Assessing Your Skills
The odds are that if you're considering becoming a magazine writer, somewhere, somebody in your life told you that you have a way with words. It may have been all the way back in grammar school when you wrote an essay about Dr. Seuss that left your first-grade teacher teary-eyed, or it may have been in college when you published an op-ed piece in the campus newspaper that led to real change in the community.
Either way, you believe that you can write — in a way that makes other people want to read your words. This is one of the key skills of the magazine writer. It's one that many people think they possess but that relatively few writers actually do.
In reality, successful magazine writers tend to be skilled at two different things: reporting and writing. The best writers have the ability to ferret out information, spot trends, and arrange facts in unique ways, all so that when it comes time to write the actual story, they are including the most interesting information and insights possible.
This is what editors want to publish and readers want to buy on the newsstand: stories they cannot find anywhere else. Good reporting is often the key to making those kinds of stories. After all, building an article is just like building anything else. If you start with good materials, your finished product is likely to turn out better.
A lot of people are good writers, but far fewer people are writers whose work other people actually want to read. Unless you plan to write for educational magazines that are required reading among students, you need to be able to write in a way that grabs people's attention and keeps it.
Being a Good Reporter
So reporting, then, is a key skill for any magazine writer. This includes the ability to conduct interviews by telephone or in person, not just getting the information you need from a source, but also getting the source to speak in interesting sentences that you can quote.
You need to know how to ask open-ended questions, the kinds that sources cannot answer by simply saying “yes” or “no,” the kinds that keep sources talking until they feel comfortable giving you the information they won't give to anybody else. You need to know how to get the best story out of the source, as opposed to making the source's information fit into your preconceived notion of the story.
Reporting also involves the ability to do research. Many beginning magazine writers think doing good research means typing a few words into Google and seeing what turns up. On the contrary, the best magazine writers do research in myriad ways:
By reading the minutes of city council meetings and asking for copies of any legislation that is discussed
By reading dense, technical books that help them better understand their article's subject matter or their interviewee's work
By reading police reports and court documents from pending lawsuits and trials
By researching their subject's history in library microfilms and other historical documents
By reading other magazines and newspapers on a daily basis, not just for fun, but to spot trends and new information
As with good reporting, solid research can often turn a so-so article into a must-read feature. Even if your writing is mediocre at best, having great material that nobody else possesses is a surefire way to elevate your articles to the publishable level.
You shouldn't aspire to be a mediocre writer, of course. As with anything, it's not just what you say but also how you say it. Even if you have the best reporting and researching skills in your field, your job as a magazine writer is to put that information into a form that makes other people want to pick it up off the newsstand and read it.
Being a Good Writer
This means that you need to know the mechanics of crafting good articles, such as writing compelling leads, strong nut grafs (a nut graf is your thesis paragraph — the point of your article), meaty middles, and memorable endings.
More and more often, it also means that you need to know how to write eye-catching headlines and cover blurbs, informative captions, and relevant sidebars. Your skills as a magazine writer include making your research and reporting fit into the format that any given editor requests. This may mean short, snappy blurbs in one magazine and long, meandering paragraphs in another.
Being a Good Colleague
All of which leads to another skill that every successful magazine writer possesses: the ability to work well with editors. You can't expect to get along with every editor you encounter — some personalities and working styles simply don't mix — but to survive in the magazine-writing business, you do need to be adaptable. You must have a flexible style of working that allows you to fit into several different magazines' molds at once, not to mention a personality that will allow you to bend to whatever demands your various editors impose.
Some editors like to be extremely involved with their writers' work, going so far as to question specific word choices, while other editors take a more hands-off approach, letting the writer's own voice come across on the page. Know how much editing you can tolerate, and try to work with editors who have complementary personalities.
So, then, the main skills you need to have as a magazine writer are reporting, researching, writing, and working with editors. These are all things you can learn. You may have natural instincts for doing some of these things better than others, but in most cases you can find instruction should you need to improve in any particular area.
There are other considerations you need to keep in mind, though, when deciding whether magazine writing is for you — and they have more to do with your personal life and psychological makeup than with anything you might learn from a teacher.