Writing for Magazines and Newspapers - How to Write for the Right Audience.
Last week my vacuum cleaner broke. The man at my local repair shop scratched his head, sucked his teeth and announced that it was terminal. So off to the electrical superstore I went.
I was browsing a few of the compact-and-bijou models when a salesman came over and started to tell me about the exciting benefits of the big deluxe models he was clearly getting more commission on. They had a lot of bells and whistles but not what I wanted at all.
I listened for a few minutes until it struck me that I was having a bad customer experience. All because the sales person hadn't obeyed the first rule of selling (or 'helping someone to buy'): understand your customer's needs.
This hub is a guide to help new writers analyse their markets so that they can write short stories or features to fit those markets. You probably know, or think you know the readership of a magazine or newspaper already. But this habit will mean that you get more ‘yeses’ to your ideas, pitches and stories.
The rules are the same for print and online publications.
You and the editor
When you're a writer selling your masterpiece to a magazine or newspaper, the editor is your customer. You probably won't have the chance to ask exactly what she wants you to write so, for a non-fiction piece, you'll need to pitch an idea that suits her needs. And for a short story magazine your story will need to suit the readership.
However, the editor's customers are the advertisers. They're very important in this equation and we'll come back to them soon.
For print publications, buy several back issues (usually from the magazine's website) and look at the website for more background and to see if there’s an editorial calendar.
Examine them objectively.
You and the reader.
You are looking to build a profile of the average reader - their lifestyle, age, education and gender. Where do they live, what sort of car do they drive (sports cars, SUVs, people carriers), what level of income and what level of education do they have? Where do they go on holiday, how many kids? Do they go to church?
Look at the ads. Ads in magazines and newspapers are expensive so an advertiser has to know the readership very well - otherwise he's appealing to the wrong market and wasting his money.
Are the ads glossy, high life and sophisticated, or homely and family oriented? What age are the models in the ads?
Who would use the products that are being advertised? What age, sex are they and lifestyle would they have?
You and your article.
- What length are the stories, features and articles? They may vary, so make a note - are there fillers (usually under about 300 words), long articles, and medium length, or are they all mid-length? No need to count each word; get an estimate by counting the words on one line and multiplying by the number of lines on the page.
- Do the articles contain reader stories and examples, for example an article about cancer talking to cancer survivors or an article about business start-ups with real-life accounts?
- What sort of titles do the articles have? In newspapers a headline writer will re-write a headline anyway but if yours reflects the theme and tone of the publication then the editor is more likely to feel you’ve done your homework. For example are story headlines puns, word play or straightforward explanations of the articles?
- List the topics that the magazine covers and look at the contributors' guidelines. Are there a lot of celebrity interviews or how to pieces? What are the how tos about? Who writes most of the articles - check the masthead at the front of the magazine (the list of editors' and contributors' names) and is there a lot of freelance input?
If you're looking to sell a fiction piece, first check that the magazine publishes fiction (obvious, I know).
Then look at the stories they publish. Who are the characters - what age, background - for example if a story is about teen girls and an editor for a magazine for older people may not think her readership will identify with the characters.
Equally, plot, tone, theme, language and genre of the story need to be comfortable for the readership.
The FOG Index.
If you're still not quite sure about getting your writing right for your audience's reading level, or you think you're being too wordy, try the FOG index.
The FOG Index, based on the first 100 words of this article.
1. Take a sample of 100 consecutive words. 100
2. Count the number sentences. 5
3. Divide the number of words into the number of sentences, to give the average number of words per sentence. 100 divided by 5 = 20
4. Count the number of words with more than 3 syllables, ignoring those ending ed or eds, compound names (eg marketplace) and proper names. 5
5. Add the result of 3 and 4. 20 + 5 = 25
6. Multiply the result by 0.4 25 x 0.4 = 10
The result is the FOG index, which can be compared with the corresponding reading level.
10 or less: most people.
11 13: top 20% secondary school students.
14 16: university students.
It's mathematical so it doesn’t' tell you about the quality of the writing, only if it's likely to be easy to understand. So remember to read, edit, re-read and re-edit your work to get the best quality.
Stories and features are rejected for many reasons but don't let a lack of research be one of them for you.