Learn to Become a Magazine Writer or Freelancer

Woman's hands at the laptop
Flavia Morlachetti / Getty Images

A career as a magazine writer can be rewarding and fun. You get to meet and work with interesting people, learn about new topics and craft fascinating stories that readers enjoy. It is also very competitive and a job that requires diligence and patience.

Once you see your name in print for the first time, you will know that your hard work paid off.

Getting a break in the magazine world is not easy, but it is possible for any talented writer.

There are many magazines -- from large to small -- that rely on great writers to give their readers what they want. It is an exciting career and there are a few ways to approach it. 

What Magazine Writers Do

Magazine writers are essentially journalists. They find, research and write stories that interest readers. The kind of journalism that magazine writers focus on varies greatly from journalism for other publications, such as daily newspapers and blogs.

With few exceptions, magazine writers often produce feature-oriented pieces. Some magazine writers focus on smaller stories, while others produce long-form, or narrative, pieces. This can include exclusive interviews with sought-after subjects and celebrities that can be several pages long.

It is increasingly common that magazines need stories for their online publications as well. Some of these stories never make it to print, instead, they are published solely on the magazine's website.

Full-Time and At-Large Magazine Writers

Full-time positions as magazine writers are some of the most coveted in the print media world. Some lucky -- and of course talented -- writers take positions as staff writers for magazines. Staff writers usually work in the office and have more of a 9-to-5 schedule.

 

Other magazine writers have official affiliations with magazines and may have "at large" titles like writer-at-large or editor-at-large. This typically means that they get assigned a certain number of stories for a set fee. These positions often require no time in the office.

The Freelance Life

Due to the nature of magazine writing, many magazine writers work as freelancers. Some have cushy at-large positions, while others live assignment-to-assignment. Freelance magazine writers who don’t have steady gigs -- i.e. stories for a certain section that magazine editors regularly assign to them -- can find it stressful to constantly chase assignments.

Some full-time freelance writers find success pitching stories, but many rely on editors to assign them pieces. The key to being a top-of-mind writer to editors is producing good, timely work. Sending them a scoop every now and then doesn't hurt either.

What Defines a Magazine Story

Every editorial staff is different and quite often a magazine will give first priority to regular contributors. Once you get in with a magazine, they may send out a regular call for stories to their entire pool of writers. This will be a list of topics they are interested in and each writer can choose which story they want to take on for that particular issue.

 

How to Get a Job As a Magazine Writer

  • College or experience. A college degree helps, particularly a bachelor's in journalism or a related field. If you want to write for magazines, a solid education in writing, composition, proofreading and fact checking will help significantly. For the right individual with drive and talent, a college degree is not always necessary. Experience and a long list of published articles can also get your foot in the door of some magazines.
  • Get an internship. Many magazines offer internships and though they are often unpaid or pay very little, they can offer valuable experience. These positions will give you insight into the publishing process and look good on your resume and CV. Magazines will often give former interns a chance to write for them in the future as well.
  • Read magazines. It is important that you gain an understanding of the style of magazine journalism. It is different than writing for a daily newspaper and the best way for you to familiarize yourself with it is to read. This is often called learning your market and it is essential, particularly if you wish to focus on niche topics such as beauty, fashion or technology. Through this research, you will learn about story length and format and how magazine writers capture a reader's attention.
  • Start writing. Writers need samples of their work and practice honing their skills. The best way to do that is to write and write often. Give yourself assignments and write sample stories, pick up a side gig with a local publication or do some work for a blog. This will create a body of work that you can show editors when sending queries.
  • Develop a niche and a style. Every writer has their own voice and many choose to focus their career on a certain topic. While you may start off as a generalist, finding a niche that you love to write about is good on many fronts. It keeps you motivated and allows you to concentrate and gain authority in a certain topic. It will also show editors that you are dedicated to the topic and give you industry contacts that will be helpful for future stories. A niche doesn't have to be extremely narrow, either. An entry-level tech writer may not focus just on the Windows platform alone, but rather on the broader scope of computers, software and the business of technology. Many writers will concentrate on broad topics like politics or business, food or lifestyle, entertainment or sports. 
  • Persistence is key.  The magazine world is very competitive and it can be frustrating at times, especially when you have 10 queries to editors out there and have received no response. Try not to get disheartened. Persistence will keep you motivated, so send out those queries and pitches and wait for editors to respond. If you don't hear from an editor after a few weeks, send them another pitch or send that story you really care about to another editor (be careful about sending it to too many editors all at once). The magazine editorial process can be very slow at times and after persistence comes patience.
  • Love the deadline. Deadlines are key to any writer's success and it is vital that you make every deadline you are given. It can be easy to procrastinate and put off a story until the last minute, but you need to think about the quality of your story as well. A writer who consistently misses deadlines will get a reputation and that can significantly affect your prospects in the future. Learn to love deadlines and consider them essential to your career.