Keep it simple when writing for publication

I spend a lot of time editing articles written for professional magazines, often not by professional writers. The topics are  fascinating and can be complicated, with lots of explanation needed. Simple explanation is hard to do, which means I do a fair bit of re-writing.

For anyone planning to submit a piece to a journal or magazine, especially if you’re not a professional writer, can I suggest some basic rules? Whoever edits your piece will love you for following these:

  1. Ask what word count is expected, and try to keep within spitting distance of it. The chances of you being allocated additional space if you write double the length are slim.
  2. Check the journal’s usual style and try to emulate that. Ask for the style guide if you’re unsure.
  3. Write in the active tense, unless you have been specifically asked to use passive tense. This is active tense: ‘The cat sat on the mat’. This is passive tense: ‘The mat was sat upon.’ Passive tense loses information (by whom?) and can sound pompous.
  4. Use simple words, and as few as you need. Do you need to say ‘people from the higher echelons of the socio-economic spectrum’, or could you say ‘rich people’?
  5. Shorter sentences are kinder to the reader than complex sentences. Try reading aloud. If you run out of puff mid-sentence, it’s probably too long. Cut it into digestible chunks – one idea, one sentence.
  6. To denote a quote, use this format. ‘He said: ‘That’s fine’.’ Said is good. Don’t waste your time thinking up alternatives like commented, advised, noted, explained, revealed.
  7. Before you submit the piece, re-read the brief from the editor. Have you actually covered what you were asked to write about? Or did you get side-tracked by a fascinating thought that occurred to you half-way through? The closer that your article is to the brief, the better the chances it will be published.
  8. Remember the aim of the piece is to inform and entertain the reader, not to impress them with your erudition.

Follow these rules and the editor will bite your arm off for more articles.

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