Ask the Book Doctor
By Bobbie Christmas
Ask the Book Doctor: About Tips on Writing for Magazines
Q: I am new to writing professionally and would like to write magazine articles, but I have trouble starting the first paragraph. Can you give me some tips on starting an article? Can you give me any other tips that may be helpful?
A: No matter what we write, almost all writers have difficulty with the opening paragraph, so I advise writers to start anywhere. Just dive in; don’t worry about what to say first, just plow through and write the information you want the article to impart. The first draft is simply a draft, anyway.
During the revision stage, manipulate the information into a logical correct order and add good transitions from one subject to the next or add subheads to break up the information. While you read through what you have written, you may find a paragraph that, slightly revised and moved to the front, will make the perfect opening. You may even find that your conclusion is good, and if you write an opening paragraph that hints at the conclusion, the article will be circular, returning, in essence, to information stated in the beginning. Great openings rarely come to writers during the first draft. They are best left for discovery during the rewrite, so don’t worry about the details of the opening until the revision.
Also during the revision be sure that the article contains all five W’s of journalism (who, how, why, what, where, and when), but for the opening, remember that some of those points are less interesting than others. People like to read about people, so the best leads include "who," if possible. For example, examine the following two openings for a hypothetical article:
- On May 4 a law goes into effect that prohibits the use of hair dye containing zenothol, a compound that may cause birth defects when used by pregnant women, but women are complaining.
- Sixty-five-year-old Effie Smith studies her copper-colored curls in her front hall mirror and shakes her head." I can’t believe I’ll be a criminal in two weeks," she says. On May 4 a law goes into effect that prohibits the use of hair dye containing zenothol, a compound found in red dye that has been found to cause birth defects. "I’m not about to get pregnant at my age, so why should I have to live by that stupid law?" Smith asks. "I’ve stockpiled all the stuff I can, and I’ll keep using it. I’ve been dying my hair for more than thirty years, and I’m not about to stop."
Note that the first opening paraphrases the quotations, whereas the second opening uses a person and quotations to get the attention of readers. The first opening tells, rather than shows. The first opening uses "when and what" as the opening information, a news style that gets to the point but does not engage the reader the way a magazine article should. The second version starts with "who" and engages readers visually. They can envision the woman shaking her head in front of a mirror. Always lead with the most interesting points in magazine articles, whenever possible.
My other tips involve following the trend of the specific magazine you are writing for. To discover this information, obtain and study one or more issues of the magazine before you submit anything. Make notes on the following details:
- Are the titles of the articles clever and playful, or do they simply state what the article is about?
- Does the magazine break longer stories into small sections with subheads? If so, break your article into smaller chunks with subheads, too, unless you are writing a short filler.
- Do the longer articles have sidebars with extra information? If so, see if you can add more information by adding a sidebar or perhaps move part of the information out of your article and into a sidebar.
- Are the articles several pages long, or do they tend to be complete on one page? Make sure your article adheres to the average length of articles in your targeted periodical.
- Is the writing funky and casual or businesslike and formal? Does it use technical terms, long words, and rambling sentences or simple words and short sentences? Be sure your writing conforms to the writing style of the magazine.
- Does the periodical follow Associated Press Style or Chicago Style (the style guide dictates when to capitalize words, when to use a number or spell it out, and whether to use a serial comma—that is, a comma before the word "and" in a series). If you don’t know which style guide the magazine follows, ask.
- Look for writer’s guidelines for the magazine and follow them. Some magazines even have web sites with guidelines clearly spelled out.
Anything you can do to make an editor’s life easier will make you a treasured freelancer and one more likely to get assignments and acceptances.
–Do you have a question for Bobbie Christmas, book doctor? For a personal response, email Bobbie Christmas at Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Bobbie Christmas is the owner of Zebra Communications, a literary services firm providing manuscript editing services to individuals and publishing houses since 1992. Contact her at 770-924-0528, visit her web site at http://zebraeditor.com/, or email her at the address above. Be sure to sign up for the free Writers Network News by visiting her web site and clicking on "Free Newsletter."