Before I got into the whole animation thing, I worked in the journalism industry as a magazine editor. One thing I did a lot was to scope around for new freelance writers, because you can never get too many of those!
Whenever I’d tweet a call for new writers, I’d generally get quite a few responses… but of those responses, I’ll probably only find one or two that I’d consider keeping. Let’s face it – everyone thinks they can be Carrie Bradshaw, but most of the time they don’t really have the passion for writing and are just slackers who think they’re above working regular office jobs.
So if you’re new to magazine writing and want to distinguish yourself as a proper writer (and prove that you’re not some flaky cam-whoring blogger with delusions of grandeur), here are some tips that might help you write better.
Have some samples ready
Usually when someone new asks me for some writing assignments, the first thing I’d want to do is read some samples. You wouldn’t hire a wedding photographer without seeing some of his/her shots, and you definitely wouldn’t hire a writer without reading anything they’ve written.
This immediately weeds out the scribblers from the writers for two reasons:
- You can see who actually has the skill to put together a proper sentence (a surprising rarity!)
- 70% of the applicants would bow out at this stage, never to be heard from again.
Regarding the second point, someone once said: “I thought I wouldn’t need any samples, since you’re a friend of a friend of mine.” Needless to say, the email was deleted and her contact details never made it into the freelancer pool. If there was a blacklist, I would have put her contact in there, and then burned it during a voodoo ritual.
Anyway, if you didn’t already include samples with your initial email, then have some ready because someone’s bound to ask. If you have articles from previous jobs, that’s great. But if you’re a beginner (and you probably are if you’re reading this), then just write some to show you can.
Write a movie review, or a quick story about the adverse affects of farting during a first date or a job interview. Just write something!
Preferably, it’s an article that is somewhat relevant to the type of magazine that you’re applying to, but to me that’s not entirely necessary. I really just want to see if you remembered all the grammar and punctuation rules from school, and if you write with a voice or if you sound like a Wikipedia page.
Is it okay to use your blog as a writing sample?
A lot of people have directed me to their blogs before. This is a bit sketchy, but I’d be okay with it if some of your blog posts at least read like a proper article. That banal post about your day at the beach isn’t going to score you any points, even if you have lots of Instagram photos of yourself in a bikini.
If you really want to use your blog, please at least give the URLs to some specific posts instead of making someone randomly browse through your stuff. It’s hard enough to find the time to read some samples, let alone browse for them.
Find out exactly what elements are needed, and obey the word count
Different magazines have different styles, so find out exactly what they’ll need. For example, maybe they’ll need a headline, a subhead (or standfirst) of about two lines, and then a short informative sidebar to go with the article. If you have a copy of the mag handy, then check it out and find out what their articles are like. Otherwise, just ask.
It would really make things more convenient for the editor if you could get everything properly together when you send it in, so he/she doesn’t have to email you back and ask for a subhead or sidebar – or worse, have to come up with one themselves because they’re out of time.
Oh, if you’ve written for this publication before, try to hang onto your old article as a template. It’s just frustrating to have the same writer continually forget to include a subhead or sidebar again and again. I got so frustrated once I ended up writing a base template for my writers, with instructions like “Insert 5-8-word header here” and “Insert 80-word sidebar here”.
And when it comes to word counts, if you’re given one, please stick to it. Magazine articles are different from blog posts because there is a limited amount of real estate on a page. Giving someone 1000 words instead of 700 is not doing them a favor, even if you’re only charging for 700. What this will mean is they will have to cut 300 words from your article to fit the pages, and that can be quite a time-consuming task.
PS Sidebars are awesome. They can be a short summary of a large article, or quick additional facts. Learn how to write good sidebars!
PPS It probably can’t hurt to suggest a pull-quote too. Pull-quotes are single lines that the designer pulls out for effect. It would probably be a catchy line or something that really summarizes the essence of the article in a few words. They’re likely to appear in longer articles, so it’ll help the editor if you have one suggested for him/her so they don’t have to scour your article for one.
“Pull-quotes are single lines that the designer pulls out for effect.”
Write with a structure and idea in mind
Articles, especially shorter ones, don’t have to have a formal structure like an essay or thesis… but that doesn’t mean you can just plonk down some words and ideas and call it a day (like what I’m doing with this blog post). You’ve got a limited amount of words to get an idea or some information across, so please plan it out a bit.
And when you write, please have something to say. The most interesting articles are the ones that are telling a story, so figure out who the important people/product/places are, and keep that in mind when you’re planning the article. Remember what the point of it is, and try not to meander off and waddle around with topics and facts that aren’t relevant to the story. It’s one thing to have voice and personality, and it’s another thing to be padding your article with fluff.
Actually, it’s good to get your structure and idea up and early, so you can get it okay-ed by the editor. That way you won’t have major rewrites at the last minute if there was some kind of miscommunication about the concept of the article.
Obviously, if you change your idea or get new inspirations while writing the article, clear it with the editor first.
For example, if you’re writing a travel article… give it an idea. Don’t write an article that’s basically “Things to do in New Zealand” because that’s too generic. Write one that’s more like “Extreme Adventures in New Zealand” or “Movie set-hopping in NZ”, and then plan the article around that idea.
If you’re writing a movie review, don’t spend more than 20% of the review rehashing the plot. People want to read your opinion, not the back of the DVD box.
Don’t recycle blindly
I’ve come across some articles that are obviously recycled stuff from a writer’s previous articles. That’s not entirely a bad thing, because it’s not like the same research can’t be used for more than one article.
But don’t get lazy and just randomly Ctrl-C / Ctrl-V stuff! If you just recycle the bits of your old work blindly, you’re going to end up with some monstrosity that has no life of its own.
I once received a 1,500 word article that was obviously pieced together from 2 or 3 old articles, and I could use my dreaded red pen to draw a line when one article ended and the other began. It wasn’t even close to being one single coherent article, and I had to spend hours rearranging paragraphs so it made sense and felt like a single story – and we never contacted that guy again.
Obey those deadlines
Your article is part of a bigger machine. If you’re late, then the editor will be late editing the article and releasing it to the art director. Then the layout will be late. Then they’ll be late sending it to print, and so forth.
You are NOT the last step of the process, so don’t push those deadlines! It’s okay to miss a blog post, but missing a deadline is highly unprofessional.
My favorite thing to do with new writers and interns was to march them over to the art department and introduce them to the designers and art directors. I’d say: “Remember this face. This is the guy/girl that will be staying late at work because you missed your deadlines because of writer’s block or any other excuses you come up with.”
If you know you’re going to be late, let the editor know in advance so that changes to the schedule can be made.
Speelcheck again and again
It’s easy to do, so do it. Editors don’t like a writer who leaves a mess that requires cleaning up.
If you can, don’t send the article immediately after you write it. Take a night off, and read it the next day with fresh eyes. Make sure there aren’t any errors, glaring or otherwise. You might even have some new ideas to include.
Be open to feedback
A lot of writers forget this, but you are not writing for yourselves. You have a client, and your client’s word is final. It doesn’t matter if they are complete morons, because they are the ones paying you. So if you receive some feedback from your client to change a part that you absolutely love, change it. Discuss it first if you want, but change it if they insist.
If you want full creative control, then write yourself a blog post, write a novel, or compose a sad poem about how you are misunderstood by magazine editors. That sometimes pays well too (though sadly, not for me).
A lot of new writers hated it when they’d get an article back from me with a crap-load of corrections and changes. They see it as a form of failure and then they get all grumpy and demoralized.
But you know what? I only ever gave feedback to writers that I thought had talent and potential. If I thought you were really bad, I would just fix the article myself and then delete you from the freelancer list. It’s much less of a hassle than writing notes and corresponding with a writer that might not respond appropriately.
Maybe it’s not always the case, but I think feedback is given to help people get better. It is incredibly tedious and takes a lot of time to go through an article and write comments and suggestions, and it always bugged me when new writers scorned feedback and acted like ungrateful whelps. And if you get all weepy because all the comments are negative, that’s because nobody has the time to write “I like what you did here” on all the sections that made the cut. Suck it up! You’re a professional now!
The key to getting good at anything is to do it a lot, and be willing to learn new things. I learned a lot during my time in the industry, and I’m still learning a lot today. Basically, never stop learning or close your mind to new ideas.
Anyway, these are just some tips and pointers that I could think of. I hope you find this helpful, because I kinda just wanted to throw this out there to help whoever was looking for some help or inspiration.
Now I don’t claim to be some kind of expert or anything because I’m not some hot-shot super magazine editor, but I did spend a few years doing this stuff and I learned a few things during that time. So if you disagree with anything here, please feel free to let me know why.
If you think I don’t have the credibility to write something like this, well… don’t read it, I guess. Watch this music video instead: