What You Need to Know to Write for Publications

trackingsuccessWhether you are young or newly retired and seek to support yourself as a writer, you need to establish a plan based on understanding the marketplace for selling your work. Expect a slow start and slow returns. If you want to pursue a career in writing, consider keeping a day job with a regular paycheck while you build your credentials as a writer. It may seem noble to suffer as a starving artist, but living the cliché does not guarantee success any more than drinking in excess grants you the writing skills of Hemingway. Keep in mind that Tom Clancy worked in insurance until his earnings from his books exceeded his insurance salary. He did not quit his day job after publication of his first or second book.

One pathway to publication is writing articles on specific topics for magazines, newspapers, and online publications. As newspapers transfer from paper to online formats, keep in mind the vast range of online publishers–professional organizations, corporations, and other outlets–willing to buy your writing. While it would help to have a degree in journalism, you can manage well without it if you take your writing seriously enough to study the market. You produce a product with the written word. You can maximize your time and income by learning about the marketplace and the process.

For example: Let’s say you have a blog about your hobby–bicycling. As your readership or following grows, you become an expert or a source of valuable information. You interview bike racers, bike repair experts, and so on through your blog. Why not share your passion with other like-minded bicycling enthusiasts by offering your blog to the largest biking association or manufacturer? Don’t they need content for their magazine and website? Why not earn income from something you are already happy to do for free?

In this series I will present Things You Need to Know to Write for publications:

  • Types of Articles,
  • Finding Your Topics,
  • Generating Story Ideas,
  • Research,
  • Interviewing Sources,
  • Query Letters & Guidelines,
  • Writing the Article,
  • Fillers & Sidebars,
  • Contracts,
  • Reprints & Rewrites, and
  • Tracking your Work.

I will share my knowledge of three decades as a working journalist and other resources available to help you. I have taught writing to police officers, students who speak English as a second language, middle school students, and fiction writers. While building my career as a fiction writer, I worked as a technical writer and journalist by day and helped support my husband through medical school. For more information about me and for samples of my writing, see my website: https://jonimfisher.com. Developing a writing career is not for sprinters. If you decide to take up the marathon of a long-distance career in writing, enter the race with knowledge.

Editors seek articles that entertain, enlighten and inform. No matter how brilliant your article may be, if it isn’t NEWSWORTHY (meaning valuable and interesting for their publication’s readership) then the editors will not buy it. Each publication has its own readership measured in numbers and demographics. Demographics show the readership by age range, race, gender, cultural background, politics, religion and other factors. For example: Working Mother readers are predominantly women, but probably not the same women who read Cosmopolitan.

I will show you how to analyze a publication to determine its demographics, style, and fit for your work. One popular source of listings for magazines is the Writer’s Market, which gives a paragraph description of a publication. Here is an example:

Christian Science Monitor This world-famous American newspaper seeks “upbeat, personal essays from 300 to 900 words.” Their current requirements include travel, parenting and seasonal essays. Read the guidelines for updated information. Payment: $75-$160 on publication. Guidelines: http://www.csmonitor.com/aboutus/guidelines.html#homeforum. [It also lists contact information, such as the name, title, and mailing address of the person to query, their response time, whether they pay on publication or before, and how many readers subscribe to the publication.]

Let’s begin with an overview of the work strategy or process needed to get your article from concept to publication.


Every week bring 25 article ideas to the desk. An idea is a topic or subject combined with an approach or slant. To test an idea, ask it as a question and then answer the question. For example: What is the quality of local news broadcasts? They have become entertainment (or agenda?) focused instead of informative and objective.

  • Choose the idea to develop into a query or article by how exciting it sounds to you. If you don’t get revved up about research, interviews and so on, then your reader will sense the lack of enthusiasm. Find the idea that matters to you to pursue and develop.
  • Develop a statement that captures your story idea in 25 words. Post this where you can see it as you research and develop the story to keep your focus. Find the fresh perspective or slant or attitude toward this subject. Target your ideal readership by demographics (age, education, location, income, experiences). Why should this target reader want to read your article? Example: A couple raised in the sixties teaches their daughter the fine art of rebellion to empower her to live boldly as a Christian.
  • Develop a headline and subhead. Example: Teaching Your Child To Rebel; Raising Lions From Lambs. This idea developed from frustrated parents raised in the sixties who want their children to avoid following dangerous teen trends and peer pressure by asserting themselves as individuals and thinking independently.
  • Write your grabber lead sentence and keep it short, 8 to 15 words. Put the grabber fact or quote first. For example: A teenage Christian is more likely to be ashamed to admit being a virgin than to try marijuana.
  • Develop your main points and state them at the top of clean pages. Jot facts, ideas, and examples to support the statement and so on for each page’s main point. List experts to interview, sources for more research, myths and misconceptions about this issue, scripture or other references related to each main point.
  • Organize the structure or layout of the whole piece. What is the logical order of the main points? Which order will deliver the smoothest flow?
  • Conduct research and interview experts.
  • Write. Flesh out each main point. Keep sidebars in mind. What is the take-away value from each of these points? Think relevance and practicality.
  • Step away from the desk. Go work on a different project. Come back later and read the article like a reader, fresh and objective.
  • Edit, rearrange, delete, refine and hone everything to the focus of the piece. Read it aloud into a tape recorder. Listen to it. Polish it.
  • Send the query letter to the magazine, or online publishing organization this piece belongs in. Make a list of other candidate buyers and file the list with the piece.
  • If you get a ‘no thank you’ letter from one publication, immediately send out a query to the next one on the list.
  • Track your queries, acceptances, publication dates, payments and rights. An example tracking chart will be provided as a pdf in a later blog.
  • Two months before the rights revert back to you on a published piece, send out a query to another magazine for this article [to publish as a reprint or a new piece to suit the buyer’s readership].

Selling reprints or rewriting an article to sell to other publications will multiply your income. Your research, interview and writing time can pay off repeatedly when you refocus your article to suit different groups of readers.

Editors will notify you of their policy regarding reprints. Generally, the larger the buyer’s organization, the less likely they are to buy reprints. However, once you have done the research on an article and topic, you can rewrite the article with a new angle or slant or perspective to suit the next publication.

For example: I published an article in an aviation magazine about earning my pilot’s license. In that publication I freely used aviation vocabulary without having to explain it. When Christianity Today bought the article, I rewrote it to suit the focus the editor requested—how a hobby brought a married couple closer. Hubby and I both fly, so writing from the perspective of a married Christian was easy. I had to define the aviation terminology, but the focus of the article was on how aviation affected a marriage, so the substantial rewrite earned me a higher fee. They paid the fee for an original article, and they also gave attribution to the previous publication with an endnote. The fact that the article/topic appeared in an aviation magazine gave it more credibility.

The King and Queen of freelance writing are Robert Bly and Kelly James-Enger. Bly is the master of copywriting and he shares his expertise though his books, most notable of his collection is:

Secrets of a Freelance Writer, Third Edition: How to Make $100,000 a Year or More

Kelly James-Enger has made a very comfortable living as a freelance magazine writer on topics of health, fitness and nutrition. She shares her freelance experience and knowledge in these books:

Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success

Ready, Aim, Specialize!: Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money

Goodbye Byline: Hello Big Bucks

A few terms you need to know:

Front of Book—the part of the magazine before the feature articles appear.

Kill fee—a magazine buys your article for a percentage of the full payment to keep it off the market for a period of time.

Rights—First North American Serial rights (an original work), Second North American Serial Reprints (a reprinted work or a work with large sections reprinted from a previously published article)—see contract for “buys all rights” or the length of time the rights belong to the publication. Typically, rights last 30 to 90 days after the date of publication. Reprints are often half of the pay of the original or less than the second magazine pays for an original.

Writing on SPEC—this means that you are writing on speculation that the magazine will buy the finished article. The editor may ask a writer to submit on SPEC if this is the first work submitted to this magazine. This gives the editor the right to refuse to buy it if it is not up to the magazine’s standards or style or may cause controversy. If the editor sends a contract, then the work is considered writing “on assignment” and the editor will demand changes if the work does not meet his standard.

I will define publishing terms throughout the series. I welcome comments, questions and sharing of this series.

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Generating Article Ideas

Do you carry a small notebook to jot down ideas? If not, start. Great ideas can get lost in our multi-tasking, fast-paced lives. Once you have identified your topics of expertise and interest, keep that list in your notebook. Add the following to your notebook as well.

The top 10 most profitable topics to write about are:

  • Business and finance
  • Diet & nutrition
  • Essays
  • Fitness and sports
  • Health
  • Home and garden
  • Parenting
  • Profiles & true-life features
  • Technology & science
  • Travel

Pair up your expertise to the profitable topics. Brainstorm. Everything is connected. Find the connections. Explore them.

What captures your imagination and attention is likely to interest other people too. What are people in your industry talking about, afraid of, planning for?

Let’s say your topic of expertise is farming. How does farming connect to the world around you? Are you concerned about the safety of eating genetically altered vegetables? How are people of different ages/cultures/regions affected by farming changes, trends, costs? What are farmers talking about? Are small farms being lost to co-ops and giant conglomerates? Are people growing their own herbs and veggies at home in suburbia?

Once you’ve gathered your research on a topic, try developing your article in different formats for different publications. Can you write on the same topic in a personal essay and a How-To? Look for sales opportunities. Consider breaking up an article into bite-size bits to sell as fillers.

How about writing an article for a magazine you regularly read or for your local newspaper? You are already familiar with the content, style and topics and you represent the magazine’s demographic (readership). Can you take a national news item and give it a local focus?

What combinations of popular topics can be done? What is the popular trend or belief and can you argue the opposite in an interesting thought-provoking way? Is the majority belief based on erroneous information or misinterpretation of facts? Is there a low-tech approach to a problem that high-tech society is overlooking? NASA spent serious coin on developing a writing instrument to use in weightlessness, testing and creating a special pen. The Russians used pencils.

What hot topics are in the news? How can I relate these hot topics to the specific readership of this publication?

Generate ideas from sources like:

  • Snapshots, fillers, sidebars and tiny front-of-book items in magazines. These (500-word or less) fillers can state a fact, a survey result, a bit of trivia that could be developed into a story. For example: Children under age 10 spend an average of 3 hours a day watching television. What could you do to develop that into an article?
  • Personal experience. Mine your life for stories. How does your family handle reunions? What special traditions have you developed in your life? What events in your life have changed you?
  • Old magazines and newspapers. What was news ten years ago? Still a problem? Problem solved? How? Compare then and now. Diet, fashion, health, medicine, telephones, computers, look around at what has changed in your life and what those changes mean.
  • College web sites. Research findings, projects. Wild class titles. What issues are on the minds of this generation? Why does it take more than four years to get a college degree these days?
  • Eavesdropping. What are people talking about? What bothers or excites them? Social Media?
  • Calendar. Magazines buy stories months in advance, so think Christmas in August. What holidays are big in your town? What happens in different seasons where you live?
  • Trend reports. Business magazines, civic groups, industries all track changes. What’s coming up next that consumers would like to know? Identity theft was a critical issue at banking conferences five years ago. It hits the news now as more consumers become victims. What trends do you see?
  • Word play with potential titles. Keep a rhyming dictionary on hand or go to the website www.rhymezone.com and find all the words that rhyme with your word and then look at famous quotes using the word.
  • Clip and save weird news articles that capture your attention. The Tabloid headline kind.
  • Pay attention. Listen. Ideas will come to you with practice. One idea will grab you and demand to be written.

Keep a notebook handy for capturing those ideas to develop into articles.

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