The Renegade Writer

If You Don’t Read Magazines, Don’t Try to Write for Them

Magazine stackThe other day I was chatting with my Renegade Writer co-author, Diana Burrell, and she mentioned something that horrified me.

Diana teaches the fabulous Become an Idea Machine workshop that’s helped students land in the New York Times, Parenting, Success and other publications. She told me that more frequently than you would expect, she’ll suggest a student read through some magazines to help spur ideas, and they’ll reply:

“Oh, I don’t read magazines.”

Or, even worse:

“I hate magazines!”

I know this is not an uncommon scenario because when I do query critiques, sometimes it’s clear to me that the writer has not cracked open a magazine. Believe me, you can tell! For example, they’ll be pitching an edgy men’s publication and their query sounds like a government report, complete with 5-dollar words, passive case overdrive, and footnotes.

I’m not even sure how to respond to what I’m seeing out there. Why would anyone think that magazine writing is the only job in the known universe where you don’t need to know anything about the medium you hope to make money from, your clients’ products, or the marketplace?

It’s like if you were applying for a job as an accountant and you told your interviewer, “Well, I don’t know what accountants do and I don’t much like numbers, but will you give me a job?”

Of if you wanted to work at McDonald’s and you told your interviewer, “Oh, I’m a vegan and I’m morally against eating meat. I refuse to learn about your menu or serve burgers, but I want you to give me a job.”

This sounds ridiculous in all contexts — except, for some people, when talking about a freelance writing career.

Why?

I think there are a lot of Internet-famous business “gurus” out there who like to plug writing as an easy work-at-home gig where all you need is a laptop and the ability to string sentences together. After all, it’s FREElance, as in FREE to do whatever you want.

And that’s true IF you want to write $10 articles for the content mills.

But if you want to earn some decent money writing for top-notch trade, custom, and consumer magazines, for the love of all that is good and holy, you need to actually familiarize yourself with the magazine market.

When you want to become a magazine writer, reading magazines becomes a full-time job for you.

  • You read magazines you want to write for from cover to cover and study the writing, the departments, how articles are structured, and even the ads.
  • You read magazines you don’t want to write for, just for the hell of it.
  • You read Writer’s Market in its entirety every year.
  • You browse magazine directories online.
  • You become known as the crazy person who carts away stacks of outdated magazines from your hairdresser’s and doctor’s waiting rooms. (Yes, I have done this!)
  • You ask your neighbors to put their old to-be-recycled magazines on your porch. (Yep…done that too.)

When you go to the effort required to get to know the market, eventually it becomes ingrained in your brain. It becomes part of you.

So, for example…

  • When your kid’s school bus driver mentions she’d like to get into writing, you say, “Oh, you should try School Bus Fleet magazine.”
  • When you have an article idea about how to handle your tween’s hormonal temper tantrums, you know Family Circle may be a good market, but Parents is not.
  • Your article ideas become sharper and more focused because you’ve read hundreds of magazine articles and know what’s been done and how you can do it differently.
  • You’ll know that Inc. magazine ran an article two issues ago on a topic you want to pitch, so you’ll need to come up with a fresher slant if you want to query them.
  • This is not optional, folks. If you want to write for magazines, you need to read them. No, you need to study them. Lots of them.

    Here’s your challenge: Today, right now if you can, read a magazine from cover to cover, studying every part. Or, if you have a copy or are near a bookstore or library, start browsing through Writer’s Market and read all the magazine guidelines.

    How about you: Do you love magazines? Do you read them? Why or why not? (Hey, does this sound like a high school essay question?)

    photo by:

Aug 4, 2014 Advice, Marketing, Query letters, Rants

70 Responses

  1. So, I love magazines, but my problem is that it takes a lot of time to read them. How do you squeeze this in with everything else during the day? Any tips?

    Thanks!

    • You have to consider it part of your business and MAKE time for it…not squeeze it in when you have free time, which will never happen. I suggest reading the book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, by Laura Vanderkam. I’ve read it several times an d it is a real eye-opener! Even if we work 8 hours a day (which many of us actually don’t — who is productive at work 8 hours every day) and sleep 8 hours a night, we have 72 hours left per week to do the rest. It’s all about moving around the various small chunks of time you have so you can do something meaningful in them.

      • It’s not like you have to read every word…I’m a big skimmer. I read articles that interest me, for the rest I’m skimming the headlines of their articles, looking at the departments they have, who advertisers are.

        Anytime I’m in any sort of professional’s office, my eyes go write to the table — do they have any magazines here? What do they have that I don’t normally get to see?

        I’ve discovered so many magazines that way! And learned ones I might not have thought were interesting or markets for me were actually pretty cool.

        Airports are heaven…so many titles to scan and learn about!

  2. I love magazines too, and have stacks and stacks of them going back decades. No, I’m not a recluse with things piled all over my house, and dead family pets trapped behind stacks of old newspapers. I have book cases everywhere. I used to take weekly trips to my apartment building incinerator rooms, and go through the stacks of magazinies piled up for recyclers. Mostly it’s special interest publications – things like motorcycle and car magazines, or photography and electronics magazines. I have computer magazines going back to the mid-seventies, and it is amazing to look at the old ads and read the old articles about the cutting edge machines of the day, which would be overshadowed by a modern smartohone, or even by a modern watch. Magazines are great snapshots of a particular time and a particular interest. They continue to be so today, which is why magazine writing requires so much attention to what is going on.

  3. When I used to go to writers’ conferences, I would roll my eyes at all the editors who urged us writers to “read the magazine.” D’oh, I’d say to myself. I didn’t quite understand why they all seemed to harp on this until I started teaching my class and had students telling me fairly regularly they weren’t magazine readers. At the very least, you have to keep up with your markets. Seriously, I spend more time gathering and processing information than I do physically sitting at a keyboard writing. If you’re not into that kind of work, a different field of writing may be a better fit for you. :)

    • Yes, don’t you feel for those editors now? Imagine some of the pitches they’re getting from writers who don’t read ANY magazines, much less THEIR magazines.

    • Brittany says:

      Confession: Sometimes seeing this is writer’s guidelines or in interviews with editors makes me feel better about my queries. It’s sort of like applying to Princeton when you’re a well-qualified applicant and knowing that 25% of applications* are from students who just want to say they applied to Princeton.

      *Ahem, not a real statistic :P

  4. Steph Auteri says:

    I’ve been a magazine addict since forever, which is why, for much of my life, I’ve wanted to be involved in magazine publishing. At first, I wanted to get an editorial gig at a mag. Eventually, I realized I would be happier writing for magazines in a freelance capacity. And so I spent my time pitching the magazines I read and loved the most, obviously.

    In the past couple of years, however, something has shifted for me. I’ve found myself enjoying magazines less and less, letting my multitudes of subscriptions lapse. At the same time, I’ve found that my drive to pitch magazines has also fizzled out.

    But it makes sense, right? If you don’t enjoy a magazine’s content, why would you want to write for them? You should be writing something you feel proud of and/or passionate about.

    These days, I spent most of my time collaborating with sexual health professionals, writing and editing content related to that, aimed at that professional audience. It’s what I find fulfilling right now.

    I’d be curious to know how others’ writing focus has shifted over time based upon their shifting interests.

    • I think we all experience that kind of burnout! I went a while where I wrote for mostly trades and couldn’t even look at the women’s mags anymore. Then I came out of it, and have been reading and writing for them again. It seems to happen in cycles. But the important thing is (as you said), if I’m not reading them, I’m not pitching them.

  5. Rosalind says:

    It’s a sad fact that people somehow get the idea that you can just magically write without doing any research. I’ve had to wean myself from so many subscriptions but I still read every magazine that comes into my sight. I actually teach a college class called Magazine Article Writing. The students are journalism majors with a concentration in magazines. Guess how many students actually read magazines? About 10-12 percent of every class. Without them telling me, I can immediately tell who reads magazines and who doesn’t because the writing is much more targeted and concise. Some of the students read blogs and some read assigned books but it’s not the same thing and it shows in their work.

    • So it’s really true and I’m not just imagining that all of these aspiring magazine writers don’t actually read magazines! I can’t imagine anyone in any other type of college program or any other type of career ever doing this.

  6. I enjoy magazines, but not have spent much time reading them lately. I know that it’s vitally important to read in the area that you want to publish in, and then read outside of that area, too. At the moment, i’m trying to focus on reading more travel magazine content in the hopes of sparking some ideas there.

  7. Ruth says:

    Well, guess I’ll ‘fess up. I don’t read magazines NEARLY as much as the rest of y’all! When I do, it’s online, usually aggregated through Feedly, and not always the ones I pitch.

    When I started freelancing, I did a TON of research — read cover to cover, analyzed advertising, highlighted stuff, took notes … Then I realized my gig-landing queries all started with “X sent me your way,” showed I brought special experience (e.g. a nonprofit background or having visited Cameroon) and/or had a killer idea.

    Now I just Google search to make sure the pub I’m pitching (or a competitor) hasn’t recently run a similar story. Then, I read a few headlines, skim a few pieces, check out their media kit for demographic info.

    Later, I ask assigning editors to send me an article they felt was particularly successful, and that’s what I use as a model. Turns out, editors don’t always want to maintain the status quo.

    To get at the “why” : I guess I feel like magazines just aren’t as fun as they used to be. May be awful to say, but it seems like a lot of content is super similar, at least when it comes to business, lifestyle and travel, which I usually cover.

    Unsure if this has to do with crazy search engine algorithms or our collective obsession with listicles, but after reading through my Feedly, I often feel like I’ve read the same article like 3 or 4 times. Am I the only one who feels like this?

    Phew! It felt good to come clean and get that off my chest! ;-)

    • Ha ha, you’re still doing a lot more than most! I’m not sure if the articles are all the same these days, or it’s just that we’ve been reading them so long that we see the same evergreen pitches come up again and again with different slants. But even though I do sometimes laugh at the articles that turn up in the magazines I wait for, I like to enjoy them as an art form.

    • Leeanne Hay says:

      @Ruth: You took the words right out of my… head! All I keep reading in glossies and on online mags (and too many newspaper columns) are re-hashed stories that just look and sound like they have been Thesaurus-ized!

      I’m a ‘newbie’ to the freelance writing world, but I’ve always been a voracious reader and researcher… especially when I wanted someone to buy something from me (past lives in executive level sales and small business ownership).

      Syms Stores (out of NJ) used to have a slogan in the 1990’s, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” I turned it into my personal motivation by writing, “An educated vendor is a client’s best resource.” I was rewarded well by it and hope to duplicate it in my new career.

  8. Ruth says:

    Thanks for the affirmation, Linda! Sometimes I feel lazy compared to other writers, but really I just have a different way of researching.

    Ugh, I feel like I’ve been seeing variations on “X Sexy Moves to Drive Your Man Wild” for decades — and I’m only 32!

  9. Amel says:

    I could not agree with you more. I love, love, LOVE magazines!

    I still remember reading “Cricket” in the dentist’s waiting room as a child. A relative also gifted me with a subscription to another magazine (can’t remember the name), and it was such a thrill to get my own mail every month.

    When I was about 9, I started my own magazine at home and called it “Bird Lover’s Craze.” (My mother was the only subscriber.) A year later, I sent a cartoon I had drawn to National Geographic World and had my first piece of work published. This gave me an incredible rush!

    Around this time, also, my mother’s best friend was the publisher of a magazine for Italian-Americans, and we used to go to her house when they did the layout for the magazine on the dining room table (this was before computers were used as they are these days). My mother sometimes wrote for that magazine, and the whole process was very interesting to me.

    Even as a child, I used to study magazines and not just read them. I noticed the various departments and was always conceiving of new ideas for magazines and the articles they would contain.

    As an adult, the first articles I had published were in a magazine I had subscribed to for about ten years. Later on, I became a magazine editor and had the opportunity to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes.

    These days, I still cannot resist magazines and continuously pick them up for myself and my children.

    If you want to have success writing for magazines, it is really important to understand and absorb the tone of the publications you write for.

    It’s almost like immersing yourself in a particular culture in order to learn a language!

  10. Pooja says:

    Thanks for this post Linda. I am surprised writers who pitch magazines don’t read them first.

    I loved your examples and differentiation between Family Circle and Parents. Perhaps more such resources that explain a magazine’s specialty/niche/style/tone is in need for writers who don’t have the time to read cover to cover. Just a thought!

    Pooja

    • That would be good but I think there’s no replacement for reading the magazine! There’s so much there that can’t be described in a form…you need to experience it.

      • Pooja says:

        Of course! That would be in addition to reading. My point is with such a resource, people can pick magazines better-suited to their genres/experience a little bit quicker :)

        Thanks for your thoughts!

        Pooja

  11. Emelia says:

    “You read magazines you don’t want to write for, just for the hell of it.” Thanks Linda, I do read magazines but I wasn’t paying attention to magazines I am not interested to write for-now I will.

  12. Hi,

    Great blog post. It really hit on an issue that I felt I suffered with for a while, in all aspects of my writing. I would often write, but spend almost no time reading. Whilst I was writing a lot, it wasn’t really getting any more marketable. Sure, the flow improved and the words seemed to fit together better, but they still weren’t captivating the readers attention. It wasn’t until I highlighted this issue and started to read a lot more, that I felt my writing had finally begun to improve.

    It’s good to read about similar experiences. Just affirms that I’m taking the right steps to become a better writer. It even seems rather bizarre to me now, now, that I would have ever thought that my writing would become more sellable – without seeing what was selling. You really hit the nail on the head with the way it was displayed here.

    Enjoyable read, thanks!

    Jake.

  13. Wonderful topic. I speak with a lot of folks that want to break into freelance writing and when I tell them to pitch the magazines on their coffee table, they say they don’t have any.

    But I have to admit, for myself, you have encouraged me to read magazines outside of my niche in order to find new markets. I don’t do that nearly as much as I should. And, after reading all the comments, I can see that do that could help with avoiding the niche burnout that I occasionally deal with.

    • Niche burnout…been there, done that. Yes, reading magazines outside your usual selections is a big help in generating ideas AND scoping out potential new markets. You never know where you’ll find your next client!

  14. I grew up scouring over my various women’s magazines with the goal of one day seeing my name in those pages. I still love turning the crisp pages of a magazine and have stacks and stacks of random magazines waiting for me each day on my coffee table.

    I know some people don’t want to spend money on a subscription and don’t have the time to go to the library or Barnes and Noble. What I do is take advantage of the random freebies that quite a few websites are now giving out. For example, I just scored a free 2-year subscription to Elle, Cosmopolitan and Brides for filling out a short survey. I’ve subscribed to a whole slew of magazines this way… US Weekly, Fortune, Entrepreneur, Money, Latina, etc. by just filling out those rewards surveys as they come my way. It’s allowed me to feed my magazine habit without spending a ton of money.

  15. Geniece says:

    I do like reading magazines and sometimes can get lost in them! I’m not looking to write for magazines at the current time but I’m certainly into writing blog posts so I do read other blogs daily. I think I’ll just read a magazine cover to cover this week just for the heck of it (never done that before). I usually just skim through and read the topics I’m most interested in.

  16. Rosanne says:

    I love reading magazines, but my issue is we have very limited selections around here. The major bookstores closed and while Walmart and Meijer have quite a few, the niches they cover are limited. Our library also really reduced the magazines they offer which really put a big dent in my research as I used to be able to go there and access a lot of magazines that were not available at the store. I’m also interested in writing for trade and custom pubs. I kept all my Fetch magazines which came from my pet insurance company, and I’ve started snagging custom pubs from my mom. Do you suggest subscribing to the magazines you’d like to write for? Another question I have is there a good formula for studying a publication? How many issues will give you a good overview if it is not a magazine you regularly read?

    • I wouldn’t subscribe — that’s a LOT of magazines. Most mags these days have at least some of their archives online. As for how long it takes you to get a feel for a magazine — more time when you’re starting out, less when you’re experienced! At first, you’ll want to study everything, maybe even take notes. Later, when you have a lot of articles under your belt, you’ll be able to get the feel and direction of a pub much faster.

    • Ruth says:

      Rosanne,

      Are you in MI? You mentioned Meijer …

      I read the online versions of magazines via Feedly. A lot of magazines publish enough content on their websites that you can get an idea of the kinds of stories they run and the tone.

      You may also want to check out your library’s eBook/Magazine selection. I’ve found that my library doesn’t have a huge selection, but they have different titles than they do at the actual library.

      I use Zinio for paid magazine subscriptions, which I read on my iPad. They offer a lot of deals and they have some free content, too. Hope this helps!

      Ruth

  17. Brittany says:

    I’m such a nerd when it comes to my magazine research. I have a NextIssue subscription, grab my parents’ old issues, hit the library and make a pilgrimage to Barnes & Noble once a month to check out new and niche publications.

    And then, I do a reader’s report.

    Seriously, I have a file box filled with folders for each magazine I’ve read, and then a printer paper sheet for each issue with cover/cover lines/contents/articles of note written out. I note what’s written by freelancers and what’s typically written in house. And I get to see if there are certain freelancers who typically write X department or X feature regularly. After a few issues (or if their names come up across a few different publications), I feel like we’re becoming friends.

    It’s a little OCD of me, but writing it out in such a detailed way really forces me to think about the magazine and the articles, rather than just reading them and enjoying them. And it helps me remember them–darn my short-term memory!

    • Now THAT’S dedication. I used to do that for mags I was interested in writing for…I’d write down a few representative article titles, the names of the editors, etc. After a while, you’ll get to the point where all this will be catalogued in your head and you’ll automatically know which mag is best for idea X, who edits magazine Y, etc.

  18. Ashley Pham says:

    I’ve been reading women’s consumer magazines ever since I was in my pre-teens. My mom used to bring home Good Housekeeping and I’d read the short stories, thinking that was the best thing ever! I have subscriptions to a lot of the top national ones (SELF, Women’s Health, etc…) with the hopes of one day having something published in one of them.

    I do read magazines both for fun and research. I never really understood the differences in styles and voices until I had to dissect each magazine for my pitches. It’s been a lot of work but super interesting!

  19. Mai Bantog says:

    Okay, so I’m one of the very few people who isn’t a big fan of magazines. I’d rather read books and blogs than magazines, to be honest. That’s also why I don’t pitch magazines. Though I’m sometimes tempted to send a pitch based on a single idea that I think would fit well in the magazine’s niche, I always find myself lacking the confidence to pitch it because I’m not familiar with the magazine’s style in the first place. But I love browsing online archives of magazines, so I guess that’s a start.

    • What you’re doing makes sense, though — you don’t read magazines, so you don’t pitch them! But if you do want to query a great idea you have, all you need to do is research a few good markets and then try to read a few copies, online or in the print version.

      • Mai says:

        I’m actually browsing a few archives of travel magazines just for fun. Maybe I can also think of something to pitch them. Thanks, Linda.

  20. Thank you for this post Linda. Like someone may have mentioned before, this post came at a rather appropriate time for me. It also has me looking up mags to subscribe to (should the library not have what I would be looking for). It’s like the saying goes, what’s old is new. Over the years I’ve had Writer’s Market. Been getting one probably every 2-3 years. Now I am feeling encouraged to actually get back to submitting items once again. It’s been long time. But like I am thinking in my head, it’s time to get back to where I started.

  21. I should also add that I joined AARP the minute my husband qualified — so I could study their magazine! Sign up for any pub that will send you a copy, just for the chance to browse it.

    I do think if you read enough magazines, you start to absorb the basics you need — stories have research, they’re timely, they have interviews in them and quotes.

    • I agree…there’s a format to successful magazine articles, and if you read a lot of them you’ll start to absorb it!

    • Heather L. Leap says:

      Ha! I just did the same thing. My husband is quite a bit older than I and has been throwing away his offers to join AARP. I told him to sign up so we’d get the magazine!

  22. Sherri says:

    I like to read magazines on subjects I enjoy. For other magazines I look online to see if there’s a web version that I can read through to determine the writing style and subject matter. I skim the masthead for info and see who’s writing for them by checking out bylines. If there’s a magazine that I’m not motivated to research, it just means I have no interest in writing for them. Some magazines cost ten bucks on the newstand these days. I’d have to really want to write for them to spend that much on a print copy.

  23. Trish says:

    I love to read magazines, and there are so many stories in them that spark ideas for me to re-work into a pitch. I live in an urban area and a lot of people put out piles of magazines they are done with in a box on the sidewalk for anyone to take for free. Love that!

    A couple of days ago, I saw a couple of copies of a trade magazine for the funeral industry and I wanted those so much! I love writing for trades. But these mags were all tied up and in someone’s trash so I was too embarrassed to go grab them…but I really really wanted those!

  24. Beti Spangel says:

    Until recently our town’s transfer station had a tractor trailer with huge boxes to separate your newspapers, junk mail, etc. One box was for magazines alone, and it was a gold mine! I discovered mags and catalogues I never knew existed! It also gave me a “behind closed doors” view of what the people in my small town read!

  25. Laura Lewis says:

    Oh thank goodness that I am not the only one who actually looks forward to a long wait in a waiting room full of skanky old magazines circa 1996. I read anything!

    I joined my husband at work one weekend and they had a stack of local business magazines – well, you guessed it, I made a beeline! They were a little dull, and not really my niche, but I was desperate to see what was inside.

    I’ve always been obsessed, and remember popping up to Grandma’s living room every Wednesday night after school, because that was her hairdressers visit day, and she always stopped off at the shops for her latest copies (and chocolate).

    Oh, and I love Amel’s story about her first magazine ‘Bird Lovers Craze’. I set up a club at school (me and two members) – we were called the Dolphin Club, and I put together a small magazine with drawings of Dolphins, and topics that we would want to read about, like hairstyles for school, and fun things to do in the half term! It’s cracking me up thinking about that :-D

  26. Jessica Evarts says:

    Linda what are your thoughts on online article reading from E-zines and other sites that publish numerous articles on specific subjects? I know its not exactly the same, but it seems to me that the writing style is the same in many cases.

    • Good question! If you want to write for those pubs, you definitely need to read them. Otherwise, if you have the time, it can be part of your overall reading to see what’s out there. Though I would give more focus to the traditional online and print magazines.

  27. Ankit Jaiswal says:

    I’ve been reading magazines from past 6 years and I love to read them.
    Many people just read the Headings and if the heading seems to be interesting, only then they will go for it.
    I too believe that before adding any views to any blogs or magazines, firstly you must read and analyze it. Then only you should give your suggestions or comments to express your view to the writer.

  28. […] may sound silly or self-evident, but, as The Renegade Writer cautions us, “If You Don’t Read Magazines, Don’t Try to Write for […]

  29. […] If You Don’t Read Magazines, Don’t Try To Write For Them […]

  30. Catie Watson says:

    I live in a small house and am always on clutter patrol, so I’ve stopped stockpiling as many magazines as I once did. Instead, I found a subscription service called Next Issue that lets me read current and back issues of more than 100 magazines on my Kindle for $15 per month. Titles range from Vogue, People and Wired to smaller publications like Diabetic Living, Geek and Organic Gardening. Not to sound like a commercial, but I love being able to dip into a magazine or study back issues without having to visit the bookstore or library. I write the subscription off on my taxes as a business expense.

  31. I’d be curious to see how many of us started magazines in our early teens… I sure did! And was reading/writing for teen mags throughout those years. It has always been a fascination, though I also get tired of the constant re-hash of magazine content.

    EWM

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