Before you start…Soak up the magazine’s style
Before plunging into your article, become a sponge. Read through recent issues of the magazine to gain a solid sense of the appropriate tone and style of writing. If the magazine has a list of guidelines for its writers, study this too. Ask yourself the following questions:
Who am I talking to? You should have a picture of the magazine’s typical reader in your head: gender, age, nationality, occupation, education level, interests, motivations and concerns in life.
What’s the magazine’s voice? And what’s the right tone for a story like yours? (Within the same magazine, a funny column will differ in tone from a serious investigative piece.) Is the voice chatty, upbeat, serious, engaging, detached, young, mature, formal, authoritative, punchy, elegant, scientific, academic, colloquial, witty, acerbic, satirical, personal, casual, respectful, quirky, warm…? Try to hear the magazine’s voice in your head – if the copy were being spoken aloud by somebody, how would he or she sound? – and aim to use a similar voice.
What’s the writing style? Does the magazine tend to use the first person (the personal ‘I said…’, ‘I did…’), the second person (the more informal ‘you’ – this book is mostly written in the second person, for example) or the third person (the more detached, reporting style: ‘she went…’, ‘he thinks…’, ‘Mike Jones says…’)? Are people referred to by their first name or surname? Are ages and occupations always mentioned?
Which tense is used predominantly? Does the magazine use the present tense (‘Dr Smith says…’), the past tense (‘As Miranda walked to work that morning, she felt a strange…’) or mix tenses?
How is research presented? Take note of different methods of presenting information: does the magazine use graphs and charts, lists and boxes, or simply weave figures into the body copy?
How many people are interviewed in each article, on average? Of these, how many are case studies and how many experts?
Are case studies worked into the main body of the article, or written up separately in boxes, outlined sections or sidebars?
How much detail is included? And what sort of detail? Note whether interviews are written up as long chunks in the first person, or summarised with a few quotes thrown in. Are the articles factual, offering loads of background and historical information, or do they focus more on feelings and first-person accounts?
Is the text divided by subheads, or does it run on as one long piece?
Are sidebars and boxes used? If so, make use of these value-adding, attention-grabbing devices (often shaded another colour to differentiate them from the body text) in your own article.
Ask an editor: Which common mistakes do freelance writers make?
‘The most common one is not doing enough research on the magazine, its tone and the subject. Research, research, research. Another issue is not providing enough specific information within the feature: everyone is doing health and environment stories and you can find almost anything online, so what makes our service articles compelling is the specificity of the information. The more personally relevant it is, the more useful it is to our readers. This goes back to doing research and finding the right information from the most credible expert. Lastly, keep updating your editor with a weekly email.’
Jason Brown, editor, Best Life
Quick class: Magazine writing technique 101
Don’t make the reader work. A magazine article should be easy to read and understand. Consider the typical magazine reader – short on time and attention, flicking through an issue on a plane, in a doctor’s waiting room or while flopped on the sofa after work. Your reader should be able to scan your story and quickly grasp what you’re conveying. It’s a different experience from reading Shakespeare or psychiatry reports: no frowning or consulting dictionaries required, if you do your job right.
Keep your writing clear, crisp and direct. Avoid long, convoluted sentences and words which might make you sound erudite but whose meaning you aren’t 100% sure of. Don’t preach, and don’t try to impress anyone. Calmly put your ego aside, and try to communicate the story as succinctly as possible.
Always write in good, proper, grammatical, standard English. Email- and chatroom-speak (writing everything in lower case, without punctuation; using abbreviations like ‘rofl’, ‘imho’ and ‘lol’) and text messaging abbreviations such as ‘c u l8er’ and ‘2nite’ aren’t acceptable.
Answer all the obvious questions. As you’re writing, keep asking yourself, ‘What questions will crop up in the reader’s mind?’ – and then set about answering them. You know the frustration of reading an article that omits some crucial piece of information: where the fraudster grew up; which organisation funded that dodgy ‘scientific’ study; what motivated the woman to leave her glitzy legal position and become a New Age traveller. Don’t let it happen to your story! If an obvious question arises in your text, answer it.
Explain yourself. When you write an instruction (‘Always check the tide timetable beforehand’; ‘Never wear horizontal stripes’) you need to explain why. For example, write, ‘Never wear horizontal stripes if you’re a pear shape – the eye is drawn from side to side, making an ample bottom appear larger than it is.’) Keep your explanations clear and concise.
Back up your facts. When you make an authoritative statement, you need to support it with information from reliable sources. This includes statistics published by recognised authorities, results of reputable scientific studies, and quotes from eminent specialists in the field.
Don’t make sweeping statements you can’t substantiate, even though you suspect they’re true (such as, ‘Most city high school pupils have viewed Internet porn’). Columns and opinion pieces are the exception: here you express your opinions, and your personal life experience serves as backup. In all other cases, however, you can’t make a statement like ‘Home buyers will be in for a tough winter’ or ‘Chocolate is actually good for you’ or ‘Children who’ve been abused often become adults with low self-esteem’ without drawing in facts and stats to explain why.