Forgive me for stating the obvious, but sometimes it needs to be done: when you’re setting out to write a feature for a magazine, what you write is more important than how you write it. Think about it: if the most basic purpose of a magazine is to convey information, and if the facts in your story are incorrect or unclear, you’ve not done your job. Of course, being able to get that info across in an interesting, entertaining way is essential – but before you put your fingers on the keyboard and begin to wax lyrical, there are a few things you should know:
1/ Do your research – thoroughly
It’s very easy to tell when someone has written about unfamiliar territory: the copy is vague and confusing. If you don’t understand what you’re writing about, your story reads as a jumble of paraphrases, clichés and out-of-context quotes. And the editor will be unlikely to commission you again. Do your research thoroughly and understand what you’re writing about before you scribble the first word – you’ll find the process of writing becomes easier.
(Speaking of research and knowing what you’re writing about… remind me to tell you about the time South Africa’s biggest Sunday paper put a picture of Lake Bled [which is in Slovenia] on the cover of their travel section – with the coverline “Magical Croatia”.)
2/ Go to the most direct source
It’s easy to turn to the Internet when you need information, but be careful. When you start to venture deep into Google, you’ll see how many websites contain exactly the same paragraphs of information – people have blindly copied and pasted and the info you end up relying on may be out of date or incorrect. Be sure to go to the most direct and reliable source – for the most basic information for travel writing, official tourism boards and well-established guidebook sites will usually be your best starting point.
3/ Pick up the phone
Email has become the default setting when it comes to communication, and junior writers usually look at me with absolute horror when I suggest they call an expert to ask for or follow up on a quote. It is often easier to drop someone an email and many people prefer to communicate that way (plus it’s good to have a written record), but making a personal connection by speaking to someone before you mail them is invaluable. Here are four reasons I do it: 1/ People are likely to put more effort into an email response when they’re writing to someone they “know”; 2/ If they can’t answer your question, they should be able to direct you to someone who can – no time wasted; 3/ Tell them on the phone that you’ll email questions through to them, and they’ll know to look out for it – your email will be less likely to get lost in their inbox; 4/ If you need to clarify something, it’s usually easier and faster to discuss it on the phone.
4/ Learn to let go
It’s so easy to get caught up in research – and often, an inexperienced writer will battle to draw what they need from the reams of information they gather. They might start out reading up about trails in Cape Town for a story on day walks, and next thing they’re getting to grips with the formation of Table Mountain, and before long their feature becomes an encyclopaedia of the geology of the Western Cape. Learn to sift carefully through the information you gather, pick out what is most interesting and relevant and don’t be scared to let go of info that doesn’t enhance your story. You’ll save yourself a lot of time (and word count) in the long-run.
5/ When you need an extension on your deadline, ask
If the research and groundwork is taking longer than you expected and it’s unlikely you’ll meet your deadline without pulling a few all-nighters, ask the editor if it’s possible to get an extension. They’re likely to say yes if it means the copy will come in well-written and researched (it will mean less fixing on their side). Don’t leave it to the last minute, though. Being granted an extension will depend on when you were commissioned, and where the issue is in its production cycle – if the print date is close, be prepared to buy a case of Red Bull.