Magazine Writing Basics

Have you always enjoyed writing, but now want to sell your nonfiction articles and stories to magazines?

You may not necessarily be a beginning writer, but I assume that you’re here at this site because you:

1) don’t fully understand how the magazine industry works and want get your foot in the door, OR

2) have been published, but want to sell more articles at higher pay rates, to higher circulation magazines, and be a bit more strategic about it.

You may be a student, industry professional, K-12 teacher or college professor. You may be a retiree–finally free to write—or working full time, so must write during off-hours. If you’re like me when I began writing 22 years ago, you’re a busy young mother who must tuck writing into your kids’ nap-times.

You may want to write full-time, or just sell just a few articles a year. But no matter what, you want to do it in a professional manner.  A “pro writer” is defined not by the quantity of his or her writing, but by quality and professionalism.

What you all have in common is that you love writing and want to share your expertise and experiences. You’re ready to go beyond writing business communications, family newsletters, journals, blogs, essays or lesson plans, to being published in respected print publications and getting paid for it.

It’s a thrill to consider that magazines reach between a few thousand to seven million readers with one issue! It’s also exciting to connect with readers who thank you for helping them. You might be the one to help someone find creative ways to save time or money, nurture relationships, laugh more, pray more, or boldly go in a new direction. Your articles and stories can change lives.

The basics are critical to grasp in order to understand more advanced writing and marketing concepts later. Basics help you be professional from the start, so I will clarify on this site what you Must Know to achieve that.

However, you don’t need to know everything up front to begin submitting to magazines. You can, indeed, learn along the way. Information I’ll be offering you can increase your success and proficiency, reduce the number of rejections, and lead to better pay.

You can learn more advanced techniques while you are working as a freelancer. I’ll include links within my posts to places where you can access additional helpful information, some for free, some for sale. I hope to open you up to a world of helpful information, in an organized and progressive way, so you can create a plan of action.

In this Magazine Writing Basics blog series, I’ll get you started by answering these questions:

1. “Can you help me understand how the magazine industry works, in a  nutshell?”

2.  “How do I get paid for articles?”

3.  “How do I find market guides: directories that list magazine titles, editor names, contact information and needs?”

4.  “How can I understand terminology in those market guides and know what that means, for me? Is it O.K. for me to agree to sell  all rights, and what in the world is a kill fee?

5.  “Where can I find more detailed guidelines from publishers?”

6.  “Can I meet editors in person?  Does it help?”

7.  “How can I provide take-away value, and how does that increase my odds of selling articles or personal experience stories to magazines?”

8.  “How can I find editorial calendars to know what topics magazines typically cover seasonally, and time my submissions right?”

9.  “How can I better visualize my readers’ needs by finding and using magazine demographics ?”

10.  “How can I detect a magazine’s most common formulas and styles to increase the chance of my making a sale?”

11.  “How do I send submissions in a professional way?”

12.  “What’s it like to work with editors after I get a contract?”

Ready? Set? Go!

Let’s get started with Questions 1 & 2:

Q. “Can you help me understand how the industry works, in a  nutshell?”

Most magazines buy writing from freelance writers in addition to having their own in-house writers.  A freelance writer is self-employed and paid per article. Each article you write is a stand-alone product, with its own contract, even if you sell many articles to the same magazine.

Here’s how the process generally works, following Steps 1-10. (More detail, of course, is explained later.) Steps 11 and 12 are optional. You:

1: Come up with an article idea.

2: Give that idea a creative new slant: a fresh angle, beyond basic topic and theme.

3: Decide what formats and article types to use for that article. (Options include, but are not limited to: self-help, how-to, personal experience, humor, investigative, Q & A and list articles.)

4: Find a magazine with readers who need or want that information. Locate  editor contact information and submission requirements.

5: Create and send a query, a one-page pitch to an editor to have them request your article, OR a complete manuscript, properly formatted and sent ONLY when requested.

6: Receive a contract, sign, and return it. Pay attention to payment terms, deadlines, and rights you are selling.

7: Write the article, and work with the editor assigned to you to refine it.

8: Receive payment, either on acceptance of the final version of that article, or on publication (not recommended). Spend your first article check on something memorable.

9: Receive your copy of the article in print, called a clip. Jump up and down and scream with excitement. If a version exists online, share that link with others.

Next, I recommend that you:

10: Resell the same article to other, noncompeting magazines that buy reprints  (usually low circulation publications).

11: Pitch a new idea to the magazine you already sold to. This eliminates Step 4. Also, more sales to one magazine will drastically cut down on time spent on Steps 5 and 7, as you become more familiar with editorial needs.

12: Create new articles for other magazines, to build your freelance resume and add variety to your freelance writing life.

TIP: You can write for one magazine or for many different ones at the same time. To stay in good graces, honor magazines you write for by not selling similar material to magazines that directly compete against them.

Remember that this is a simplified list of steps to give you a basic overview of the industry. For each step, there is loads to learn, of course!  Don’t worry: I’ll be offering you entire articles or links to other resources that provide advanced how-to on each one of these steps.

But unless you are clear on these basic steps to publication, it is too easy to short-circuit the process.

For example, many writers take a basic article idea and send a query (article proposal) without first giving much thought to slant or article format, or appropriate article length. They neglect to do any research to learn editorial and reader needs. Then they pop that query in the mail and wait. . . and wait. . . and when they finally receive a rejection letter they are unsure about what exactly went wrong. This can be a colossal waste of time and energy and is often avoidable.

You, on the other hand, will clearly understand the basics before you query, vastly increasing your odds of success.

Your journey has only just begun!

So let’s move on to Question 2,  which I know you must be curious about:


Q. “How do I get paid for articles?”

Freelance writers for magazines are usually paid per published word. (Newspapers usually pay per column inch or per column.)  How does this translate to actual income?

Articles are usually submitted in 12 pt, Times New Roman font, double-spaced, with 1” margins. This translates to about 250 words per typed page.

A magazine page with all text would have about 1,000 words. Of course, most magazine pages contain at least 1/3 graphics, with plenty of additional white space created by the use of lists, headers, quotes, fillers, etc.  Many articles are about 750 words long (in other words, three of  your typed, double-spaced pages). In some magazines, features run 2,000 to 3,000 words, but you will notice that material usually includes sidebars or a collection of mini articles on one theme.  (I will explain later how to increase your article sales by strategically writing filler and sidebar material.)

If you do the math, you’ll see what this all means: a magazine that pays  .25 per word will earn you $250 for a 1000 word article; .50 will earn you $500, and $1 per word (from very high circulation magazines) will earn you $1000.

The rights you sell for that pay rate is another story. Low to moderate pay for a reprint can be better to receive than moderate (or even relatively high) pay for all rights. It is critical to know that if you only sell one-time rights, you can resell the same article over and over again to noncompeting magazines. (I’ll share more about how to do this, later.)

There are other benefits besides monetary. Of course, seeing your name in print is fun, and I already mentioned how rewarding it is to impact readers. But depending on the magazine, you may be able to have more than a simple byline and get a bio note.

A bio note is a brief paragraph at the end of an article, which can include your website address and a bit about you, including a book title and link if you are a book author. If the article is archived on a magazine’s website, readers can click on your website link and pop to your site to see what else you have to offer.  In some cases, it is better to receive no pay for an article and retain control over it than it is to get a low per-word rate.

That’s all for now!

TO READ ANSWERS TO MORE QUESTIONS  in posts added since this introductory page was created,  click to the ARCHIVE.

To receive new posts automatically, scroll down to the bottom right of one of the blog pages to EMAIL SUBSCRIPTION, then click Sign Me Up!

Happy writing!


Feel free to forward this article to other aspiring writers, including this copyright and website information:

© 2010-2011 Laurie Winslow Sargent.  All Rights Reserved.


I welcome your comments! Let's learn from each other:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: