Monday, January 21, 2008

School of the Writer - Part III - "Aim"



The closing of one year and the coming of a fresh one often brings resolutions and goals for hoped-for accomplishments in the New Year. Perhaps for some of you that goal is having your research and writing published in one of the newspapers or magazines directed at Civil War enthusiasts. I hope so!

When I started this blog, one of my stated missions was to share advice based on my experience in writing for historical publications. To that end, it's my privilege to pick up again on my "School of the Writer" series with Part III - "Aim (Pick a Target"). As a refresher, though, here are links to my two previous instalmments:

School of the Writer - Part I - "The Big Picture"

School of the Writer - Part II - "Credentials"

Why a post on "Picking a Target?" The various Civil War publications are all basically the same and sending an article idea to one of them is just as good to sending it to another, right? WRONG! In fact, each of the Civil War publications has its own mission, style, requirements, audience, etc.

This may seem obvious, but I can assure you that one of the main complaints of editors at the various magazines (and this goes for book publishers as well...perhaps even more) is that they often receive submissions that are entirely unsuited to them. This practice has two implications:

a) it wastes the time of the editor
b) it reflects poorly on the aspiring writer as it shows that they didn't take the time to properly investigate the publication or its requirements

The best way to avoid this problem...and again this will seem to READ THE MAGAZINE!

The purpose of reading the various magazines - and even more important: a recent issue - is to familiarize yourself with what makes each of the publications unique in personnel, style, contents, and submission requirements. Consider these reasons:

a) Personnel - it is always best to address your query (the subject of the next installment) to a specific person ...not "Dear such-and-such magazine" or "Dear Editor of such-and-such." What's more, there are often changes in editorship and you want to make sure that you read a recent issue to keep up with changes. Specifically, there have been some important changes in ownership and/or editorship at North & South, America's Civil War, and Civil War Times Illustrated, just to name a few.

b) Style - you will also note differences in style...some magazines are heavily illustrated, others heavy on annotation, others more "top down" in their perspective, others more "bottom up," some addressing the casual enthusiast, others with a specific audience, such as the "living history" community. The important thing is to not guess at this - read the various magazines and decide which one fits you best.

c) Content - Look at the various copies of a magazine from issue-to-issue and you'll notice some similarities. This uniformity is on purpose: part of the reason a reader is attracted to one publication over another is that they have expectations - favorite parts of the magazine and/or an affinity for the general style. In the main, most of the content of the major publications can be split into two areas: "features" and "departments." Feature articles are longer (3-5,000 words) while "departments" are shorter (less than 2.000 words) - but regular - sections. In my experience, it is easier for an aspiring writer to "break in" by submitting a "department"-type article.

d) Submision requirements - almost every publication offers some advice on how to submit an article...often this is in small print on one of the first pages. Some of the publications, though, offer expanded advice - "Writer's Guidelines" - on their website. Here are some examples:

North & South Magazine Writer's Guidelines
Blue & Gray Magazine Writer's Guidelines
Civil War Historian Writer's Guidelines

If a magazine website does not have specific guidelines, they will at least usually have e-mail contacts for the editorial staff. Other sources, such as Writer's Market, will have information as well, but beware that it may not reflect changes in personnel.

The important take home message is to read the various magazine and choose the one that best fits your idea(s) and style.

After you pick a target and aim, the next thing to do is "fire" - I'll cover that in the next installment.
Feel free to e-mail me with any questions!


Don said...


Thanks for the pointers. Nice to see this series back, I was afraid you'd abandoned it.

Jim Schmidt said...


Thanks for the kind message...I'd spent most of the past few weeks on shameless self-promotion and forgot that one of the original missions was to give some advice. I promise you won't have to wait long for the next installment on writing a query letter.

All My Best,

Jim Schmidt