Writing often requires multiple personalities. Well, you don’t actually have to be somebody else, but some types of writing will push you beyond the comfort zone. For me, my comfort zone ends where word limits begin, which is why I have to prepare more thoroughly for magazine articles than most other writing styles.
Magazines have a premium on space, theme, and tone, and those qualities make writing magazine articles great practice for improving writing of all types. Forcing big ideas into 300–600 words (for 1 to 2 pages) makes you pay quite a bit of attention to what you want to say. Don’t think of it as shoehorning an elephant into your house; think of it as slimming the elephant down to fit.
With that in mind, what follows is my process for writing magazine articles. However, many of these same tips could be applied elsewhere.
1) Getting the assignment: Depending on the editor, this could involve a detailed synopsis with a list of main points . . . or one sentence with a vague idea. Personally, I like having more leeway, but in either case, when I first get the assignment, I jot down my “gut reaction.” What do I think about this topic? What hangers could I use to frame the topic?
2) Brushing up: Once I’ve got my reaction down, I spend some time looking through back issues of the magazine, which is much easier with Internet archives. Has this topic been covered before? What is the general attitude of the magazine to this topic or similar topics? Obviously, you want the article to be your own, but you also don’t want to counter what the magazine has already established—or cover old ground.
3) Research: This varies depending on the topic. More technical subject matter requires more time. But I must stress this: become as fluent in the area as you can. You may have to defend your point of view later to the editor or others. Typically, I spend more time researching than actually writing, but the payoff is excellent. The better I understand the topic, the better I can summarize it. And, of course, I whip up a Google Doc spreadsheet or document of the pertinent facts.
4) Outline: With shorter articles, a simple outline or article sketch should suffice. I usually like to write the topic sentence of each paragraph, but that’s certainly not required. Longer articles, on the other hand, need a full-scale assault.
5) Writing: Five steps in, I start writing. I lay out my topic sentences, add an intro paragraph, and start filling in the rest. After I’ve filled in the meat, I add the conclusion. This may seem a bit odd and not very “creatively free flowing,” but when words are at a premium, you have to concentrate the text.
6) Cut/Edit: Odds are you’ll end up chipping away and revising at the request of the editor to better meet the needs of the magazine.
As I mentioned earlier, this type of process makes for great practice. Come up with your own ideas and write some articles for yourself. I’ll get you started:
- How to prepare a special dinner
- Living in [city of your choice]
- Ministry in a social media world
- Making the most of your vacation—on a budget
- Business practices that improve morale
- Should we worry about SARS?