You’ve always dreamed of being a writer but wondered where to begin. Many aspiring writers immediately think, Book! I’ll write a book.
However, this is not typically the best move. Better to build a consistent byline in periodicals than leap headlong into the audacious task of crafting a book. When you’ve carved out a name for yourself and learned how to query and format various types of articles, you will be in much better shape to write a book.
So, where do you start when writing for magazines?
First of all, you need to garner ideas. If you’ve never kept a journal, now’s the time to start. I began journaling in college as a way to process my spiritual growth. But it morphed into so much more as I chronicled thoughts/feelings on my day and significant milestones in my life, such as my wedding day and births of my daughters. How many articles I’ve crafted from these seed gems, I can’t tell you. Journaling is not only therapeutic but can provide a wealth of article and story ideas, even years after you’ve jotted down your thoughts.
Another helpful exercise is taking a sheet of paper then drawing several columns down the page. You might list hobbies, interests, jobs, church family, family of origin, volunteer work, pets, or any number of categories to get you started. Under each section, write down ideas that come to mind. You might enjoy dabbling around with photography which could lead to an interesting article on the subject. You may have experienced something life-changing in your local church which could be fodder for an inspirational article.
Once you gather ideas, you will want to research the magazine market. A host of periodicals await your perusal, from Christian living and self-help to travel and home-making. Depending on the magazine, you may read adventure, seasonal, devotional, humorous, and persuasive articles. Personality profiles on famous figures may also be represented. Web copy is a huge market as all those Google searches need a writer fueling the content. And don’t forget filler material. There is a wealth of possibility when it comes to one sheets included with Sunday school curriculum, sub-departments in magazines that run short articles of 150 – 300 words, or jokes in periodicals like Reader’s Digest. One quip can bring in $300. I remember writing for Discipleship Journal, routinely drawing $150 per short piece/book review. Such work breeds easy money while building experience and a byline.
This is also the time to purchase a copy of the Writer’s Market Guide for the mainstream market and the Christian Writers’ Guide for the Christian market. I bought a copy online for $17. Well worth the investment. Actually, this guide helped me break in. The book covers everything imaginable you’d want to know about writing for magazines, as well as books, contests, writers groups, agents, classes, and more. You learn what each editor is looking for, how many times a magazine is published, desired word count and topics, the contact info, helpful tips for breaking in, and the payment terms. The guide is updated annually.
After you have an idea of what you want to write about and you’ve studied the market, it’s time to delve into the writing process. Start by studying the magazine(s) you’d like to target. Often, you can receive a complimentary copy or you can peruse articles online in a free database. Whichever way you go, make sure you study two or three back issues, from cover to cover. This is important for several reasons. First of all, you want to learn what readers are interested in. Secondly, you want to learn what the magazine has recently covered so you don’t duplicate topics. Thirdly, you want to learn the names of the managing or acquisitions editor. In short, you want to be knowledgeable enough about the periodical that you can effectively discuss with the editor ways you can make a valuable contribution.
Next, you want to research your topic, if needed. The more you know about your topic, the better, even if all the info isn’t included in your article. Be sure to organize and save your research by topic either in hard copy or in a Word file or both. Based on your research, you can then jot down a simple or detailed outline according to your preference. An outline helps you organize your article into sections and will often become the subheadings when you write the piece. I often tell my writing students that organizing and developing an article requires much the same process as any type of writing. You want a gripping introduction where you pose a thought-provoking question, share a personal anecdote, or provide a startling statistic. Grab the reader what the start. Make him want to read on. Then you transition into the body of the article where you develop the points of your outline. You may include source material, so make sure you adequately annotate others’ work. In this section, you want to make sure you keep the reader hanging on to the finish line. Then you will wrap up the article with a satisfying conclusion that briefly summarizes your main points, offers a challenge, or encourages the reader, depending on the type of article you are writing.
Often writers wonder which comes first: querying the editor about an idea or writing the full article. You can do it either way. Personally, I like writing the entire article. That way I have a solid take on what I want to present. I can always modify according to the editor’s preference if the idea is accepted. Of course, the writers’ guide will specify what the editor wants. If the entry states, “Query Only,” that means you must only submit a proposal. A proposal typically includes a brief cover letter stating who you are and what you have to offer through your topic, two to three paragraphs detailing what you will cover in your article and why you think it would be a good fit for the magazine, the word count, and your qualifications to write the article. Don’t make promises you can’t deliver. This leaves a bad taste in an editor’s mouth, and s/he may not request another article from you. Always include your full name and contact information on every page of your proposal. Address the editor by his or her name rather than “Dear Editor.” This shows you’ve done your homework and reveals professionalism from the get-go.
Once you’ve submitted your query or full article, then comes the waiting . . . and the waiting. Don’t sit around and fume, or check your inbox every thirty minutes. Move on to another article idea and start the process over again. Publishing anything is usually a slow process. If after two months you haven’t heard from the editor, email a friendly note asking for the status on the article. Always include your name and contact info at the header of the email and the title of the article. Also, keep a file list of submitted articles/queries with posted dates of submittal/acceptance/rejection. I like to color code the various statuses so I can easily breeze through my list and see where I stand. However you choose to manage your file, it’s crucial that you keep one in order to know who you’ve submitted to and when.
Furthermore, in your desire to break in, always maintain a professional attitude. A humble, teachable spirit will go a long way in wooing an editor to your project. My first big break into the periodical market was a lesson in this very thing. When my first attempt was rejected by a major Christian magazine, I decided to email the editor and ask what I could do to oblige his readership with the article. After two months of waiting, I heard back from him. He said, “You know, I’ve worked with this magazine for six years. Never in all the time I’ve been here have I rethought an article once I rejected it. But something made me look at yours again.” The magazine did publish my feature article titled, “Releasing Rachel: When God Calls Your Child into Fulltime Missions.” The magazine hit the stands the same month Rachel, our single daughter, left for career missions in India. Perfect timing that only God could know and orchestrate.
Lastly, but most importantly, bathe the entire process, from garnering ideas to finding a publisher, in prayer. Without the aid of the Holy Spirit, we as aspiring or seasoned writers will not enjoy the power and impact we desire for our words.