Get into gear: Making it in Magazines - Andrew Noakes - Motoring Writer

The title I was given for this piece plays on my magazine experience being largely on motoring titles, and I thought that we might as well make the most of that metaphor, stretch it to its breaking point. Cars often have five gears, so here are five ideas or strategies for getting into the magazine business and making a success of it.

First Gear: Getting ready

What can you do to prepare yourself for a career in magazines?

I think it's important to learn as much as you can about the business. I didn't study journalism formally - I studied engineering - but I did make the effort to read every book I could find about writing, journalism and magazines.

Even if you do take a course in journalism, it can only teach you so much. So take every opportunity to find out more about how magazines work and to pick up tips on how to do the job.

And it's important to read a lot of journalism. You have to consume it, and begin to critique it and analyse it - look at why some stories work better than others, why some writers captivate you and others leave you cold.

I think you also need to learn as many skills as you can. On smaller magazines, with smaller teams, you'll get involved in many different parts of the publishing operation - which means that those magazines are fascinating places to work, and teach you an enormous amount very quickly.

In my time as a magazine staffer I was employed, in theory, as a writer or editor. But I also sub-edited copy, I proof-read layouts, took photographs, designed pages in QuarkXPress, art-directed photoshoots working with professional photographers, dealt with reader enquiries, wrote PR material for our magazines, managed new projects and launches and a whole host more.

So it pays to learn as many skills as you can.

Nowadays you need to learn multimedia skills too. Increasingly you'll be asked to contribute not just to a magazine, but to a website too. The days of the exclusively-print publisher are numbered: more and more see themselves as multimedia businesses.

Learn the lingo too. Like any business, publishing has its own jargon and you need to get to know it. If you walk into a newsroom on your first day in the job and someone asks you to proof the flannel panel for literals and overmatter, you need to know what that means (if you're not sure, take a look at my glossary of journalism jargon).

Second gear: Getting into magazines

A journalism qualification is no bad thing, but the publishing business is very pragmatic: what really counts is not the bit of paper you have proving the qualification you've obtained, but whether or not you can do the job.

To get into the business, you need to demonstrate your ability. There are two good ways to do that - and if I was starting my career again I'd try both.

The first is through work experience. Increasingly publishers are recruiting not by placing expensive ads in the media pages of the newspapers but by looking at their recent 'workies'. Work experience gives an employer a chance to see if you have what it takes, and whether or not you fit in with the existing team. It gives you the chance to make some contacts and to find out more about how magazines work.

Another way to prove your credentials is to contribute as a freelance (or even as a volunteer). You might get paid, but the real benefit is that you get a few bylines, and you start to build up a portfolio of work which shows you have what it takes to be published by real journals. That's what I did, and eventually I had a portfolio impressive enough to get me a staff job on a car magazine.

It's all very well showing a prospective employer coursework you've produced during journalism studies - but if you can show them real, published work you have a far more compelling argument.

Third gear: You're in - what now?

So you've got into a magazine. Either you've been accepted for a work experience placement, or you've landed yourself a job. What do you do?

First, what not to expect. Don't expect to get a great deal of support, encouragement, training or advice. Magazine people are not by nature surly or uncooperative, but they are busy. You need to be prepared to work things out on your own.

One of they key things you need to do in work experience or a first job is make yourself useful. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to do nothing because nobody gave you something to do.

In a publishing office, there's always something to do. Find it.

If you can't think of anything better, you could at least read the last issue of the publication you're working on - or proofs of the next issue if they're available - and think about how you'd improve it if you had a free hand. Read competing titles and think about their strengths and weaknesses. Come up with ideas for the next issue.

Steve Cropley, editor in chief of Autocar, likes to tell of two 'workies' who really made an impression. One arrived carrying a bucket and sponge and offered to wash whatever cars were being photographed that day. Another liked to roll into the office and ask, 'anyone got a job they don't want to do?'. The first was Gavin Conway, now a very successful editor in the US, and the second was Chris Harris, who became an Autocar columnist and one of the best-known names in motoring journalism in the UK.

Fourth gear: Making your mark

How do you really establish yourself in magazines?

I think one of the key ways is to recognise that magazines still require real journalism. Some newspaper people look down their noses at magazine writers, but just because you're working for a magazine doesn't mean you write only fluffy opinion pieces.

Magazine writing should be just as much about reporting facts as newspaper writing.

And like newspaper journos, magazine writers need a 'nose for news' - because all the best magazines stories have some sort of topical 'hook' to make them timely.

You also need to concentrate on developing the craft of writing.

News writing, I think, is a relatively simple exercise because there is a set of rules to follow. Feature writing - and that's what magazine writing largely is - tends to be much more difficult, because there are fewer rules. That makes it harder to do well, and harder to tell if you're doing it well or not.

One of the most important rules is to make sure you grab your reader's attention and never let it go. As soon as you let your reader pause for thought - by giving them long and complex text to battle through, or by waffling instead of delivering useful copy - you will lose them.

Your job, as Cropley says, is to "deliver your reader to the last line." Let them turn the page before then and you haven't done your job properly.

Fifth gear: Making it a success

I think one of the most important parts of successful magazine journalism - successful journalism in any medium, come to that - is to have a clear idea of who your reader is and to write for that reader, not for yourself.

If you don't know much about your reader, try asking the advertising team. What they sell is a way to promote products and services to a particular reader, so they should have a very clear idea of who the magazine's readers are.

Very often you'll find that information in a 'media pack', which you can find on a magazine's website.

Passion is also key to success. If you're writing for enthusiasts you need to have a passion for your subject. If you're not committed to the subject matter, your readers will see through you.

But that's not enough. You also need to have a passion for magazines. You have to be the kind of person that gets excited by the process of piecing together an issue, from the first planning stages to the final PDFs to the moment when you rip the packing tape of the first box of early issues to arrive in the office.

Talk to successful magazine people and you'll find that not only do they have a consuming interest in their subject matter, they're also fascinated by the mechanics of writing and the craft of making magazines.

In conclusion

Like any area of publishing, magazines are very competitive. Whatever you can do to make yourself stand out from the crowd - by having a better, wider range of skills and a deeper understanding of how the business operates - is worth doing.

If you're hoping to get into magazines then I wish you the best of luck. And if it's car magazines you're aiming for, maybe someday we can share a flannel panel.

Based on a talk to journalism students at Lincoln University, November 2009

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