Writing for Trade and User Magazines

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If you're a technical writer, writing an article and getting it published in a trade or user magazine is a good way to expand your capabilities, enhance your resume, promote yourself, and have fun. And if you want to establish yourself as an expert on something, there's no better way.

Specialized magazines can't afford to pay much, if anything, for articles, but companies sometimes do. Why? Because articles are a very cost-effective way for a company to get its message across to prospective customers. Articles get more attention than most ads and a better, more respectful attention.

An article in the right trade or user magazine gives a company much more space for its message than it would probably ever buy. Not only that, it's a better kind of space. An article has the authority of the magazine behind it. The company appears in the magazine not as an advertiser selling something but as an expert sharing helpful information with readers or as the heroes of a success story.

So if you're a writer employed by a company, you may be asked to write an article. Or you can suggest it. If you're a freelance writer, suggest it to a company you've worked for.

How do you get an article published? Don't do the obvious: write the article and then try and find a magazine that will take it. That could be a big waste of your time. Find a home for the article first, then write it. Here's the procedure I recommend:

  1. Lineup your sources.

    Make sure you can write the article. If there is written source material available, use it. But unless you're a subject-matter expert, your article is probably going to be based mostly on interviews.

    For a "How To" article, your sources will probably be inside your company. You simply call and ask if they are willing to cooperate.

    For a case study or "success story" article, another genre popular with trade and user magazines, your sources will probably be your company's customers, so a little more sensitivity is required.

    Go to your company's salespeople. They know who the happy customers are. Ask the salespeople if they would prefer to make the first call to the customer and then have you follow up, or if they would like you to make the first call.

    Whoever your sources are, promise them that you'll let them review the article for accuracy before you submit it.

  2. Call the editor.

    Prepare carefully for this call. Editors are often very busy people who don't have time to chat, and some may be brusque. So be ready.

    Call the magazine (the number is on the masthead). Say, "I have an idea for an article. Who should I talk to?"

    When you get the right person, say in one or two sentences what your idea is and ask if he or she is interested. The answer will be either No or Maybe, never Yes.

    If it's Maybe, say you will send a query. If it's No, the editor may suggest the kind of article he or she would be interested in. Then you can decide whether you want to write that kind of article.

  3. Write the query letter. The point of a query letter is to save you the trouble of writing the article until you know that it's going to be accepted. And it does that-up to a point. But to write a good query letter, you have to think through the whole article. Here are the elements of a query letter:

    1. Title and opening paragraph. Magazine articles tend to be front-loaded. Think of a busy, distracted reader flipping through the magazine. You have to write a title and opening paragraph that will grab the reader and make him or her stop and read. That means distilling out the essence of the article. In a few words, in the title if possible, absolutely before the end of that first paragraph, tell the reader exactly what the article is about. If you can be clever about this, so much the better; plays on words are appreciated, especially in titles. But don't be afraid to be very explicit: "In this article I will explain...."

      This process, called "getting the lead," is the most interesting and creative hut also the hardest part of writing an article. Once you have the lead, the rest of article almost writes itself.

    2. Summarize the rest of the article. Tell the editor where the article will go after the lead.
    3. Illustrations, photos, diagrams, screen dumps, reports, etc. you can supply, if any. Magazines love illustrations: anything to avoid unrelieved text. Illustrations are often hard to come up with, especially when you 're writing about computer-related subjects, which tend to be abstract. If you can supply any illustrations, tell the editor.

    4. Who you are and what your sources will be. If an editor likes an article idea, the next question will be, Can this person write the article? You need to reassure him or her.

      If you get a favorable answer to your query letter and if you come to a meeting of the minds with the editor on the telephone, you should-then you can begin actually writing the article. You've already defined the topic and organized the article. It's downhill from there.

  4. Interview sources.

    Here are a few suggestions about telephone interviewing:

    1. Prepare a list of questions before the interview.

    2. Tape record the interview. There's a lot going on in an interview. Listen intently to people and let them know you're listening by saying "Uh-huh" at the right time, paraphrasing, and asking relevant questions. That's how you get people to talk. You should also be thinking ahead to your next question, to avoid long pauses.

      Some people think they can do all that, take notes, and copy good quotes word for word. I wouldn't dare try. Unless you're a shorthand expert, I strongly advise you to use a tape recorder. I use a combination telephone/answering machine that I bought at Radio Shack. You just press a button and it records. Some people use a special mike that screws onto a telephone where the mouthpiece goes and plugs into a regular tape recorder.

      By the way, you do not need permission to record a phone call if one of the parties, you, knows it's being recorded.

  5. Write the article.

    Have some copies of the magazine you're writing for. Read them for style, tone, and technical level before you write. In most magazines you can be a bit less formal in style than in technical writing.

    Remember that people read magazines for entertainment as well as information. This is your chance to do some creative writing. Try to put some drama into your article if you can. Tell stories. Remember that technology itself can be very boring. It's people using technology that's interesting. Keep the people center stage.

    Use quotes, lots of short ones. Most of the time, you'll paraphrase what your source is saying. But look for those phrases or sentences where your source's way of saying it is better than anything you could ever make up.

    Don't be afraid to edit quotes a little bit as long as you're very careful to preserve the meaning of what your source said. Even the world's best talker need a little editing now and then. They'll start one sentence then give up on it and start a new one, then back up and change their minds. Sometimes the subjects don't agree with the verbs. Help them out a little and fix their grammar.

  6. Clear the article with your sources.

    When the first draft of the article is written, send a copy to your sources for review, as you promised. If it's difficult technical material, it may have to go back and forth several times.

  7. Submit the final article.

    When you've got an approved first draft, submit it in the format that your editor wants: hard copy, diskette, modem transmission, or whatever.

  8. Follow up with the editor.

    A week or two after you send the article, if you haven't heard, call your editor and ask if he or she got it. Things get lost in editorial offices.

    If the article is accepted -- and if you've done everything right up to this point, it should be -- ask when it will appear. It may not be soon. Magazines often backlog articles for months.

    Article reprints make excellent collateral material for your company. A lot of magazines produce reprints themselves. If they do, they can probably do it cheaper than your company can. Also, if they own the copyright, you need their permission to reprint it.

This, then, is the eight-fold way of the trade or user magazine article. You'll never get rich doing it, but it's a way to do something nice for your company and for yourself. Writing can be fun again!

Josh Brackett is project manager at ONYX Communications, a marketing communications agency for high-tech companies based in Danvers, Mass.

© 2000 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Originally published July/August, 1992 in the Boston Broadside