A while back I started a series of posts on how to get articles published to help demystify the process, with the first looking at coming up with ideas.
Following on from that, this next post in the series explores how, once you’ve got an idea for an article or at least an idea as to what magazine you’d like to write for, you go about researching and studying your target publication.
Getting a feel for a magazine and its readers
Read as many recent issues of the magazine as you’re able. Think of key themes and words you’d associate with the publication’s content, perhaps noting these down as you go.
As you do this, keep a key question in mind about who the magazine is aimed at. OK, so let’s say it’s a travel magazine. Yes, it will have travel features, but what kind of travel? Is it mostly UK based or abroad? For families looking for an easy and fun getaway or an adventurous backpacker? Are they aspirational features about luxurious private sea huts in the Maldives, or is it wild camping in the Highlands on a budget? Or somewhere in between? This will give you an idea as to whether your idea fits into the overall angle of the magazine. Notice too things like the adverts that give a clue as to who the reader is, in terms of how much they want to spend, their age, their interests.
Think now not just about who the reader is, but what they want. When they make a brew and curl up on the sofa with the magazine, what are they hoping to get from it?
This involves looking not just at the overall theme or topic of an article – say, ‘A weekend in Paris’ – but the style and content. Is it filled with practical tips on navigating your way around a busy city and the best times to visit popular attractions, or is it a long first person account that absorbs you in a narrative around someone’s trip and the people they met? Often articles may be a mix of both: I’ve written many features that draw on my own experience of a place or situation, but also provide advice or other information that may help the reader.
Where your article fits in the magazine
Magazines will have different sections, or different types of article. So a travel magazine may have one or two long, in depth features about destinations, but then also shorter travel pieces that may only be a page or two each, articles that offer advice on a topic (e.g. ‘How to save money on flights’), gear reviews, etc. And of course many magazines have content such as a page for readers’ letters, news pages, regular columnists, shopping recommendations, etc. Some magazines are structured around themes – a wellbeing magazine may be divided into features around ‘Living’, ‘Creativity’, etc. Looking at the contents page can show the different categories they use.
Think about where your potential article would best fit in the magazine. This is where reading a couple of recent copies of the magazine is particularly helpful, as it gives you a real sense of how it is usually structured.
Close reading a magazine
By now, you’ll hopefully have a bit more of a sense of what sort of content the publication is looking for and who their reader is, and whether your article idea could potentially fit. Now it’s time to do a close read of the magazine.
Choose one article to start with. Read it through, asking yourself the following:
- How long is the article?
- Is it written in third or first person?
- What is the tone of the article? Chatty? Jokey? Friendly? Authoritative?
- What level is the article aimed at? Does it assume a level of expert or insider knowledge, or could anyone understand it?
- Does it give advice, inspiration, an argument, analysis, or something else?
- Does the article use humour or other interesting quirks?
- Does it include quotes from other people? If so, who? Are they experts such as academics or specialist authors, or perhaps people who have personal experience of a subject? How many people does it quote, and how are the quotes used – are they a key part of the article, or is there one or two that add a bit of additional insight or authority?
- How broad a focus does the article have?
- How is it structured? Is it a list, e.g. ‘The best places to eat tiramisu in Bologna’, or a longer narrative, such as ‘How I came to terms with my existential angst through eating tiramisu in Bologna’?
- Does it include box outs / side bars? These are common in a lot of magazines – they are presented separately to the main body of an article, providing additional, complimentary information. E.g. a long first person travel feature may be accompanied by a box out about ‘How to plan the trip yourself’ or ‘Where to stay’.
- How is it illustrated? It’s worth looking at who the photos are credited to – did the article’s author provide them, or are they stock images? This will give you a clue as to whether you may be expected to provide photos and if so, what kind of photos they use (dramatic landscapes, images of people, etc.).
- What is the reader ‘take away’: what do they leave the article with? Inspiration to plan a round the world holiday or start a new hobby, practical knowledge on how to bake the best courgette cake or plant potatoes, advice on dealing with a difficult issue, thoughts about an interesting debate, insight into an unusual perspective..?
There may well be other things you pick up too as you close read. Do this for a few articles to really get a good feel for the magazine.
Adapting your article idea for the magazine
Now, think about your article idea. Having done your publication analysis, can you imagine your article belonging in those pages? It’s quite likely that your idea may not quite match, but that it’s along the right lines – in this case, think about how you adapt your article idea to fit.
Let’s say you wanted to pitch an article about the South West Coast Path that was a ‘top ten sights to see’ kind of deal. You read your target magazine and realise they prefer travel articles that focus on a first person narrative detailing your experience of the walk, any challenges you came across, quirky little details or events that happened along the way. You can now adapt your idea to fit the magazine. (But, do keep hold of that original idea of ‘top ten sights’ – you may find another magazine to pitch it to as well.)
This may sound like quite a lot to do. But it will become quicker as you get more experienced. If I want to write for a magazine I’ve not approached before, I will certainly dedicate some time to reading and absorbing it, but the analysis now comes to me naturally as I read – I find I instinctively pick up on these things, without needing a checklist. I can usually tell quite quickly whether my idea will fit, and what angle and approach I need to take with it. Sometimes I read magazines without a set idea in mind, but knowing they fit with my areas of interest as a writer, and that ideas come to me as I read.
The next post in this series will cover one of the most important skills for a freelance magazine writer: how to pitch article ideas to editors.
I hope this helps and let me know if you have any questions! Take care.