When It Comes To Magazines, Guidelines Are Rules

Well. What I’m about to tell you is one of the most important things you will ever learn in terms of writing for print. Ready? Here goes:

Follow the guidelines.

Sound deceptively simple? Seem like common sense advice? Guess what?

In terms of the magazine editors I know, this is the most common complaint. Writers don’t follow the guidelines. Those that do—they will get more work. Those that don’t…well, you know where I’m going…

If you are lucky enough to get a query accepted by a print magazine, it is a good, good thing. The catch is—even though you are going to write it—they don’t necessarily have to publish it. And if you don’t follow the guidelines, you just might get the boot.

The guidelines are there for a reason, and those who choose to skirt them are writing for themselves, not the magazine. Print publications have certain considerations to keep in mind; especially when it comes to the fact that they need to reserve space for paying advertisers. If the editor tells you to give them 1,000 words, don’t think you’ve done well if you turn in a 1,500 word piece. (And don’t hand in 400 either.) They have a certain amount of space to fill, and there isn’t a lot of “wiggle room”.

I refer to the guidelines many times during the writing process to make sure I’m staying on target and following the program. Even after all this time, I can honestly say that it is still very easy for me to start thinking I know what the editor wants. This is a very dangerous thing. Stay on track.

If you are writing for a magazine that doesn’t have specific guidelines, make sure you check in with the editor and ask them about things such as word count, tone and any other requirements they might have. And take notes—believe me—you’ll forget otherwise. I know this from experience. If you have to ask the editor again, you’ll look like a rank amateur.

I have worked for clients that expect you to hand in a list of all sources and the contact information for them. Some ask me to include all the quotes and interviews as well when I hand in my piece. Others are happy if I stay within the word count and throw in an optional sidebar. (The key word there is “optional”. I let them decide if they want it or not.) Sometimes this adds up to a lot of extra work—but I’ve found that if I do a thorough job and give them exactly what they are asking for, I get to write for them again.

So what am I saying?

Here it is in a nutshell:

1. Know what your guidelines are for the project. Print them out if you can and refer to them often as you are writing the piece. Read them again before you hand it in and make sure you have everything covered.

2. Keep a copy of your query nearby. Refer to it often and make sure that the article you are writing is the one you pitched. And yes—I’m serious. You’d be surprised at how often things veer off track if you aren’t careful.

3. There are really two types of guidelines…the written ones for the publication and the information your editor gives you at the onset of the project. (This will include things such as your deadline and how to handle your contract.) Make sure you keep that on hand as well.

Master this skill and you will be on your way to developing a solid relationship with your editor. Hopefully, a regular stream of assignments with the publication will follow.

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Catherine L. Tully has over nine years of experience writing for magazines such as American Style, AAA Living and Boys' Life. She is the editor for an award-winning blog on freelance writing and also owns and edits a blog for dance professionals.

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