview some pilots), how to get into ballooning and get licensed, hot air balloon training facilities around the country, etc.

3. People around you--If you’re writing for a magazine that thrives on personal interest pieces, start paying attention to the stories of people you meet or perhaps hear about in your area who are doing something interesting or have an inspiring tale to share. You’ll have to put on your journalism hat, but start asking questions to learn about the stories that people have. Then take those stories and put an interesting twist on them by using a creative angle or point of view to tell them. If you find 3 or more people who have a similar story (cancer survivors, for example), use a round-up style article to share–as well as compare and contrast–each of their stories under one common theme.

A current example from my area is the Waldo Canyon Fire that ravaged our neighborhoods a couple of months ago. Everyone in my surrounding area has a story to share about the fire–the pressures of evacuating, the emotion of not knowing if their house made it, the devastation of losing a home or relief of not losing a home, and the tough decision of whether to rebuild in the same area. I could find several people to do a round-up article on and share their stories. To make it more interesting, I could get the stories from children as well as adults, who would have an entirely different perspective, and I could interview those who took care of evacuees, as well as the evacuees themselves.

There are stories everywhere. Usually the best ones are those that underlie the obvious. What makes a story great is the writer’s ability to get past the obvious and superficial story and into the deeper one, come up with a unique angle, and present it from an interesting perspective.

I’d like to hear from some of you on how you gave an ordinary story an extra-ordinary twist, or share any questions you may have about how to do this.

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.