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August 22, 2010

Get to know your readers

It may sound obvious but before you type your 1,000 word article, you need to know both your reader and the publication for which you plan to write.

Many writers fail to do this. And then they wonder why their idea wasn't accepted by the commissioning editor. The fact it was rejected wasn't necessarily because it was a badly written or badly researched article. It's more likely that what was proposed was inappropriate for that particular publication.

All editors will expect each and every one of  their writers to be familiar with both the publication and its readership.

How can you write in the correct tone, in the correct style if you haven't leafed through the publication, taken stock of what articles it covers, how it covers them (word or picture heavy, fact boxes, first person etc)?
And how can you deliver suitable content if you don't know the publication's readership - their age, gender, interests, the type of life they lead in terms of home and family, income and work, political, religious and social affiliations?

Writers also need to be market researchers. Research is absolutely crucial if you are to have any chance of success, and if you want to be taken seriously.

It is worth standing in a newsagent's and spending some time looking at the magazine and newspaper titles.

More than likely, you will be surprised at the range of subjects published. You will be so used to going to the same magazine rack, to the same section, and looking for the title you usually read, that it's highly likely you didn't know there was a magazine called Cardmaking, Bead Trends or CrossStitcher. How about: Home Farmer, Practical Fishkeeping, Bizarre, The Dolls' House Magazine? And in another section you will probably find EcoTraveller, A Place in the Sun and French Property News.

Search sites which list UK newspapers and magazines and you will find titles such as The Philosopher's Magazine, Girl Talk, Golf Monthly, The Drum, Today's Flyfisher, Outdoor Photography, Today's Railways, The Hat Magazine.

As a writer, it is vital to get an idea of the range of publications. These are all possible markets for you. Another excellent resource which lists hundreds of publications and describes who they are aimed at is The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook.

According to the Periodical Publishers' Association there are 3,212 consumer magazines and nearly 5,000 business titles in the UK. Some 200- 300 new titles are launched each year. Britons are the third biggest spenders per head on consumer magazines in Europe and UK consumers will spend £2.5bn on magazines this year. Nine out of ten UK adults read consumer magazines. UK publishers sell 40 million magazines outside of the UK every year.
Those are big figures, a lot of magazines, a lot of space to fill. So it's worth keeping up- to- date with what's out there be it magazines, newspapers (and their online equivalent), trade magazines, e-zines (online 'magazines' ) and online 'newspapers'.

Make yourself familiar with a number of publications which carry subjects in which you are interested.

Look at the articles, the adverts (this will help you understand to whom the magazine is targeted and what their interests are).

Look at the coverlines on magazines. These are the words on the front of a publication which gives readers an idea of the main stories inside.

The coverlines will tell you a lot about the content and the readership.

The same goes for the image on the cover of the publication. The cover will help you define the target audience (sleek and sophisticated, fun and fast, considered, mumsy, sexy, DIY fiend).

The design of the front cover tells you whether the publication is a quick read (are the colours bright and brash which say 'pick me up, read me and throw me away') or more sombre and studied (a glossy coffee-table style magazine with content you are likely to read and refer to again).

Quick-read publications are aimed at a readership who's in a hurry and only got time to read over a cup of coffee or a pint. The story lengths will be shorter. The content less ponderous. It will be written in a bright and breezy tone.

Another type of publication will aim at a readership who has more time. In that case, the articles will be longer and more considered. They will carry facts and argument which add to the content.

This goes for all publications whether an inhouse magazine for a business, or a parish magazine for a local community. A successful publication will have a tone and a style which will be consistent and relevant to their target audience.

Several publications, such as the BBC's Science and Technology magazine Focus, tell writers just what they should be aiming for when they are planning an article. This is obviously a great help. But as the magazines' guidelines say - all writers should get to know the magazine first.
In this way, you will be a far more effective writer because your article ideas and your writing will be tailored to fit that specific market and the specific reader.

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning  starting in October 2010. For details see

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