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We've added this page to help new writers avoid many of the mistakes I made two decades ago – and continue to make. The initial focus will be on writing nonfiction articles for magazines. There are two reasons for this approach: 1. It's the fastest and easiest way to break into writing and 2. I know more about nonfiction than fiction. Later we'll get into writing novels, which will cover three genres: action-adventure, horror and finally historical.

First a little background. When the idea that I could write and sell outdoor articles came into my head I set a goal. I wanted to sell a story to all of the big-three outdoor magazines: Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and Sports Afield within five years. I did not accomplish that. If you really need to know why not, my credits are at the end – where they should be. They won't help anyone sell a story . . . except me.

I began in 1980 by taking the Writers Digest nonfiction writing course. I was blessed with an excellent instructor. I was double blessed with a great editor-in-residence, my wife. She knows when I write well and she knows when I turn out crap. And she doesn't hesitate to say one more time through the typewriter. Remember typewriters? That was all we had in 1980. Now they're as modern as the abacus – Andy Rooney and his trustworthy Ingersoll Rand notwithstanding. Can't really blame him, though; I bet it never crashed.

I also was fortunate in having a friend who was an outdoor writer and columnist who provided several tips on how to get a story from the mail room to the editor's desk. Over the years I met other outdoor writers who shared their knowledge of the craft. While most folks reading this page won't do outdoor writing, let me assure you, the requirements for outdoor writing are the same as any other interest area. The level of writing is among the best: Corey Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Ruark, Gene Hill and Ed Zern are but a few who have at one time or another done some outdoor writing to pay the electric bill or buy a movable feast. While I'm certainly not in their class, it's time to pass on what has been given to me.

If you have tried to sell articles only to have them always return with a rejection slip, it is not necessarily because you lack talent. It may be you don't have the tools and information to do the job, one of which is knowing how to present a manuscript and to whom. What follows is a brief list of what you need to write – and sell.

Unless you already know how to write nonfiction, take a course in nonfiction writing.

Get a copy of Strunk and Whites Elements of Style.

Buy the heaviest dictionary you can carry out of the store.

Buy a grammar book, especially of your primary education was in New Jersey and was K through 12 instead of grammar school and high school.

Buy the Chicago Manual of Style.

Get a computer with a modem.

Buy a 35-mm camera that can be changed from automatic exposure and focus to manual.

Buy a book on photographic composition.

Never, ever submit an unsolicited manuscript.

Accept nothing less than perfection in your work product.

Find someone who is knowledgeable who will read your work and critique it fairly and honestly.

Get a current edition of Writers Market.

Finally, buy a second layer of skin. There will be times when you'll need it.


If you have taken a writing course or been to writers' workshops it's likely you already know much of the below advice. I'm repeating it for the benefit of those who have not taken a course and as a reminder to those who have. Never sit down and write a story when an idea first comes into your head. Except for practice, it's a waste of time. First figure out to whom you can sell the story. You can browse Writers Market and the magazine section in a library to get that information.

After you have picked a likely magazine to target, look for two more. If you're not familiar with the publications, ask the librarian to get the last six months issues of each magazine. Scan the table of contents to see if they have published a story similar to your idea. If so forget that publication for at least a year. Read of couple of articles in each magazine to get a handle on the kind of writing that each magazine is buying. Read a few of the editorials to get a little insight into the editor. Remember what Patton said about Rommel after he outflanked him in the Sahara dessert: "Ha, I read your book."

That done you're ready to start writing . . . a query. A one-page query. If you can't pitch the story on one page, you don't really have a handle on your project. Two-page queries are the sign of an amateur; they turn editors off. Your goal is to turn them on.

Another important reason for querying first is that once you've established that your targets have not published anything similar recently, there's one thing you don't know. Are they already committed to a similar article for a future issue. Were you to submit a manuscript over-the-transom it would come back by return mail and you would probably never know why.

Everyone approaches query writing differently, but with the same plan: that first sentence has to be a killer. Indeed, so does the first paragraph. I'll explain how I do a query. Remember, I said to never write the story first. That's not exactly true. I write the first and last paragraphs and do a very rough outline of the body. For the same reason that the first paragraph of the query is so very important, so is the first paragraph of the article. Your goal is to get the readers attention and draw him into the article. More often than not the openings of my queries and articles are identical.

After the first paragraph, the second and possibly third should go into more detail about the piece. The final paragraph should list a couple of your best credits (don't be bashful), the word count, what graphics you can provide and how long it will take you to complete the story after you get a go ahead. If you don't know how the publication wants the manuscript submitted – and you should – state that you can submit hard copy, a floppy or electronically. That's the reason for having a modem. If you don't have any credits, just eliminate that part. Don't draw attention by volunteering that fact. If you submit your query to more that one publication, state that you have done so.

As a practical matter, I never query more than one publication at a time. Send the query, a copy (it makes it easier for the editor to respond), and a self-addressed-stamped envelope. If you've never written for that magazine do not expect a firm go ahead. The best you'll get is they will look at your article on spec. That means if you did what you said you would, they'll buy it, if not, don't forget that sase.


Writers are advised to avoid cliches. There is one that should not be avoided. Indeed, it should be kept in mind every time you sit down at the keyboard. It's the Zen altruism LESS IS MORE. Nothing is truer when it come to good writing. Each article has its own word count, it's life if you will. It should contain no more or fewer words than necessary. Think of each word as your employee who you are paying. You want each word to do it's job and you don't want any slackers getting paid. Terminate them.

One more cliche, then on to the how-to. Show don't tell. Paint a picture with your keyboard so the reader can see in his or her mind's eye what you are conveying, not just logically understand it. The monitor is your canvas and the Mother Tongue provides your colors.

The basic nonfiction article is divided into five sections: the beginning, the transition, the middle, another transition and the end. Think of it as a five-course meal. As mentioned above, the first paragraph or two have to grab the reader, the appetizer. The next couple paragraphs, the soup, serve to make a seamless transition to the middle, the meat and potatoes of the piece. Right before the last paragraph comes the dessert, which makes another seamless transition to the end, Rémy Martin. Keep that concept in mind and you should have little difficulty presenting a well structured, logical article that editors and readers will appreciate.

Click for an example of an opening and transition I wrote for a where-to publication. There was no ending per se. The editor wanted the piece written in a newspaper pyramid style. Also there's the original opening. My editor-in-residence read it once and handed it back saying one word, "booooring."

The article should be double spaced with an inch and a quarter margins on the bottom and both sides. On the upper left-hand corner of the first page goes your name, address, telephone numbers (day and night), e-mail URL and your social security number, all single spaced. On the upper right hand corner goes the word count and any copyright restrictions you impose, i.e. First North American Serial Rights, etc. Double space half way down the page and type the title centered and in caps. Double space twice and type by in lower case; double space twice more and type your name.

Subsequent pages should have your name and the title of the article on the upper left corner and the page number on the top right corner. The end of the article should be indicated with the pound symbol: - # -. Do not us full justification; it's hard for editors to read quickly and it screws up the typesetters. Use normal size and style fonts. Don't putz around with colors. Follow Henry Ford's choice of colors for the Model T: Any color you want as long as its black. Deviate from tradition at your own peril. Sample of the proper format.

Do not vary by more than twenty-five words from the agreed upon word count.

There must be NO spelling or grammatical errors on the first page. This is doubly important if you are new to the magazine. There should be very, very few errors in the rest of the piece and none of which you are aware. Editors are really normal people. At times they're a bit lazy. Make their job easy with clean copy submitted on time and you'll get more stories sold. Before word processors, the rule of thumb was three penciled-in corrections per page was considered acceptable. More than that, retype the page. With today's word processors I suspect that it's zero tolerance.

Beware of homonyms: to, too, two; its it's; there's theirs; there, their, they're; your, you're; etc. Spell check won't help though Grammatiks will alert you. And don't confuse farther and further.

Overwrite the first draft by about twenty percent, then kill all the needless words, especially prepositions and articles.

Never miss a deadline unless you're in the hospital or dead . . . and dead's better.

You may have been surprised when I did not include a thesaurus in the toolbox. When first starting out it can do more harm than good. Avoid esoteric words. They're literary speed bumps that interrupt the readers flow, or worse, send him to the dictionary. He or she may not come back. Remember, if you have to look up the word, it's more than likely the average reader will, too. Most publications are written at about sixth-grade level. Don't try to compete with George Will. You probably can't and it's not what most editors want. Now if its Atlantic Monthly or the New Yorker that's another matter.

English is the richest language for writers with Russian and German second and third. The word should describe what you are trying to convey clearly and succinctly. Choose each word with care. Don't hesitate to check the precise meaning of similar words in a dictionary to get the one that fits precisely. The best word may eliminate two or three other words that become unnecessary.

Do not lower your standards for smaller publications. Always write your best and as if you were on assignment for a large national publication. Not only is this the ethical thing to do, you never know who may read your piece. I was once contacted by an editor who had seen a story I wrote for a small regional publication. I got another article out of the same idea, but for more money. Now, that's recycling at its best.

That leads to copyrights. Try to sell only First Serial Rights, accept First Serial Rights with Reprint Rights, and settle for anything to get your first credits. The reason for the copyright restrictions, as noted above, is so you can resell the piece to another publication after it has been originally published.

Always query POA (pays on acceptance) magazines before POP (pays on publication) magazines for the same article. Unless you're extremely busy or have a drawer full or credits, don't arbitrarily dis the POPs. They're credits too, credits that may open the door to POAs.

Don't let anyone suggest you are compromising your writing by getting paid for it.

Try to use action verbs in place of adjectives and adverbs. Not only is it tighter, it's stronger.

Use the active voice more than the passive.

After the piece is finished, put it to bed. Walk away from it for at least three days. Then reread it. You'll be surprised at the improvements you can make. In the hundreds of articles and columns I have written there was never one, not one, that I didn't groan over after it was on the magazine rack. Those subtle – and some not so subtle – errors slipped by both me and editor-in-residence.

If by necessity or style you use an odd word follow it with an explanation in parenthesis. An example: A few years ago I sent a story on rail bird shooting to Peterson's Hunting. I wrote about the tidal influence of the pergy moon. I got a call from one of their editors in California who wanted to know what a pergy moon was. I explained it's a South Jersey idiom for perigee moon. When the magazine came out, sure enough they put (perigee) after pergy. Good for them. Shame on me for not anticipating a problem for the reader.

It is possible to sell articles without graphic support, especially to large publications that have staff photographers and artists. I've done it, but not often. That's probably because I did a lot of outdoor writing where contemporaneous graphics were required. I suspect that photos are almost as important in most other areas of nonfiction. Learn how to take crisp, in focus pictures. Get your F stop setting (exposure) from the subject, not the foreground or background. In many cases that won't always happen if the camera is set for automatic exposure and focus. Good how-to photography goes beyond the limits of this page (another page, maybe?). If you can supply good photos or art work, your chances of selling your writing are greatly enhanced. But don't expect to be paid extra. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've received extra pay for my photos. Five dollars per pic on a good day. And the larger publications are usually the worst offenders.

Make sure your facts are correct. It's mightily embarrassing to see a letter to the editor pointing out that something you wrote just ain't so. Worse, it's embarrassing for the editor, too. Do thorough research and confirm information from various sources. There are no shortcuts.

Style. Don't worry about it. In the beginning you may try to imitate a writer whose style you admire. I suppose almost everyone does; I know I did. I started with Robert Ruark (a poor man's Hemingway according to a 1960s interview in Playboy), then in succession Corey Ford and Gene Hill. It didn't hurt my writing or me, but I was vaguely uncomfortable. Finally, after a couple years, I settled on myself. Style will come; when it does it will be yours.

Don't give up. Get better.

The Beginning

Near Cross Keys a small tea-colored, cedar-water stream begins its journey to the Atlantic. Scotland Run flows into Franklinville Lake then into Willow Grove Lake. Exiting Willow Grove, it takes on a new name: Maurice River. At each junction largemouth bass compete with pickerel for domination.

Muddy Run joins the slightly widening river, as it continues south and enters Union Lake. After another three-miles, iron-stained, Pine Barrens water cascades over the dam and mingles with the salty brine swept in from the Delaware Bay.

The Transition

The river below the dam, wider now and gaining strength and salinity with each mile, drains into the Delaware Bay just southwest of Bivalve. The lower portion is too salty to support largemouth bass. From the Millville launch ramp north, however, the salinity is acceptable.

The Original Beginning

Bass fishing in tidal water presents a challenge to fresh-water fishermen accustomed to the current going in only one direction. But it shouldn't. Yada yada yada. See what I mean. Booooring.

The story was about the river and bass fishing, not challenges, so I rewrote the opening by painting a picture of an emerging river that changed with every mile. I used conflict between largemouth bass and pickerel to introduce what the story was about: fishing. Conflict, something I picked up from fiction writing, when appropriate, can work well in nonfiction, too. The theme was set in five sentences. Four would have been better. I'll have to work a little harder the next time. Return to the article.

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Scott McGonigle 1500 Words 305 Baywood Drive © Scott McGonigle 1998 Cape May, NJ 08204-3723 609-886-2587 609-886-5555 Fax: Call for setup E-mail: hawk@jerseycape.com SS# 111-11-1111

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I only sold to two: Field & Stream and Outdoor Life. At the time, Sports Afield was only buying hunting and fishing stories from exotic places. I simply couldn't afford trips to Siberia, Kenya, or Nepal back then, or for that matter, even now. Other credits are New Jersey Outdoors, Peterson's Hunting, Pennsylvania Outdoors, The Press of Atlantic City, Atlantic City Monthly, Eastern Outdoors, Discovering and Exploring New Jersey's Fishing Streams and the Delaware River, Northeast Hunting & Fishing and several smaller publications. Return to the background.

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Last updated 27 April 1998