Tag Archives: articles

Some advice for a would-be author

Occasionally a friend or family member will be talking with someone who wants to publish their writing and the friend or family member suggests they ask me for advice. I’ve just sent off an email to one such person, and I think other people might also benefit from the advice (modified a bit to be more general). Now, bear in mind, this is about magazine publishing, and while I’ve had quite a few articles published, I’m not a magazine assigning editor and haven’t ever been one, so some of this advice is second-hand and will benefit from further insight from people who have to field queries, pitches, and submissions regularly. But it’s a start.

The thing I would suggest doing first, when it’s possible, is seeing what magazines your favourite bookstores and newsstands carry in the subject area you have in mind. Then have a look at those magazines and see which ones are publishing pieces of about the length and kind of topic you’re interested in writing. (No matter how interesting a piece is, if a magazine doesn’t have a way to fit it into their lineup of content, they won’t be able to use it.) 

If a magazine looks like it publishes articles of the sort you’re writing, look at its website; there will usually be information on how to submit, or they may want to you to email first just describing yourself and the article and asking if they’d be interested in seeing it. (If they say they don’t accept unsolicited submissions, don’t bother them. They won’t make a special exception for you.) They always want to know what you’ve already published and where. If you have a blog, you can direct them to that and they’ll be able to see what kinds of things you’ve written; also, if you have some idea of how many people read your blog, and the number is large enough, you can mention it to them. Magazines tend to favour authors who bring readers with them! 

Above all, when emailing editors, be friendly and polite, but also concise and to the point—the easier it is to answer an email, the sooner they will probably answer it. So just lead off with a short statement about the article (“Would [magazine] be interested in an article about [X]?”), then describe yourself and your blog and anything relevant you’ve had published elsewhere, and give a bit more detail on the article and why it would be well suited to their magazine (it never hurts to say nice things about the magazine too!), and thank them for their time and say you look forward to hearing from them.

If you feel that your article needs editing before submitting, one thing to bear in mind is that you may have friends who will happily give you advice and tell you things you need to do to it and so on, but unless they have reasonable experience in publishing, their advice may not actually be good advice. Above all, don’t worry too much about tiny points of grammar—although those are the things friends often like to pick on first, the truth is that they’re the easiest things for the magazine to fix, and if you focus too much on them it can often be to the detriment of the larger items such as good structure and storytelling. (Also, many of the “grammatical errors” that many people pick on aren’t errors, and many of their “corrections” make everything worse!) On the other hand, if you pay a professional editor to edit if for you before submitting, you may get good results, but it may cost you more than the magazine will pay you. Some magazines, though, if they see you have a good story that just needs a little structural work, may work with you on it. It really depends on the publication and editor.

Good luck!

Forget the title

I have, on occasion, gotten responses to my articles published on commercial sites (Slate, The Week, BBC) that have focused on the titles.

Here’s the TL;DR of what follows:

Paid authors on commercial sites don’t write the titles. Forget the titles.

Seriously: When you read an article, the title is probably what drew you into it. Yay for the headline writer. They did their job. Now you’re reading the article. The person who wrote the article is a different person from the person who wrote the title. The article was written first. The title is an ad for the article.

Most people who read articles don’t actually have a clear idea of how articles are made, it turns out. A sparkling example of this came in a comment on one of my articles that was republished on Slate’s Lexicon Valley. The reader clearly assumed that I had written it following the same process he had probably used writing his last essay, which was probably for grade 9 Social Studies:

1) Come up with a topic; make it the title.

2) Start looking things up. Write as you go.

3) Stop when you run out of things.

This, as it happens, is pretty much the opposite of how real professional writers actually write their articles. Here is the sequence I typically go through:

1) Think of an interesting topic for an article. (Occasionally a publication or site that you’ve worked with will suggest a topic and see if you want to write on it. Your answer is probably YES! Writing is a drug that sometimes pays rather than costing.)

2) Do some research to see whether it’s feasible and which way it will actually go.

3) Pitch the topic to the site you want to publish it. (If you’re writing for your own blog, skip this. If you’re writing for a group blog, check with the other contributors to make sure you’re not eating someone else’s lunch.)

4) If they OK it, research the topic. Make notes.

5) Think about how to structure the article.

6) Write the article. Do a draft, revise, feel disgusted, revise thoroughly, restructure, revise, realize you can’t view it with any objectivity anymore, be done. Maybe. Put a provisional title at the top when you start. Change it when you finish, if not before.

7) Send the article to the publication. (If it’s your own blog or one you’re a joint contributor to, you will go with your last title and just publish it. And then maybe look it over in the morning and fix a few things.)

8) The publication’s editor will go over it and tighten it up and change things. If you are wise, you will assume they are right (except where they have accidentally changed the sense, in which case you obviously didn’t write it clearly, so you negotiate a revision if you can). You lack objectivity at this point. Also, they’re paying you, so that counts for something. If they’re not paying you, well, they still have a fresh perspective; how much do you respect them? Anyway, they usually run the changes past you before publishing. Not always.

9) Someone – your editor, perhaps, or some mystical nameless other – will come up with a grabby title for the article. You may or may not get to see it before it is published. (I know one person, exactly ONE person, who gets to write his own titles and they’re used as is. Hi, Dad!)

10) Someone may add theme images with or without captions. You will see them no sooner than any other reader of the publication (website). If they’re really problematic, you can always ask if they can be adjusted, but you would be wise to be quick about it.

So there it is. If you’re reading an article, you may have gotten to it because of the title, sure, but the title is an ad for the article, almost certainly written by someone else. Once you’ve started reading the article, forget the title.