When you think about writing magazine articles, maybe you picture yourself sitting at a pristine desk, a view of the ocean out the window.
You have your steaming cup of coffee, your laptop is ready and waiting, and you sit, hands poised over the keys.
Or maybe, you’re filled with sheer panic.
How the heck do you actually write an article?
If you’ve never written a magazine article, your first assignment can definitely feel intimidating. If you’re trying to create a sample for your portfolio and you’re working without an assignment, you definitely might be wondering how to get started.
Here’s an inside look at the process I use, start to finish, to write an article that’s been assigned by a magazine or a website.
Send a Query Letter Before You Write a Magazine Article
The very first thing I do is send a query letter to the magazine in question. Never, ever write a magazine article before you have an assignment — that’s the mark of someone who doesn’t have a good understanding of the magazine industry.
Assignments for articles come after you submit a query letter to the magazine. The article the editor ultimately assigns might differ from what you originally pitched. For example, a few years ago, I pitched a magazine an article about Apple’s extreme secrecy, and how that sometimes hurts the company.
The editor liked the general idea, but wanted to focus on one specific area. If I had written the piece without querying, the editor probably would have flat-out rejected it. But because I queried, the editor could give me his feedback, and I was able to write the article the way the editor wanted it.
Don’t Start Writing A Magazine Article Without a Contract
Most print publications have standard contracts they send out. If you are a new freelancer and you are writing for a national magazine, you probably don’t have a lot of wiggle room to negotiate any of the contract terms.
You need to know what rights you are selling — typically, you will be selling First North American Serial Rights (FNASR), which means that the magazine is the first place in North America that gets to publish your article. You may also be relinquishing online rights, and in some cases, you will be asked for all rights, which means that you can never, ever sell that piece again. Ever.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, but you want to make sure that you are being compensated for what you are selling.
Outline Your Magazine Article Before You Write It
I like to work from at least a rough outline. Most of my drafts tend to start out in Apple Notes. Once I have a decent start, I move into Google docs.
A rough outline might start out something like this:
Set Up Interviews For Your Magazine Article
If I’m writing an article that will include information from experts and anecdotes from real people, I know that I’ll need to find those people so that I can interview them.
I try to figure out how many people and experts I’ll need, and I start looking to connect with those people and schedule interviews as early as possible — like, the day the article is assigned.
To find experts, I generally rely on two awesome services, Profnet and HARO. Both of these sites let me post queries to experts in a wide variety of fields. Experts who are interested in being interviewed and quoted can then get in touch, and I can schedule interviews as needed.
To find real people to interview for anecdotes in articles, I look to different sources, including Facebook groups, online forums, or my own personal network. If appropriate, I reach out to local or national organizations and ask them to help me connect with their members.
If you are regularly interviewing people, you will want to invest in a scheduling service. I use Acuity Scheduling (that’s an affiliate link, which means if you sign up, I might get some cash!), which has various plans, including a free plan. The plan I use is $15/month, and it is worth every cent.
I send prospective interviewees a link; with one click they can book an open time on my calendar. We both immediately get email, and the appointment automatically shows up on my calendar. I could not function without Acuity — I use it to schedule student coaching calls, client inquiries, interviews for articles, and anything else where I need to talk to people.
Prepare for Your Interviews
You definitely don’t want to show up to an interview unprepared.
If you’re interviewing an expert, you want to at least skim his or her latest book or have a general idea of who the person is. You want to know ahead of time what questions you’re going to ask — and write them down.
You also want to prepare for your interviews with “regular people” — know what you want to ask them, and be ready to ask the same question in a number of different ways to help people open up and give you usable answers.
Especially in the beginning, you might get nervous during an interview and forget things. Having a written list of questions can help.
Decide ahead of time if you’re planning to record the interview — and test out your technology well before the call.
You might prefer not to record, and instead to take notes — that’s a matter of personal preference.
PRO TIP: Towards the end of the interview, but not as you are hanging up, ask, “Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?” You will often get some of the BEST answers this way.
Draft and Refine Your Magazine Article
Once you have your interviews done, it’s time to draft your article. This is where your outline can come in handy — it’s a roadmap you can follow as you organize your material.
I like to set aside a good chunk of time for writing an article draft — about two hours of uninterrupted time — so that I can get all the way through.
Remember that when you’re writing a draft, things don’t have to be perfect. So if you’re blanking on a word, instead of agonizing over it, just write something like:
My drafts are FULL of brackets that mark awkward phrases, missing words, thoughts that need to be expanded, and so on. The idea is to get the main thrust of the article down on paper in one go.
I come back to the article over the next few days and put time in on the areas I’ve marked as needing work. These sessions can be anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour — usually I don’t need another long session once the draft is done.
Finalize Your Magazine Article Before Submission
Before you send your article off to the editor, you want to take the time to carefully review it.
Go back to your original assignment letter and make sure that you’ve complied with everything discussed there. Carefully proofread your work to ensure that you don’t have any typos, missed words, errors, or other problems in the work.
I try to set my work aside for at least 24 hours, then come back and read through it with fresh eyes. You can also have Google read your text to you — hearing it read aloud will help you see if you missed a word or have a typo that your eye keeps skipping over.
Follow the Magazine’s Submission Guidelines When You Send Your Article
You’d think it would be obvious to people to submit their work according to the magazine’s submission guidelines, but you would be wrong.
If you’d like to be one of the writers editors turn to again and again, take the time to see how they want you to submit the work. If they’ve gone to the trouble of including this information in your assignment letter, it’s a really good idea to follow it.
Use the fonts and formats the magazine asks for. If they request that you submit your work in HTML, don’t email the editor asking, “How do I submit my work in HTML?” Seriously — don’t do that. That’s what Google is there for.
Respond Promptly to Revision Requests
The more professional the publication, the more revision requests you can expect to receive from the editor. A good editor will push you, and your work will be better for it.
If you’re used to writing for online sites and you suddenly break into print, this process can be jarring. TRUST THE PROCESS. The editor is NOT sending you revision requests because she enjoys it. She is creating a stronger, better piece.
Do the work. Do it in the time frame allotted, and do it with a smile. This article will be a GREAT piece for your portfolio afterwards.
That’s it! That’s the process I follow whenever I write a magazine article.
Are any parts of the process unclear to you? Are there steps here you didn’t know about?