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11 Must-Know Tips About How To Study A Magazine So You Can Make Sales

How To Study a magazine to make salesWhile commiserating with another experienced writer I said something like,  “Not studying the magazines you’re aiming at is one of the biggest mistakes writers make.” I truly don’t understand why so many writers will throw together a query and send it to a magazine without reading the publication, and, apparently, without reading even the market listing.

I know they do that because I’ve edited magazines and gotten that kind of dreck over and over again.

Reading the magazine is actually only the start. If you want to write for a magazine you’ve got to study it – ideally at least three issues in fact.


Here are the 11 things you must do to study a magazine so you can successfully write queries and articles for it:

  1. Read the magazine. This one may seem obvious but editors complain all the time that writers don’t understand the magazines they try to write for. I found the same thing to be true when I was editing magazines. Become an exception by thoughtfully reading the magazine front to back noticing (and even taking notes) it’s style, the length of the articles, the number and type of pictures, the approximate ratio of text to pictures – in short anything and everything you can think of that will help you understand exactly who the reader of the magazine is and what the magazine likes to publish. A few magazines will give writers a sample copy, most will sell them to you. It’s quicker and cheaper to buy them yourself if you can find them and well worth the investment.
  2. Look at the table of contents. The table of contents tells you how the magazine is organized; that will give you at least some clue about the importance of each article and/or section.  Note if any author names show up there – if they do they are extra important to the publication. Note if they present the magazine in sections and if they do, decide where your article is likely to fall. If they have columns, see if you can figure out if they are always written by one author or are open to a variety of authors in that space.
  3. Study the masthead. The masthead, sometimes called the flag, is a boxed piece of text that lists the publisher, at least some of the editors and their actual titles, the physical address of the publication and ways to contact advertising sales. The magazine’s website is often listed here too. The masthead may tell you which editor is responsible for which section. It’s here you double check the spelling of the editor’s name.  Sometimes you’ll also see writers listed as “contributing editors,” a title often bestowed instead of a pay increase – good to know in advance.
  4. Look at each and every advertisement. Almost all magazines live or die by the number of paid advertisements they have. (Non-profit magazines without ads are obviously an exception.) The ads give you a real clue about the reader you’ll be writing for. Advertisers spend a lot of money figuring out who will buy their stuff  and magazines put together reader profiles for advertisers in a media kit. You can get a copy of the media kit (and sometimes a copy of the magazine) either on the publication’s website or by calling and asking for one.  Both the articles and the ads in a magazine are aimed at exactly the same reader – and that’s the reader you’re writing for. Ads tell you a lot about the reader.
  5. Reread any articles that seem close to what you’re proposing. This also should be obvious but apparently isn’t.  If you want to write, for example, a humor piece, study the way the magazine uses humor. If they don’t publish funny articles, move on to a magazine that does. If they do, however, read so you understand the voice of the magazine. Sure you want your own voice, but you also need to fit within the magazine’s voice as well.

Find the magazine’s website

Almost any magazine worth writing for has its own website these days. In many cases the magazine’s website provides an additional market for you. And most of the magazines that pay freelancers well have a really good site. Here’s what you should look for on the publications website if  you want to write for them:

  1. Looking at the home page, what, if anything, is obviously different? Sure it looks different – it has to, although some sites do an amazingly good job of duplicating on the web what they have in print. Look for things like additional content. If there are extra articles there be sure you at least understand how they compare to the print version – remember, if you’re successful your piece will probably show up there. And if the magazine adds additional content to their site you might want to pitch for the site only.
  2. Note how the bios of authors on the site are handled. This gives you some idea of how the magazine views its writers. And if they allow links back to your site which could be a reason to write at least a couple of articles for a magazine that doesn’t pay that well – assuming, of course, you want more traffic for your site.
  3. Notice the advertisers. Once again, understanding who the advertisers are trying to reach is a major clue about the readers the magazine has, and it’s the readers you’re writing form. If the magazine is running Google ads know that those are more likely to reflect your taste than the magazine’s. That’s called personalization and we’re seeing more and more of it.
  4. Check for FAQs, About Us, etc. Many magazines have guidelines for writers on their site. Sometimes they seem hidden. If you don’t see a submission or for writers link check the FAQs, About Us,contact, etc; you may find them there. You should also check out those pages as a way to get a sense of the business side of the magazine.

  5. Google something like writer’s guidelines for <name of magazine>. Even if you’ve found guidelines on the magazine’s site you may find additional helpful information by looking up guidelines with a search engine. You may find guidelines on other sites that may have a different slant that proves worthwhile.
  6. Look for an online media kit. Media kits, online or off, contain specific demographic information that tells you about the readers of the magazine. You might as well take advantage of all the research that’s gone into the advertising to help you understand the publication.
In addition to article reading time, all this takes maybe 30-45 minutes. It’s really a small investment time-wise when you consider the benefit. When you study a magazine well you’re much more prepared to write articles that the magazine will actually buy. And even if they don’t buy you are much more likely to get an invitation to try again – which is almost as good because now you have an ‘in.’
How do you go about studying magaines?

Image from http://www.sxc.hu


{ 10 comments… add one }
  • A great resource for first-time magazine pitchers. Carrie’s comment is particularly important too – many new freelance writers hope to find an “easy-in” somewhere (whether magazines, articles, blogs) for great pay. Sadly that’s never the case – the long, hard slog is the typical way in – spending hours researching for and constructing your first magazine pitch. Not to mention the associated procrastinating……
    Nicky Parry recently posted..Check Your SkinMy Profile

  • Excellent information. Some of these strategies I’ve employed myself. Another useful part of the magazine to peruse would be the publisher/editor’s page—many times it gives an indepth look at the “personality” of the magazine, its direction, and even pet peeves or rants of the publisher/editor.

  • Once again you slid a point in that isn’t obvious to many – writing is a business. Most of the work in writing is research, reading and analyzing where your words will fit. It’s about knowing what sells and where – you can’t sell cat litter to non-cat owners; and you can’t sell your type of litter to an owner who doesn’t have the need for your type of litter for example.
    Bill Swan recently posted..Freelance Writing is About AskingMy Profile

    • Anne

      I guess I’ll have to do a post called writing is a business – .

  • Good advice. The only thing I’d add is that you shouldn’t let the magazine ads scare you away. I pick up magazines on occasion for a particular article or two, but sometimes as a reader I’m a bit repulsed by the advertising. I bought an archaeology magazine that was full of, well, old-people stuff. Accessible bathtubs and the like. The problem is that marketing departments don’t think that these readers or anyone else is interested in other things, too.

    I guess as a writer you should look at the magazine, but don’t be afraid to pitch your article if you can explain to the editor why you think their readers might benefit from your work. You never really know until you ask.
    Karen Garvin recently posted..Thursday Writing Prompt No. 10My Profile

    • Anne

      Oh that’s interesting… says what, that the magazine isn’t keeping up? But you’re right, I wouldn’t eliminate it as a market either.

  • I bet that some of these same ideas could be applied to the way people look for guest posting on blogs and doing articles for online publications. Thanks for sharing them!
    Grady Pruitt recently posted..Are You Confused About Eating Right To Lose Weight?My Profile

    • Anne

      Good point Grady, you’re absolutely right… Maybe I’ll adapt for blogs… good idea 😉

  • Anne,
    I do much the same. Yesterday I spent nearly two hours on one query alone as I studied and arm-wrestled an idea into their format. It seems like a long time to invest on an idea but my odds increase with every minute of study. Right?
    Carrie Schmeck recently posted..Why Facebook Gets to Break Every RuleMy Profile

    • Anne

      Carrie your odds to increase favorably with more study – there’s probably a place where I study to avoid writing – ah, another blog topic! 😉

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