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The following material is provided by WRITERLIST a Free service providing marketing and other information to writers. This material is copyrighted by Allen Rolf, but permission is hereby given for reproduction and distribution for non-commercial purposes. For more information, email WRITERLIST


What Every Writer Should Know About Writing Saleable Features!

by Allen Rolf

Some trade secrets in magazine feature writing!

Many years ago, as a very young writer, I decided that I could never feed my family by writing fiction. The only option was writing magazine features and for two years my family nearly starved to death while I learned how to do it! Being too poor to afford a filing cabinet, I used a #2 wash tub to store my feature inventory. Because I didn't sell anything for two years, I remember that the wash tub was full of rejected manuscripts by the time I finished my apprenticeship in feature writing.

Looking back, I am amazed that I didn't get the nack of writing features right away! It really is simple if you know a few the secrets of successfully writing feature material!

The modern magazine or newspaper feature is based on two primary criteria. The feature topic must be timely and it must be about something the reader is interested in reading about. In other words, not just any old subject will do!

Know & Develop Your Writing Markets

This is why knowing your market and querying are so important. Magazines and newspapers have agendas and these agendas change with time. What was a hot topic last year, may be a dead one this year. I personally believe that savvy feature writers develop a sixth sense after some writing experience that lets them know what the editor is looking for next. More than once, I have sold a feature and when it was printed, two or more competitive magazines carried very similar features. I once asked an editor about this, thinking editors must have lunch together and discuss what they are going to carry in their next issue. The editor laughed at the idea and told me that in any given month he would receive several manuscripts on basically the same topic. My editor friend speculated that it was something they put in the water supply, but if follows that if several manuscripts on the same, or similar topic, are circulating there is a chance the several editors will buy the same topic if it is timely.

By the same measure, there have been times when I sent in a manuscript only to get a call from the editor informing me that he had just bought a manuscript on the same topic a few days before. I finally woke up to the fact that this is why queries are important! If an editor already has similar material, there is less chance that he will want to buy an unsolicited manuscript from me. Better to ask ahead. It makes sure you are not coming in second and that the topic is something the editor is interested in for the immediate future.

And this brings up probably one of the biggest mistakes I made to filling up my wife's $2 wash tub with rejected manuscripts. At the start, I only sent an editor one manuscript thinking that if he didn't buy the first one, he surely wouldn't by the second or third. This is simply not true! Once I realized that starvation for me and family was guaranteed by sending my work to different markets each time, I came to understand that editors are not looking for manuscripts, but writers who produce manuscripts that the reader wants to read! When I realize this, I started to sell!

My approach in developing a new editorial market is to choose three magazines in that market and work on getting published in only those three. Here is why:

1. Three magazines/newspapers mean that you have three strikes before you're out of the game. If magazine A for some reason can't use a particular manuscript or idea, chances are magazines B and C can. The opposite of this, of course, is never write for a single magazine in any market. Develop new writing markets in groups of three and you will find you sell much faster!

2. One reason you will sell much faster is that once you're published in magazine A, magazine B and C will take notice when you send them a query letter or manuscript. Of course, many inexperienced writers hesitate to query editors, thinking they are intruding or being pushy. The truth is, most editors want queries from producing writers because it is a simple form of insurance that allows them to plan into the future.

3. Long ago, as a beginning salesman, I had a sales manager tell me: "Only your friends buy from you, your enemies won't, so make lots of friends!" Now if you stop and think, that's pretty good advice. How many times have you gone to a stranger to buy something that a friend was offering? Not many. Now sit yourself in the editor's chair and tell me who you would buy from; a writer who you have bought that does good work and produces regularly, or an unknown who has just come across your desk today? Of course, the answer is simple. Whatever it takes, get to know the editor on a personal basis. I have actually had editors recommended me to other editors for assignments simply because I had developed a personal relationship and more than once I have gotten personal notes from editors telling me they were moving to a new magazine and inviting me to submit to them at their new location! Make friends with editors!

Don't Re-invent Writing

A large number of those early rejects were simply that I did not have the vaguest idea of how to write a feature article. In other words, not knowing what I was doing, I tried to invent my own way of writing feature material. There is no need to re-invent anything. There is a format and if you don't follow that format, you're chances of making a sale diminish. Here is where to learn:

1. Study the magazine you want to write for! Never write or query a magazine without first having a copy of their writer/submission guidelines. It may save you some embarrassment. As important, is to read the magazine you to which you are planning to submit your work. Know the preferred article length, note if photos are used, look at how sidebars are used. Also, check out the advertisers and filler articles. A little time invested in knowing your magazine will pay dividends.

2. One of the best places to study feature structure is the Readers' Digest. This magazine's features are well written in compact form and represent material for a wide variety of sources. Study these features and you will have a handle on 95% of what it takes to write a good feature.

Here is what you will learn:

A. Catchy Title! Always come up with a short, catchy title. This is the part of the feature that get's the reader.s attention both on the feature page and the magazine's index. Note that many titles are rewritten by Readers' Digest for this single purpose ... to get attention.

B. Use a short lead-line to give the reader more information. The lead-line is that line that follows the title. Normally, it is used to tickle the readers interest to get him to read the opening paragraph.

C. The opening paragraph should be short and dynamic. It should tell the reader what to expect from the body of the article and it should provide a "hook" or "peg" on which the article rests.

There are several effective ways to open a feature:

Use a story. This is quite common in Readers' Digest features. The article starts with the story of an individual or group with which the reader can identify. The story normally ends with the premise or "peg" of the feature.

Use a strong statement. Open your feature with a strong, attention getting statement. Once I wrote an article on shoplifting for a national grocer magazine and opened the article like this: "In the time it takes to read this article, over one-million dollars will be stolen from retail shelves across the US, and some of it will be from your store! Today, shoplifting is a major concern and operating cost to retailers. What are you doing to protect yourself?"

Ask a question. Open by asking your reader a question. This simple ploy will get reader interest very quickly, particularly if the reader must answer a question that has to do with his finances, family, or job!

The Rest of The Feature

Following the first attention getting paragraph is the body of the feature. This expands on the premise of the article and gives the reader additional information on the topic. Generally, a feature takes either a pro or con approach and the information given in the piece is designed to allow the reader to make an informed decision.

The last paragraph is called the "wrap-up" paragraph, really a very, very brief synopsis of what the piece was all about. You may believe that this is the easiest paragraph of all to write, but actually it is one of the hardest. A good writer leaves the reader with as many questions as he had before he read the article. This means that the writer has not only caused the reader to make a decision on some matter, but has made him think. Every gone to a movie and had that "Gee, I'm sorry it's over" feeling as you left? Aim for that same feeling in the reader's mind when he finishes your feature. Make him want to know more!

Never Plan On Writing A Single Feature On Anything!

I have to smile when I tell you this, but when I filled the wash tub with rejects I was writing about everything and didn't know much about anything! Every try was a new subject for a new market! It never occurred to me, until later, to learn about one subject at a time and write about it over and over again. What this means is to use your research wisely to make multiple submissions.

My favorite example of this is writing a feature on the American bald eagle. Suppose you do research on the subject for a patriotic July feature in a fraternal magazine. Fraternal magazines are not famous for their high rates, so you're probably not going to take a long vacation on what the feature will bring. But, where else can you sell features on the bald eagle? Among the list will be ecology, travel, family, sporting, government, business, and in-house publications. You can write about the bald eagle being saved by conservationists for the ecology crowd, where a person might travel to see bald eagles for the travel people, the importance of the bald eagle in game preservation for sportsmen, the meaning of the bald eagle on our currency for the business reader, or fall eagle watching for the family. If you don't have anything to do on winter evenings, you may even do a little lecturing on the bald eagle to garden clubs in your area. Large clubs will seldom invite a writer to speak on a subject without a stipend, ($20.00 is standard in my area) so you can pick up a little pen money here, too! In short, it is possible to take a single piece of research and develop multiple features for different markets.

Follow The Money!

After two years of writing without a single sale I was quite desperate. I had given up on making money and would have been satisfied with just getting something published with my name on it. Then came the big day when I went to the post office and found this strange envelope with a window with my name typed neatly with whatever was inside. It was a check for $250.00! I was so sure it was a mistake that I went directly to the bank to cash the check before someone showed up and took it away from me. When I took the cash home and showed my wife, she thought I had robbed a liquor store or something. Once I convinced her that I had really sold an article, she sat down and figured out how much I was paid per word. "Twenty-five cents a word!" she said, "and that's for little words like 'it' or 'the'!" She then squirrelled away the proceeds of my first success and came back and said: "Well, don't stand there! Do it again!"

It felt good to see my name finally in print, but I have never gotten over the fact that I was paid a quarter for a little words like 'it' or 'the'! I followed my wife's advice and did it again and again. As I recall, I made ten consecutive sales to the same market! I knew I had arrived!

And the moral to close this piece is this: Always write for money! It is the measure we use in our society for success. It can be held, squirreled away, or used. Expect to be paid for the good you provide for your neighbors and you will be amply rewarded!

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