Freelance Magazine Writing

freelance writingFreelance writing or magazine writing is a trade with many skills to impart, most notably that of writing with a particular outlet in mind. Magazine writing caters for a certain audience, which the editor knows only too well. With a burgeoning circulation comes decent advertising revenue, and so happiness all round — if your article fits.

Very different is much serious writing today. It holds little appeal for the 'common reader' and is not known outside the trendier magazines and university departments. Some is further disadvantaged by being unfashionable in academic circles. Very few outlets of any quality now exist for traditional poetry, for example, and even literary fiction has become a product largely shaped by highbrow expectations.

Magazine writing tells authors what should be obvious, that they need to take decisions early in their writing careers. Serious poetry and experimental fiction subsist through an elaborate network of critics, theorists and editors, on grants and subsidies, and on reviewing in the intellectual press. Literary theory plays plays a large role in bringing work to notice, even though that theory often rests on dubious ground. Solidarity is essential, and anyone who enjoys membership of the modernist or postmodernist club is expected to abide by the rules — to subscribe to the right periodicals, not to question the achievements of the founding fathers, to show proper deference to the literary establishment, and to remain unswervingly optimistic about contemporary work. If this is your aim or position, then the following notes do not apply. You'll never write a bestseller, but nor will you starve: contemporary writers look after each other. Much time will be given up to reviewing, giving talks, running workshops and serving on panels and grants committees, but you will gradually take the place of those you supported and be entitled to the same privileges. Your work will be seen within a context of ideas and commonly accepted opinions, and praised to the extent it supports and furthers those ideas and opinions.

If this model is not for you, either because you came to writing through other routes, or because you see the literary establishment as too restricting and self-serving, you will have to find another public for your freelance writing, which isn't always easy. Popular fiction is written to certain formulae, and a reputation in one department won't necessarily help in another. Readers are creatures of habit, and novelists often write under several names to avoid confusing their public. Publishing houses specialize, and an agent cannot be expected to remain abreast of events in all fields of writing.

That said, remember these most obvious points when reviewing your prospects for freelance writing:

1. Readers need to identify in some way with your creations. Through the characters and situations you conjure up — and this applies just as much to poetry — they expect to see themselves in greater understanding and emotional depth. Your novel can describe the trials and tribulations of the second Ming Emperor, for example, but that character has to be built with the elements of our common humanity, so that we imagine ourselves in that predicament and with those opportunities.

2. Many bestsellers are topical. The world changes slowly but certain themes flare up in the public imagination. For a decade or so there are novels on cold war spying, marital breakup, third world poverty, clashes of family and career, ethnic unrest, world terrorism, etc. — the themes are continually being developed until something new comes along. As in films, the first are often the best, and sensible writers keep their ears open, pushing the boundaries a little further without alienating their core public.

3. Don't mix genres too much. Thrillers are not literary novels, and the hero must be credible within certain conventions: you'll portray a fallible human being but not the shy introvert indulging in ritual self analysis while the action stalls.

4. Even within genres — the poetry collection, the contemporary love story — there are demarcations that vitally affect the appeal of your work. You may not recognize the indicators, but publishers certainly will, and may turn your piece down on 'inexplicable' grounds. Many writers specialize for this one reason: a growing awareness of their public.

5. At its most basic with poetry, a general publisher will ask: can the poems be understood readily? Do they deal with a broadly-shared human experience? Do they fit into a well-defined market? Is their subject matter topical, or at least contemporary? Are the poems of manageable length? Do the poems hang together with a common theme and/or style? Does a distinct personality emerge?

 

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