How to Get Into Magazine Writing: 6 Tips for Aspiring Magazine Writers

Written by MasterClass

Sep 5, 2019 • 6 min read

Quality magazine writing is one of the most refined forms of prose. Legendary publications like Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and GQ have built a reputation on trenchant, longform journalism. Other magazines are well known for digesting and dissecting the news of the week.

Like most print media, the magazine industry has contracted in the internet age, but careers still exist for magazine writers. Approaching the profession with a clear head and plenty of information gives aspiring writers the best opportunity for success.



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What Is Magazine Writing?

Magazine writing falls into two categories: journalism and commentary.

The archetypal magazine article tends to be longer than the archetypal newspaper article; most magazines have built their reputations on well-researched longform journalism. Such meaty articles are interspersed with shorter, pithier fare since most readers seek variety as they work their way through an issue.

6 Common Types of Magazine Articles

There is no fixed rule for what constitutes magazine journalism and what does not, but certain formats have stood the test of time:

  1. Longform investigative pieces. These tend to be assiduously researched, contain numerous citations and sources, and have lengthy word counts. Such pieces typically take months to write, edit, and legally vet, but they’re also the types of pieces that win prizes for magazines.
  2. Character profiles. These pieces can vary in length from a few hundred words to several thousand. They paint portraits of a wide array of subjects: politicians, athletes, musicians, actors, social activists, authors, and more. Many magazines run these profiles as their cover stories.
  3. Commentary. Commentary pieces are more common in magazines that deal with current events. Sports commentary is also common in sports-centric publications.
  4. Criticism. These pieces tend to be either reviews or critical commentary. Think of album or film reviews, book reviews, or art and architecture criticism.
  5. Humor. Typically found in shorter pieces, humor pieces are found in magazines like The New Yorker and McSweeney’s, and even weekly magazines that accompany newspapers.
  6. Fiction. Magazines like Harper’s and The New Yorker are known for publishing short stories or excerpts from longer works.
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What Do Magazine Writers Do?

Magazine writers perform tasks very similar to those of newspaper reporters. They must:

  • Develop sources
  • Pitch stories to editors
  • Interview subjects
  • Follow up with sources
  • Research, write, and submit a first draft
  • Revise
  • Work with fact-checkers and copy editors

Today’s magazine writers are also asked to keep a steady social media presence. This means linking to their articles on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and perhaps providing commentary on the news of the day. Some magazine journalists take to blogging to stay a part of the conversation when they don’t have pieces up for publication.

What Is the Difference Between a Staff Writer and Freelance Writer?

A staff writer is a writer whose work is exclusive to a particular magazine, newspaper, or other publication. Prominent staff writers may be able to negotiate to moonlight in other publications, but most do all their work for a single publisher. Their work for that publisher tends to be their full-time job.

Freelance writers are not exclusively employed by a single publication. To get work, freelancers submit ideas to the editor or associate editor of a magazine, often with a list of sources and background research. Occasionally, some freelancers will even pre-write an entire story in advance—which is known as “writing on spec.” However, most refrain from digging into the hard work until they secure a commission.

  • A staff writer typically receives benefits such as a guaranteed salary, health insurance, and paid vacation. In return, they are expected to generate a certain number of articles for their respective publication.
  • A freelancer does not receive guaranteed income; he or she is only paid for specific pieces of content.
  • Writers without a personal celebrity brand may favor the stability of staff work; famous writers with their own following may prefer the flexibility of freelance work.


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5 Steps to Getting Published in a Magazine

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As the magazine industry contracts, getting published has become considerably more difficult than it once was. Nonetheless, there is absolutely a market for well-researched, well-written magazine journalism. Here are some steps toward getting your work published as a freelance writer:

  1. Come up with a compelling story idea. This could involve investigating a topic that hasn’t been unearthed by existing media. Perhaps you have a scoop on an instance of corruption or neglect. Or perhaps your own personal story has inspired interest in a topic. Having a story that you feel passionately about will go a long way toward getting yourself employed.
  2. Pitch your idea. Contact a wide array of magazines, being sure to follow their submission guidelines. In most cases, you’ll submit your idea in writing; if you have the opportunity to include a cover letter, do so. New writers submitting for the first time need to brace themselves for silence. If you aren’t already famous, it can sometimes be hard to get a response.
  3. Be ready to defend your idea. An editorial board may come back at you with a list of questions to make sure there’s enough substance behind your pitch.
  4. Ask questions. Alternatively, you can ask editors if they have stories that they are looking for, and then offer yourself as a candidate to execute that article.
  5. Once your pitch is approved, get to work. Make sure you balance the house style of your publication with the voice that makes you unique as a writer. The great magazine writers are distinctive in their writing, and they’re able to balance their personal voice with the basic structure expected in magazine journalism.

6 Tips for Aspiring Magazine Writers

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If you want to start publishing articles with your byline in a magazine, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Respect the writing style of the magazine you’re submitting to. The standard syntax of one magazine is quite different from that of another. This stands to reason, since they have different target audiences. That doesn’t mean the same writer can’t be published in both.
  • Draw on your personal experience when brainstorming article ideas. This keeps your writing compelling and it can help ward off writer’s block.
  • Opt for a digital commission. Remember that many publications have online articles that don’t appear in the print issue. Getting these writing assignments can sometimes be easier. The work can also be simpler; sometimes you’ll be asked to provide short commentary or write how-to articles, rather than take a deep investigative dive (such as is often required in feature articles).
  • Consider trade magazines as a way to get published. Many unions and guilds publish their own magazines, and these can be a good way for a writer to refine her writing skills and get a byline before scaling up to national magazines.
  • Don’t be put off by rejection. Remember that freelance writing is hard work. You may have to adjust your vision of how this career will work for you. This means pitching a story idea to all sorts of different magazines—even ones you might not have heard of. Be prepared for many rejections.
  • Ask for feedback. Always ask editors for feedback on your idea. While it’s true that some won’t have time to give you in-depth feedback, others will. Use their feedback to amend your pitch, and keep what they say in mind for the next time you need to write and submit a pitch.

Want to Become a Journalist?

Whether you’re just starting out in publishing or a seasoned journalist, understanding how to craft and execute on editorial vision is important to success within the industry. In Anna Wintour’s MasterClass on creativity and leadership, the current Artistic Director of Condé Nast provides her distinct and priceless insight into everything from finding your voice and crafting your singular editorial vision to leading with impact, and more.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from editorial masters, including Anna Wintour, Malcolm Gladwell, Bob Woodward, and more.