Is This Real Writing?
The creative and challenging work of writing for magazines
August 15, 2019
Writers tend to have trouble holding onto a positive self-image.
We toil alone, usually with little or no cheering section. In fact, our writing can be seen as being a resented competitor for the attention that family and friends want. Add to this a tendency to be fairly critical of our own "success." The result is hard on every writer. If you write a beautiful story, you may have to deal with that nagging voice that says, "sure, but you're not published." So you get published in a children's magazine and the little voice says, "sure, but it's just a magazine" and the voice gets even more critical if the magazine was a non-paying market.
But is this obnoxious inner voice correct? Is writing only valuable if it's published in a book?
I certainly don't think so. I began my career by writing exclusively for magazines. It taught me to analyze markets and really pay attention to what the magazine published. So it made me a more discerning submitter, which has come in very handy now that I mostly write books. But magazine writing offered even more things. Things that are well worth a look.
Magazine Writing is Creative and Challenging
Many non-magazine writers dismiss magazine writing as being less impressive than book writing. But writing for a magazine requires the exact same skills as book writing (organization and structure, clear writing, and engagement) but adds on the demands of extremely short word counts and the often quite specific needs of the magazine. Most book writers craft the book with the knowledge that there will be many publishers who might be a good match, but magazine writers may deal with magazines that build their issues around specific themes, thus limiting the needs of each issue. This requires us to be meticulous in our research into what the magazine uses and creative in how to give it to them in new and interesting ways. (At Picture Book Summit, one agent who previously worked as an editor said having a track record of publishing in magazines is a definite plus.)
This is one reason I often studied websites. I also read submission guidelines and samples before deciding upon a story or article idea. It was easier to write something that would have its best chance in the magazine market if I actually knew the markets. Thankfully, many magazines offer online content of various sorts, including whole sample issues sometimes. They also try to make clear their needs in their guidelines. And they often have an "about" section on the website that lets me know how the magazine sees themselves, which can help me know how best to give them something they'll really find tempting.
I used this process time and again before settling down to write. This process enabled me to experience an unusually high success rate with selling to magazines. It happened because I took the time to understand the market. Of course, that kind of understanding doesn't happen overnight, so in the early part of my career, I sent plenty of totally inappropriate submissions to extremely patient editors. In fact, it's a wonder the Highlights editors didn't send me a "please go away" letter. But I kept at it, and kept studying the market, and eventually I came to understand what the magazines were telling me so that I could submit fewer and fewer inappropriate manuscripts. As with anything, it was a learning process.
Magazine Articles and Stories Change Children's Lives
One of the reasons I’m extremely proud of my publication credits in Ladybug, Spider, Highlights, Pockets, and other magazines is because I know how much a story can change the life of a reader. Stories linger. Stories offer new ways to look at the world. Stories encourage children to ask questions and seek answers. And children are the people who will change the world. So writing for them is the most inspiring thing I can do, whether I do it in books or in magazines.
It's important to understand that a magazine story isn't a failed picture book. It's not a lesser thing. In fact, book publishers and writers would relish the reader numbers of a magazine article. Though they might have a shorter life span than a book, magazines often have a longer reach. So my story may touch hundreds or even thousands of lives. How could I possibly be anything but proud of that? I've gotten fan mail from magazine stories and articles. I've had children argue with the way I've approached something, and I love that. I love that something I wrote stirred a thoughtful response.
So as you write stories or articles, don't let anyone make you feel like you're not "making it" simply because you're published in magazines. And that includes the little voice that we use to be critical of ourselves. Quite honestly, my decision to move from magazines to books was about the need to make more money, not about looking for a more impressive publication. Magazines fill children's lives with stories and with carefully researched and considered information. And being part of that is one of the proudest things I've ever done.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor.
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