Writing: before you begin

[words Narina Exelby, photograph © Steve Davey, The WideAngle]

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the same paragraphs of information – people have blindly copied and pasted and the info you end up relying on may be out of date or incorrect.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.

If you’ve just started to write, take a look at these 10 tips for getting published. And if you’re already freelancing, read these eight essential rules for freelancers.


  • Some great tips here for writers who are starting out and – just as importantly – for old-timers who have been in the business for so long that…well, for many of us, there is a danger of forgetting the basics. We all need to be reminded from time to time that a freelance is only ever as good as the last piece he filed.
    Speaking from a freelance’s point of view there’s one thing I’d like to add to the last point. While editors might be lenient about allowing a few extra days it is far better to get a reputation for beating your deadline every time if at all possible. Perhaps if you have already filed 4 or 5 well-crafted stories on time you could ask for an extension but if this is your first gig for a specific editor go the Redbull route and break your back if necessary to beat the deadline (without skimping on solid research). It will be remembered when the editor is commissioning the next round of features.
    ~ ME

  • The only problem is getting editors to pay anything like a reasonable fee nowadays. When you add up all the time and effort and set it against the income, the maths isn’t good. No wonder that more and more writing is appearing done by people who don’t need the money so badly – no mortgage, no debts – and are happy to write for the fun of it,

    Not so much fun for us to read, but editors are under orders to cut costs not increase quality

  • Thanks for your comment Nick. It’s fair to say that there are few magazines these days that pay enough for a freelance to get involved in a long and thoroughly researched trip. The only way really to make a trip like that pay is to work with a reliable database of editors who regularly take your work and to count on the fact that you can resell a story 5 or 6 times. Then the first commission might only cover the costs of the assignment (bad business in itself) but then you make the clear profit on the other stories. It’s a tough business though and not for people who hope to be rich.

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