What is the number one killer of articles that land on the editor’s desk; why are magazine articles rejected? Long-time editor Ross Cusack thought for a moment and said that at Western Angler magazine 25% of the manuscripts he receives are not suitable for publication and are rejected. He also went on to add:
“The most common fault is the story does not flow. This is because of poor sentence structure, poor grammar, spelling mistakes, and incorrect terminology”.
When an editor receives an article it is guaranteed one of two things will happen: either the article will be published or it will be rejected. That’s good news for the writer who gets published, but what of the writer whose article is rejected? What does this writer have to understand before an editor considers or accepts an article and publishes it?
First of all the writer must realise and acknowledge that the editor can play a major part and help the writer produce the best work possible. It is about the writer working on and achieving a good editor-writer relationship, and being able to identify what is needed in an article to get it published.
Ross Cusack has been an editor for 42 years. Sixteen years in his current position of editor at Western Angler Magazine and prior to this, 26 years at the West Australian newspaper in Perth. Ross started his editing career in 1961 and has a wealth of editorial experience. He also knows why some writers are unable to make the grade and get published. Ross has said that a story with poor flow is the most common problem of rejection, but surely there are more reasons than this behind article rejection.
As Ross and I talked about what does and does not make a good magazine article, we looked beyond poor flow and discussed the process before and after article proposal. I asked him what he looks for when working as an editor and soon discovered other areas where some writers fail. Ross says that there are no secrets formulas but points out there are eight basic key points a writer needs to know and work on to get published.
Tips From an Editor
To give a wider perspective to Ross’s advice, I obtained a snapshot-comparison from another of Australia’s popular special interest magazines — Fishing World. Together they translated into the following valuable key points that will help writers wanting to get published.
Tip #1: Do Your Research
The first thing you need to do before putting pen to paper or phoning the editor with a proposal is research. Identify your target publication and obtain several copies, read them and get a feel for the style.
In addition to style, you need to take note of the average length of articles and what angle published articles use. This is useful information and will act as a guide when writing an article for the same publication.
Tip #2: Discuss the Idea With the Editor First
If you have an idea for a story you should discuss it with the editor of the target magazine. An article idea, “is best discussed over the phone,” says Ross. He also added that the writer might be surprised to find the editor is more than willing to discuss an article.
Ross especially encourages young writers to phone and talk to an editor about an article idea. Encouraging young writers is also an area that Fishing World recognize and admit to being open to a phone call to discuss an article or ideas.
Tip #3: Submit a Proposal
Most contributor guidelines say that you must submit a proposal first by sending an email to the editor. Ross agrees with this saying that he also preferred proposals at Western Angler prior to submission.
“It helps to discuss the article with the writer so we can steer toward an angle that will see the article more likely to be published. Email is good and so is phoning and having a chat about what the writer is intending. Postal queries are non-existent these days”.
An unsolicited article submitted to a magazine must be extremely well-written and use an angle the publication approves of to have a chance of being published.
Ross has said that he prefers a proposal before submitting an article, but he also admits that unsolicited articles are a crucial part of Western Angler’s turnover because they can unearth good writers. Ross also pointed out that, “If we receive an [unsolicited] article that is not likely to be published a rejection will go out with a polite letter explaining how to improve their work”.
On the other hand, Fishing World is not too receptive of unsolicited articles and will reject and return most, citing poor photography, the story has already been done, or not enough practical information as the reasons for rejection.
There are times when even a proposal will be rejected. Little can be done about this form of rejection when publications already have their publishing quotas for the style and type of article the writer is proposing. Going back to the start and discussing the idea with the editor can be one way of overcoming this.
Tip #4: Listen to the Editor’s Advice
Ross agrees completely that the role of the editor is to assist the writer to get articles published by pointing out issues with style and presentation. “My job as editor is to check content, advise, and see if I can get good articles published”.
However, occasionally there are writers who don’t understand that editors are there to assist them. Ross also agrees with this and went on to add:
“If the writer has received a rejection and is interested in getting the article published they will generally follow-up with me to see what needs to be done to achieve this. I will advise them on what they need to do, maybe it’s something as simple as attacking the article from a different perspective — a change of angle. When I have to send out a rejection I include a copy of our contributor guidelines, this pretty much covers all editorial requirements.”
On the other hand, there are articles that are close to the mark and require only a small amount of work from the editor to get published. On the subject of editors rewriting submitted material, Ross said that if there were not too much needed to get the article published he would make minor corrections. However, editors usually ask the writer for permission prior to any form of editing, even minor corrections.
Tip #5: Grab the Reader!
At the end of the day everything can be great, the body text of the article, the photography, the presentation, but as Ross says, “To have any chance of getting published, the writer must grab the reader’s attention right from the start, in the first paragraph. The leading paragraph of a feature article is the most important.”
Tip #6: Provide Good Photography
In addition to creating the best possible article, you should not underestimate the importance of good images when required. Many magazine editors are of the same opinion, and Ross is no different. “Slides are preferred when the magazine article requires images. Digital images and normal photographic prints are not suitable for magazine articles, they are too grainy when reproduced.” Ross also adds:
“It is an absolute tragedy to receive a great article and no photographs. Articles with poor or no photographs will rarely be published. On the other hand, if I receive a poor article and great photographs there is at least a chance of resurrecting the article and publishing it.”
Fishing World also made an interesting point about photography citing lack of good pictures being the main reason articles are not accepted, adding “Understandably, many people are not interested in investing the thousands of dollars in camera gear needed for magazine work.”
Tip #7: Submit Articles Electronically
Most magazines in this digital era prefer to have articles submitted electronically. There are a number of benefits in this; it is fast and gives the editor something easy to work with — cut and paste, copy, mark up comments. Digital files are easy to file and reduce paperwork.
Ross added, “If email is a problem then I accept articles on disk. As far as magazine articles go, these are the only two ways to forward an article submission these days.”
A point that needs to be made here is submission of slide photography. Slides should be submitted by post, in a slide sheet, and individually numbered. A caption sheet should also accompany the slides, with captions numbered to match the slide numbering. To aid the identification of slides and their return, the author should also place their name on the slide mount.
Tip #8: Deliver
You will find it very difficult to get published if you renege on an article. That is, to get the go-ahead for an article after a successful proposal and not deliver the final product as or when stated. Committing to a particular article means sticking to the proposal outline and delivering the product.
If you cannot meet the deadline or produce the product as proposed, then contact the editor to work out the issue. You must maintain a positive working relationship with the editor.
A Word on Rejected Articles
Data from the International Federation of the Periodical Press (1) shows that in the year 2000 there were 732 magazine titles published in Australia. That’s around 5000 feature articles printed per month. Based on Ross’s 25% rejection rate it could mean there are around 1250 magazine articles per month that don’t make the grade, in other words rejected. This shows that there is considerable competition among writers to get work published, and all the more reason to produce the best work possible. Working with the editor of a magazine can achieve this.
Even when a successful proposal has been followed through, and you have submitted the best product possible, there is still no guarantee the article will be taken on board by the editor and published. Seeing your by-line and article in print is hard work and it is times like this that you should not be put off.