Writing for Magazines

By Eric Hammer

Writing for magazines is one of those things that every writer dreams of being able to do but few actually manage to accomplish it. That's because, while magazine writing can be an extremely lucrative way to make a living, the fact remains that it is also notoriously hard to break into the business. The problem is that editors tend to only want to work with those who have already been published, however getting published to begin with is really hard if you've never been published to begin with (it's the classic chicken or egg question).

However, for all that it's difficult to break into writing for magazines, it can be a very rewarding experience as it's completely unlike web writing or even writing for most newspapers (it's more akin to writing a feature for a newspaper, but more on that in a moment). In essence, you'll spend weeks and even months researching a story, tracking down leads and talking to professionals in various fields. You'll also have a tight deadline, however your work may not appear for at least six months after you submit it initially.

How Much Can You Make?

It's impossible to quantify numbers for those writing for magazines as different magazines have such varied pay rates. Most professional level magazines however will pay at least 25 cents per word and many offer as much as $1 per word or more. On the other hand, when you're just starting out, you may well end up earning nothing at all for your work since you're looking for those initial publication credits.

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Remember that writing for magazines isn't like writing for the web. Even if you've written for sites like Demand Studios or Suite 101 before (and actually, especially if you've written for such sites), you do not necessarily have the skills required to do this job.

You need to learn how to run an interview for example. Interviews should ideally be run on a face to face basis rather than on the phone (it reads a lot better to write "asked about the spiraling deficit at his agency and the possibility of the nonprofit closing its doors, Mr. Smith has a haunted look in his eyes as he says "it's a real possibility." As opposed to simply quoting what he said on the phone without the added narrative).

It's also important to learn not to stick to a script for an interview. Obviously you want to have questions available to ask your interviewee so that you can get the ball rolling, however you also need to be flexible enough to change things up and to play off of what someone says. So for example, if you were interviewing someone who tried out for a spot on Glee and they mention that they never really wanted to be a singer and dancer but always dreamed of being on the football team, you don't simply move on to your next question about their inspiration for singing and dancing - you ask them what changed their minds and made them choose to become a singer and dancer instead.

It's also important to learn how to craft a story. Unlike most web writing, professional magazine writing typically starts by telling the story of a particular person rather than providing an opening sentence with the traditional who, what, where when why and how.

Remember as well that writing for magazines means breaking into the industry. Therefore, you should not expect (or even want) to do a feature article as your first piece of professional writing. Ideally, you should aim for a "front of book" piece. These are the short articles of about 500 words or less which you find toward the front of a magazine. The advantage of these kinds of pieces is that you only need to interview one or two people in order to do such articles, as opposed to a feature piece which could easily require interviewing dozens of people.

Qualifications / Requirements

While there are no formal or licensing requirements for writing for magazines, you'll generally need to get some publishing credits, preferably fresh ones in order to get additional credits. The best way to do this is to look for smaller market magazines or newspapers where you may report on something for free or for very little money. The key is to have a portfolio of clips to show to potential editors.

First Steps

Start by reading more about writing for magazines. Consider purchasing a few good books on the subject (an example is listed below in the resources section). Then, look for a small market magazine or trade magazine where you can pitch them a story. Often, these kinds of magazines are more willing to take a chance on a brand new writer since they're not getting the thousands of pitches that come to something like The New Yorker.


Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer, by Jenna Glatzer (Nomad Press, 2004) - Highly recommended book on how to make money writing for magazines and newspapers. It goes through all the basics of how this is done and answers many questions for you.

Absolute Write Forums - Devoted to writing in general, there are a number of professionals who are involved in writing for magazines who hang out here and who can help you to learn what you need to know to break into the industry.

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