When I was a little kid, I used to walk around my house with a notepad and inundate my parents with questions. Then I’d take those notes and use them to create a two-sentence “article,” which became features for one-page newspapers and magazines.
Fast forward about 20 years to when I saw my name in print for the first time. What a rush. Every writer should have a chance at that feeling; it’s one of the best.
The other best feeling, of course, is helping fellow writers land that byline. So, here’s how to write a magazine article, broken down into ten easy steps:
Step 1: Choose a magazine
If you’re thinking about how to write an article for a magazine, you may already have titles in mind. That’s great – go ahead and pitch them!
It’s also fine not to have a target publication in mind. Don’t worry, they’re out there!
There are household names like Cosmo, Time, and People, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
For pieces that target the general public, including people with specific hobby interests, there are plenty of in-flight magazines and corporate-sponsored online publications looking for writers.
For professional audiences, trade publications are great, and there’s plenty of them. You can find one by Googling the name of a specific industry plus “trade publication,” or check out TradePub.com. Alternatively, if your topic is more general-audience oriented, think about pitching local/regional magazines, national magazines targeted at a certain age/income group or magazines which come as supplements with newspapers.
Whichever direction you decide to go, take plenty of time to choose the right magazine. The fit between an article and a magazine is a big part of whether that article succeeds.
Step 2: Get to know your audience
The only way to pitch the right article to a publication is to know what they already publish. Before you do anything else, get a copy of the magazine or check out its website and read some digitally printed articles – you should look for ideas for how to adapt your subject treatment to their style.
Read at least five articles, regardless of format, and learn as much as you can about who the magazine is targeting. Try to identify the target reader by their:
- Age range
- Marital and family situation
- Financial and socioeconomic status
- Personal interests and hobbies
- Professional status
Identify whether there are specific characteristics of the target audience that you should know. Trade publications, for example, inherently aim their content toward professionals in a particular field. Niche interest magazines… well, that one’s fairly obvious.
Step 3: Confirm or choose your topic.
Reading articles that the magazine has published will give you an idea not only of the magazine’s readership but also the story angles and tone that they tend to prefer, and therefore how to pitch them an idea which will be appealing.
If you already have an idea….
Keep your eyes open for red or green flags (not literally, of course). Sometimes, you’ll find that your idea fits perfectly within the magazine’s content calendar. At other times, you’ll realize it’s not quite right for this publication.
Sometimes, the article won’t work no matter how hard you try, and that’s okay. It’s not anything against your article; it just means that you’ll need to pitch to a different publication.
If you need an idea….
That’s also fine. It might even make your life easier because you don’t have to, as one writer I know delicately puts it, “kill off your baby.” You just have to find a baby, which is no easy task either.
As you’re reading the magazine you’ve chosen, brainstorm article ideas that come to you. They won’t all be winners but write them down anyway. Keep brainstorming as your mind processes what you’ve read.
Meanwhile, pay attention to the news. You won’t necessarily pitch a hard-hitting political editorial, but current events inform almost every industry and even many hobbies. The US just elected a zombie as president? See if Good Housekeeping wants an exposé on how the White House might redecorate.
Step 4: Choose an angle
An angle is your approach to the topic. It’s your way of telling the audience why you care about the story and why they should too.
In researching this article (every article gets researched!), I encountered a spot-on definition of angle: “It’s the lens through which the writer filters the information… and focuses it to make it meaningful.”
I like this definition because it clearly distinguishes the angle from the topic. Two writers can consider the same topic but because they view it from different angles – through different lenses – they create a completely different image.
For example, imagine two writers who are crafting articles about the recent zombie apocalypse. The first writer, who’s pitching to a trade publication for contractors, focuses on techniques for repairing zombie-damaged homes. The second wants to pitch to Psychology Today, so they choose the angle of how zombie PTSD has put an increased load on therapists’ private practices. How to ‘frame’ stories like this is a skill you pick up over time (and a good reason to be a generalist rather than a specialist, in many cases).
Step 5: Write a query letter
Your angle is the most important part of your query. It tells the editor most of what they need to know about why your article matters, who will want to read it, and why you feel compelled to write it. This will be the first sentence or two of your pitch.
You’ll also need to include a little bit about yourself as a writer. Think of this as a mini-bio (emphasis on the mini). Open with a few compelling words about what you write and why you’re qualified to write it. If you have names to drop – a degree you’ve earned, a certification, or big-name magazines that have published your writing – definitely drop them.
All told, your pitch should be no more than two paragraphs. One is better. It shows you can express a complex idea succinctly. Editors love that. Here’s a full guide on how to writing a query letter, which you may find useful.
Step 6: Know the job
From here on out, we’re assuming that you got the gig. This may not be the case the first time around and that’s normal. Don’t give up if you get a few – or many – rejections before you get an article accepted.
Once you do, of course, step 5.5 will be to celebrate. You’ve earned it. Then it’s time to dust the confetti off your shoulders, finish off your last bite of cake, and get down to business.
Read the message from the editor who hired you. Make sure you know what their expectations are for the piece. That includes word count, deadline, and any structural requirements the publication has given you.
If they haven’t given you a style guide, ask if they have one – it’ll tell you how to write in the house style and will dramatically cut down the editing you (or the subeditor) will have to do after you submit your piece. Make sure you know whether they use AP style, Chicago, or something else altogether.
Step 7: Research the topic
Researching is one of my favorite aspects of writing. It’s like brainstorming in reverse – instead of waiting to see what’s going to come out of my fingers, I just have to keep my mind open for exciting facts and new ways of thinking.
Let your research take you where it will, but always check the legitimacy of the source before you use it. Look for:
- Publication dates within the last year or two. Nothing from a prior decade, unless you’re specifically looking for historical information
- Credible authors with verifiable backgrounds. If you don’t already recognize the website and the author as highly respected, check credentials.
- Primary sources, or as primary as possible. If an article references a study, keep digging until you find the study, and then use that.
Step 8: Interview sources
Look at your research and think about what sub-topics might benefit from first-hand accounts or the insights of working professionals. Interviews add a lot to an article, and editors love them.
Finding an expert
There are lots of ways to find experts, from tapping your network to cold calling an association or agency in the industry you’re targeting. PR agencies can also be great resources for pointing you toward someone who has specialized expertise in a particular topic.
Interviewing the expert
Prepare, prepare, prepare. Make a list of questions beforehand and check it against your outline to be sure you’re not missing anything. Make sure your list includes the basic information like name, job title, and location.
Hold the interview at a time and place that’s convenient for the source. Record the interview if you can get explicit permission and if the source seems comfortable with being recorded.
Ask as many open-ended questions as possible. It’s okay to follow the source’s lead if they take you in an unexpected direction but don’t stray too far off-topic.
Step 9: Create an outline
Outlining is another of my favorite parts of writing. There’s just something about taking all of those chaotic research notes and putting them in a nice neat outline.
There are lots of ways of outlining, and you should feel free to use whichever technique appeals to you. Personally, I like a basic skeleton outline. It lets me line out all of the sub-topics I want to write about, in the order I want to write about them. Then I make a brief note of the supporting details.
Here’s a sample of what it might look like (thanks to the Writing Center Workshop).
This is just a template. No one will be seeing your outline but you, so choose any structure and style that makes your writing life easier.
Step 10: Write!
This is the really fun part, and it gets to be even more fun when you’ve invested the time in solid researching and outlining. By the time you get to this part, you’re so well-prepared that the words can just flow.
Now you have a road map for writing for a magazine, all the way from concept to execution. So what are you waiting for? Go write, and come back to add the piece to your portfolio when you get your byline!
Ellie is a full-time freelance writer with a background in playwriting, theater, and dance. She especially loves writing articles that help creatives and freelancers manage their time, talent, and money.