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How to Read a Magazine
and KNOW What Editors Really Want
(You'll never be the same again!)
by Tom Williams

The following material is excerpted from Chapter Two of Get Paid to Write! by Tom Williams (Sentient Publications, 2004). For individual use only and may not be reproduced or distributed by any means whatsoever without the express permission of copyright holder.

How can you know what a magazine editor wants and needs? There’s only one way. Read and study as many of his magazines as you can get your hands on, and read them cover to cover. Really read them. Read them analytically. Read every word on every page. Study the pictures, the cutlines, the sidebars, the graphics. Look especially at the advertising.

Check Out the Masthead
On one of the first five to ten pages of a magazine you will find a column or two listing the names of editors, the addresses of editorial offices and advertising sales offices, and other assorted information required by the Register of Copyrights and the U.S. Postal Service. The well-targeted query (see chapter 3) will be sent to one of the editors whose name appears on the masthead. A small magazine may list only one editor, so your choice in that case is easy. Most magazines, though, will list as many as five or ten editors.

Which one do you choose? The editor-in-chief and the managing editor are usually busy running the whole shebang and are not involved in the acquisitions process, though at some point they have to sign off on the contents of each issue. There will be one or more senior editors and a few plain old, unmodified editors. Choose one of these to address your query to. If the masthead lists an articles editor or nonfiction editor, then direct your query to that person.

An important note: If you use a directory such as Writer’s Market to locate prospects, you still need to research the masthead of the current issue of your target publication. The names in Writer’s Market will be at least a year old, and probably older, since they were gathered long before the book was printed. Further, since editors know that many beginners use this directory, the articles editor listed in its pages may be someone designated to read through the slush pile of unsolicited queries. This is definitely not where you want to be. When you get the appropriate editor’s name from the masthead of a current issue of your target magazine you avoid this problem.

The masthead will also list the names and addresses of ad sales reps or offices. Write this office (you can also call) to request a media kit. Introduce yourself as representing a possible advertiser. The media kit you receive will include not only ad sales info but a complete demographic profile of the magazine’s readership, editorial profiles of upcoming issues, and much more valuable information. The media kit also includes a copy of the most recent issue of the magazine.

What Kinds of Article Does Your Target Magazine Publish?
Read every article carefully and analytically. Out of hundreds of article ideas submitted and dozens of finished articles sent in on spec, these few were chosen to be published. Your job is to think about which ones were chosen and why. What categories do these articles fit into? You will discover that there are a few basic article types. Each published article falls into at least one of these categories.

The how-to, or service article. These articles are all-time winners. There are few magazines that do not use them at one time or another. If you have a fresh idea or a new slant on an old idea, you will eventually find a publisher for any well-written how-to piece. My first two published articles were both how-to’s. The first one was in a magazine for public school teachers called Teacher’s Scholastic (“How to Teach about Poetry”). The second one was an Esquire piece on living in France. Since then I have written and published many more service pieces. I was always on the lookout for them when I edited magazines.

How-to ideas don’t have to be dramatic. They just have to be fresh and solve real problems. I once bought a regular column called “Sunday Drives” for my weekly newspaper. Each article ran to fewer than a thousand words and was accompanied by a small, cartoon-style pictographic road map. The premise was that these Sunday drives had to be short enough that the smaller children would not get cranky and start to whine before you got where you were going, and there had to be a picnic area or country store where the family could eat at bargain-basement prices. Even today, twenty-five years later, that is the one article series that I remember most fondly from those newspaper days. You might not think that Cosmopolitan and American Quilter have anything in common, but they do. They both feature how-to’s every chance they get. American Quilter tells you how to make the quilt and Cosmo tells you what to do on top of it.

The numbered list. The numbered list is a subcategory of the how-to article. Readers love these articles. Short and to the point, they are very attractive to editors. They are also one of the very easiest freelance articles to write. There are no tricky transitions, no lengthy narrative threads to keep alive and kicking. I remember my earliest reading in the old and much-loved Boys’ Life, the first magazine I ever subscribed to. I loved such one-two-three pieces as “Ten Ways to Build a Birdhouse,” “How to Build Your Own Crystal Radio,” “Seven Meals You Can Cook Over an Open Campfire.”

Self-help articles. Self-help articles tell readers how they can change their own lives for the better. These articles tell readers how they can make more money, be more handsome or beautiful, feel more fulfilled, develop an improved self-image, lose more weight, or enjoy more sex. It helps to enrich these articles with anecdotal success stories of persons who have succeeded in reaching the goals you recommend for others.

Profiles. A profile is an article about the personality and experiences of a person of interest to the readers of a particular magazine. Some magazines carry no profiles; some seldom carry them; others carry little else. And obviously, a profile that would interest readers of Field and Stream would be different from one that would interest the readers of the New Yorker.

The interview. In an interview, the same material that you might have used for a profile is presented in a question-and-answer format.

The round-up. A round-up or survey article samples the opinion of experts on a question of interest. For an article called “What is the Future of ESP Research?” I contacted twenty leading parapsychologists. Round-up topics are as varied as the focus of individual magazines, the interests of readers, and the expertise of writers.

Nostalgia and history. Nostalgia articles are tried-and-true pieces that tell how it was in the old days. Such articles are the stock-in-trade of many regional magazines and figure prominently in some national magazines.

Personal experience. Personal experience articles relate first person adventures. These can be as varied as “How I Conquered Mount Everest” and “How I Conquered Depression.”

Investigative articles. Investigative articles range from governmental muckraking, to individual malfeasance, to institutional corruption. They expose the hidden truth about a subject of interest to readers. Such pieces are a venerable and important tradition in American journalism. Don’t try writing one unless you are rock-solid on your facts and fully documented in your conclusions.

Humor articles. Humor is a more difficult category than you might think. Timing, pace, and rhythm are everything. One man’s laugh is another’s yawn.

The essay. The essay is the traditional “think piece.” The serious ones are limited to the more intellectual, highbrow magazines, such as the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker. It’s a tough market.

As you study your target magazines you will discover several things:

• Many article ideas fit into more than one category.
• Many of your article ideas can be varied (recycled) to fit into one or more categories, and sold more than once when completely rewritten and refocused.
• Every magazine has its favorite categories. You’ve got to identify these in your target publication and write your query accordingly.
• There is an editorial format in a magazine just as there is a physical format. In my own regional magazines, I always tried to have a profile, a nostalgia piece, and a personal experience/travel piece in every issue. The freelancer who noticed that would know what to send me. If you note that a magazine never uses interviews, don’t query that magazine for an interview article; if you never see a nostalgia piece, don’t assume that they will change their editorial format to welcome yours.

Analyze Style and Technique
Every magazine has its preferred styles and techniques. Here are some of the questions you must answer as you read through your target publication:

• Does the editor prefer a first person narrative?
• Do they prefer a lighthearted, humorous tone or an objective, impersonal one?
• Are there any special stylistic characteristics that the lead paragraphs of articles share?
• Do they prefer articles rich in anecdotes and personal experience?
• What is the average length of the articles they publish?
• Do they like lists?
• Do they like subheads?
• Do they use sidebars? If they do, your query may mention sidebar ideas.

Study the Advertising
Advertising is the life’s blood of any magazine. When the advertising department can sell tons of ad space, the magazine thrives. When ad sales slump, the magazine falters. Sometimes it even fails, and ceases publication.

Study the advertising that a magazine contains very carefully indeed. Ask yourself what kind of person would buy the goods and services featured in the advertising pages.

That person is your publication’s target reader, the reader toward which the whole editorial content is slanted. Editors will be far more interested in article ideas likely to attract the kind of reader (the demographic base) that the advertisers are trying to reach than ones that do not.

You are wasting your time sending off-message article ideas to the wrong markets. It is obvious that you would not send an article on antique English china to American Railroading Magazine or an article on windsurfing to Gum Disease Today.. But there are more subtle differences of focus that are still very important and that will reveal themselves when you work a bit to find them. Studying the ads is a very useful way to do this.

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