Following the 10 Commandments of Magazine Writing

Posted on June 10, 2012

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I will start by saying this blog has nothing to do with religion, despite its title, which I will admit I stole from This American Life, as opposed to the Bible.

Ira Glass in 2007 did an episode called “Ten Commandments,” and featured stories of people struggling to follow the commandments.

But neither Ira, nor the book of Exodus, have the corner on rules to live by, so I thought in honor of my first semester class–as seven-week summer of magazine writing–we could consider 10 guidelines to get us writing well and, if we are really lucky, getting published.

1st Commandment: Thou shalt read the magazine for which you wish to write.

You cannot write for a magazine if you don’t know what content its readers would like, or what voice its pages hold. To not read a publication before you wish to write for it is truly THE cardinal sin of magazine writing.

2nd Commandment: Thou shalt be original

Magazine writing is not just about writing stories–it’s about writing interesting stories that have not been written before. I get a lot of assignments on topics that have been written before–or even ones (like a recent one I wrote on new Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs) that other publications are writing at the same time as me. But I have to find a better angle, a more entertaining focus, a deeper meaning. That’s what makes your piece unique.

3rd Commandment: Though shalt find enough of the right sources

It’s not that hard to find sources–what is hard is finding the right ones, and getting that one additional voice you need, even when you think and wish the story is done. The readers are the most important.

4th Commandment: Thou shalt craft the story the readers  seek.

Don’t write the story you want to write. Writing is not about you. It’s about your readers. Think about what it is they would like to know, then find sources to answer all the questions readers would have, and put those answers into your story.

5th Commandment: Thou will follow editor directions, like word count, suggested themes and DEADLINES.

When it comes to these commandments, your editor is god, and what he or she says goes. An editor’s sole goal is to make your article more readable for his or her readers, and if they make you a better writer along the way, that’s an added bonus!

6th Commandment: Thou shalt willfully and enthusiastically do revisions when asked.

See above.

7th Commandment: Thou shalt take the most accurate and complete notes possible, and organize them into a comprehensive story.

Your notes are the DNA of your article. If they are jumbled or unreadable, or just plain wrong, you have birthed an article with pretty serious defects. Practice writing quickly and clearly. Get a quality digital recorder. Learn to type like the wind. Be accurate!

8th Commandment: Thou shalt cultivate sources with every story that may help with other stories.

If you know how to reach the right sources quickly, or you can reach sources who know other sources, the hard part of your story is already done.

9th Commandment: Thou shalt treat sources with respect.

That means we meet when and where it works for them, we take accurate and complete notes of what they say, and we quote them in ways that truly reflect the story they wish to share.

10th Commandment: Thou shalt read magazines early and often before though wishes to be a magazine writer.

To be a good writer, you must start by being a good reader. There is no other way to begin.

What other commandments do you think should add?

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