In December 2015, Jonny Ensall – Deputy Editor of Time Out London – shared his tips on making it in magazines with an audience at The Hox in Shoreditch. Here are few of his nuggets of wisdom for aspiring hacks.
1. Magazine journalism isn’t always about magazines
The magazine industry can be a bit precarious. But it also creates opportunities for people who are quick-thinking and can get their heads around how a piece of content might sit on platforms other than print. Most magazines you approach these days – whether glossy weekend supplements, or grungy music mags – will be thinking about maximising their viewership online.
This means that being a magazine journalist isn’t always about being in print (though that is nice).
2. Know the formats
The few people who have the luxury of simply sitting down and writing what comes to mind are columnists. For the rest of us, writing for magazines is a craft which involves knowing how to use the tools at our disposal.
Many magazines will carry formats which are shorty; bitty; digestible. Get to grips with how these formats work, and the tone in which they’re written.
3. Think about ‘treatment’
When editors find a topic or a person or event that seems interesting, they’ll often talk about a treatment for that idea – that means a twist or spin that moves the article beyond the obvious.
A treatment could be a way of conducting an interview that isn’t just chatting to someone in a cafe. Where could you take them that would reveal something about your subject? It could be working out the best presentation of information. If you need to list a whole load of good events in the run up to Christmas, why not format them as an advent calendar?
4. Write it how you’d say it
What’s the difference between just telling your pal how it is, and journalism? Not much. A lot of good magazine journalism sounds like an informed friend telling you what’s what. ‘Informed’ is the crucial bit there. You don’t need to try to sound smart, just be smart. Know your subject matter and structure your ideas in a clear but attention-grabbing way.
5. Think about the structure
Articles are like stories: they have a beginning, middle and an end. Whether you’re writing a review or a column, there’s key information you need to cram in there. Sometimes the word length is so short that there’s space, only, for that key information, with the lightest of padding.
On the whole, you can’t go far wrong if you think about what the reader needs to know, and then present that information to them straightforwardly.
6. Have bags of ideas
Ideas are your currency as a writer. They’re what that will hook the attention of an editor. Make sure your ideas are well-researched and carefully thought through, then start pushing them out as much as possible.
7. Be authentic
There’s no great secret to making connections within the industry. People like people who are smart, enthusiastic, hard-working, and not trying to be someone or something that they’re not. If you’re not sure of the right way of approaching or addressing someone, just think: How would I say this to a person I like and respect? The ‘Write it how you’d say it’ rule applies just as much to pitching as it does to writing articles.
8. Get the basics right
Make sure you’ve got all the information you require (including fees) near to the beginning of the commissioning process. Be clear about what the editor is looking for. Don’t go over word count, and don’t miss deadlines.
9. Follow up
Editors are busy people. If they don’t respond to an email it’s probably because they’re short of time, not that they’re short of patience with your pitch. Be friendly (and never pushy) and follow up a couple of times.
As much as possible. The more you write, the better you’ll get.