Magazine Sleuth: What to Study Before You Write
When people think of writing, they might picture themselves with their hands eagerly curled over the keyboard waiting for inspiration to strike. Then, once the frenzy of inspiration has passed, they hit the save button, and wonder what lucky magazine will have the honor of publishing it. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, right? You get inspired, pour your heart out onto the paper, and then you figure out where you’re going to send it.
While that works in certain instances—who doesn’t like inspiration when it comes along?—most of the time that approach is the opposite of what writers should be doing.
Because writers have the best chance of selling their work to magazines when they know what the publisher wants. That means a little detective work on your part, but it’s easy to do, and well worth it. After all, the magazines aren’t hiding anything. It’s all there for the savvy writer who knows what to look for.
Before I became a writer, I had no idea that magazines actually had mottos. But they do, and the more you understand their purpose and mission, the more you’ll understand how to write for them. For example, if you Google magazine mottos, you’ll discover a slew of mottos that represent all kinds of magazines, such as “For a better lifestyle” “Your daily dose of entertainment” “Keeping you updated” “The only issues that matter” “Every morning with new freshness” “Life made easier” “Be a traveler with our travel stories” and many, many more—as many mottos as there are magazines. Where are these mottos? They’re often in the title. For example, Catster Magazine includes a tiny pre-title, “Live with Catitude” and Birds & Blooms includes a little subtitle, “Beauty in Your Own Backyard.” Do a little sleuthing, and you’ll discover the heart and soul of the magazine’s purpose.
It may come as a surprise that magazines aren’t trying to capture the attention of every reader in the world. Instead, they narrow their focus to reach particular readers based on age, gender, culture, beliefs, and interests. For example, if you sent a children’s story to a magazine that publishes articles for senior citizens, it wouldn’t have a chance of being published because that’s not what the magazine publishes. Yet, every day some writers take the “scattershot” approach and shoot innumerable copies of their manuscript into the magazine stratosphere, believing that just the sheer number of their submissions will put the odds of publication in their favor, and that something will stick. Unfortunately, this approach wastes everyone’s time. It’s one of the reasons why legendary slush piles are so huge. They’re filled with manuscripts, that if the author had done a little sleuthing, wouldn’t be there at all.
Study What They Publish
One of the best ways to increase your chance of publication is to study exactly what the magazine publishes. Is it all fiction, or nonfiction? Do they publish a mix of both? Is there a department for personal essays, a page for poetry, or a section for do-it-yourself articles? Do they publish articles about events, activities, or people who’ve made a difference in the world? Studying what magazines publish is not only a great way to analyze the potential of submitting, but it’s also a great way to discover if they publish the kinds of things you like to write. It’s easy to thumb through a magazine and make general assumptions, but if you take the time to study what they publish in depth, you’ll find hidden treasures of opportunity that you might not have discovered otherwise.
One unexpected path to publication occurred when I discovered that Byline Magazine was holding a writing contest with “Advice for Beginning Writers” as the theme. I’d been writing and submitting articles for some years, and when I saw that theme, I instantly knew I had a lot to say. I studied the guidelines that included the all-important word-count limit, wrote my entry, and submitted it one day before the deadline. I was delighted when I received a phone call saying that my entry, “Confessions from the Gene Pool” won, my winning check was on its way, and I could look forward to seeing it in print in an upcoming issue.
The last element magazine sleuths will want to investigate is “voice.” This is important because each magazine conveys their message with a certain tone. Their tone may be playful, practical, sassy, irreverent, or anything in between. Think of the difference between Rolling Stone, and Ladies Home Journal for example. What they publish and the way they say it is not interchangeable.
Voice includes something else too. Voice is also how the manuscripts are written. Are they written in a first-person, second-person, or third-person? This level of detail can make all the difference when it comes to your manuscript aligning with the kinds of things the magazine publishes. Magazines aren’t interested in re-inventing the wheel because a new and radically different submission has come their way. They know what they want, and your manuscript will either fit their guidelines, or it won’t.
Everyone loves a jolt of Inspiration, but if you want to write for magazines, be a magazine sleuth and study what they want before you write.
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 100 books. and 500 stories and articles. Recent releases include NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by New York Times bestselling author/illustrator Matt Phelan, Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird, Mousequerade Ball, Chicken Lily, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, a sequel to Amazon bestseller Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg. Awards for Lori’s books include NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for K-12, Smithsonian’s Notable Book for Children, IWLA Book of the Year Award, and Rhyme Revolution’s Best in Rhyme. Lori has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for 15 years and has been a contest judge.