A student halfway through his course emailed me recently, ‘I thought that because my friends told me I wrote good emails, I could easily write for magazines. I didn’t realise just what was involved in researching and writing a good magazine article.’
‘Just what’s involved’ is that old equation: 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration. That doesn’t make it particularly difficult or any less fun. It just means that writing 1 200-1 800 informative, accurate, entertaining words about a certain topic, in a definable style, which flows well from paragraph to paragraph, and with as few errors as possible, requires a bit of stick-to-it-ness. That, and a few definable skills.
Writing features for magazines involves a lot more than ‘just’ writing, so even if you’re a good writer, you need a few other skills. One of these is research. Magazine features writers don’t need to know a lot about a subject to write about it – but they do need to know where and how to get the information required. A love of information and discovering new things is a great asset – as is being pernickety about accuracy, which might involve additional research to back up certain findings.
You’ll also need to brush up on your interviewing skills, whether this is for speaking to specialists or ‘ordinary’ people for case studies. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and ask: ‘What do I want to know about this subject?’ (for specialists) and ‘What do I want to know about what happened to this person?’ (for case studies). Write down a list of questions before you begin the interview (whether it’s in person, by phone or via email). And if your interview subject rambles on, let him/her – you’ll probably get additional information that you hadn’t even thought about asking for.
Good Writing Skills
Of course, it is important to be a competent writer. Most editors don’t mind one or two spelling or punctuation errors, but if you submit copy riddled with mistakes, your credibility is going to be questioned. The editor will think, ‘How can I trust what this person is writing if he/she can’t even spell?’ Your tutor will correct errors in your article, but always read and re-read it before you submit it, to make sure you’ve got rid of as many niggles as possible.
Writing Magazine Articles: Common problems and Solutions
These are some of the problems my students have run into, and some suggestions for how to get around them.
The problem: You find, once you start researching, that the topic or angle you’ve chosen doesn’t work for you.
A solution: Start again from scratch. If you’re battling to find information or your research isn’t translating well into a magazine feature, or if you’re losing interest or getting bored, your reader will probably feel the same. Rather than struggling on, choose another angle or even an entirely different topic.
The problem: You’re battling to find specialists to interview about your particular topic.
A solution: Universities and libraries are often good places to find specialists or specialist contacts. Reading published articles on your topic can also give you leads to specialists. Alternatively, do a google search for local sites for your topic and see what comes up. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – your tutor might be able to point you in the right direction.
The problem: You’re battling to find case studies.
A solution: People can be reticent – not everyone is thrilled at the notion of seeing their name in print, particularly if the topic is a sensitive one. Send an emailer out to friends explaining what you’re looking for and mention that you’re willing to interview the subject under a pseudonym if necessary.
The problem: You can’t find local statistics or other relevant information.
A solution: If you’re writing for a local magazine, you’ll need to at least attempt to find local information, including statistics. Sometimes, however, these simply aren’t available. In this case, you can use comparative statistics (European or American), but state clearly in your article that the local equivalent isn’t available.
The problem: You’ve done all your research and information but now you seem ‘blocked’ – you just can seem to get going on the writing.
A solution: Read through all your material and, keeping your angle in mind, see if anything of particular interest or relevance jumps out at you. It could be an especially fascinating fact or a quote from one of your interview subjects. Use it as an opener and see if this helps you ‘unblock’.
The problem: Your first draft comes back from your tutor plastered with corrections, suggestions, deletions and amendments, and you’re so overwhelmed that you feel like giving up.
A solution: This is not the time to throw in the towel! Bear in mind that your tutor really wants you to write a publishable article. Take a deep breath and carefully read what he/she has written. Has he/she suggested that the actual structure isn’t working? If so, you’ll need to rework your article or even start again – but rest assured that even the best writers often have to do this. But it’s more likely that you’ll realise that the bones of your article are there and all that’s required is some thoughtful reorganisation or rewriting – and there isn’t a writer alive who doesn’t reorganise and rewrite, usually several times.
The problem: You’ve got so much information that you can’t keep your article to within the wordcount.
A solution: This is actually a problem you want! It’s better to overwrite and then cut back than to work with too little information. If your article is still way too long once you’ve written it and then gone back and trimmed it (this can require several re-reads and sometimes even some reorganising), ask your tutor for help.
Persevering with your course is worth it. Writing for magazines isn’t easy, and you’ll feel an enormous sense of accomplishment if you stick it out to the end. And don’t lose heart if your article is rejected by your target magazine. All writers experience rejection, some of them dozens of times (click the link below to read about some of them). Keep at it. Writing good magazine articles requires lots of practice – and plenty of stick-to-it-ness.
About the Author:
Tracey Hawthorne tutors the Magazine Journalism Course at SA Writers’ College. Tracey has written features and columns for numerous leading publications, including CAPE etc, Cosmopolitan, Fairlady (including ‘Urban Exile’, a column that ran for 13 issues), Femina, Getaway, GQ (for which she was books editor for 32 issues), House and Leisure, JSE, Men’s Health (for which her feature ‘Bone Chilling’ was a Mondi nominee), O, Prive, Proud!, Psychologies, Shape, Style, You.
Tracey has also written for Business Day, Sunday Times, Sunday Life (Sunday supplement), has written and/or contributed to over 10 fiction and non-fiction books, including four First Field Guides (Struik), Frommer’s South Africa (Macmillan), Tumble-Turn: The Natalie du Toit story (Oshun), The John Platter South African Wine Guide 2008 (Newsome McDowall) and Open (Oshun), and edited upwards of 30 other non-fiction books, including over 20 for Struik’s Natural History division and (most recently) Boerejood (Jacana), My Dad by South African Sons (Two Dogs) and The King’s Eye and John Vorster’s Elbow (in production).
Photo credit: flickr.com_Ricardo Carreon