Not reading (Part II) (Mistake #59)

“No time to read, no tools to write” commented Lorraine Mace, 34 errors and almost 12 months ago, the last time I addressed this subject at Mistake No. 25. Succinct and accurate, I’d say. Perhaps I’m revisiting this too soon – particularly in light of my last post which also concerned reading, albeit how you read – but it’s pretty important so I can’t apologise for it.

Another commenter Glenda confessed to an ‘aversion’ to tabloids, and “The Daily Mail makes me vomit” has featured more than once in letters to me from new writers. (Don’t hold back, dear students.) I regularly receive comments concerning newspapers being too ‘depressing’, as well as swipes at women’s magazines (especially weeklies) being too obsessed with vacuous celebrities and skinny models and obsessive diets and banal stories of love triangles and so on.

The world which these publications represent may not be to your liking but everyone is a part of that world, and you can’t disconnect from it absolutely. As a writer, it is even more a part of your world, because these publications feature the works of fellow writers and reveal the interests of those who are keeping you in business – readers. These publications are read by millions, are discussed by millions, and are a big part of popular culture. I don’t think it’s wise as a writer to block it out entirely. And weekly women’s magazines can of course be good markets too, especially for fillers.

In my response to Glenda last time I wrote “If something makes you angry – it can be the inspiration for an article”. I don’t think anger is a unique emotion in this respect. Depression – by which I mean something like ‘despondency’ – would work. You’ve read about underprivileged teens, say. Yep, depressing. Well what about writing about a local initiative that’s being set up with the aim of helping them? Or about how these kids are helping themselves? Can you go talk to some young people and find out what’s going on their world – and seeing whether this inspires a story?

If you don’t read about this stuff, you can’t react to it or explore it or potentially influence it.

I won’t bang on about this – and if you really cannot stick popular and populist daily and weekly publications, and you insist on an avoidance policy, then that’s that and I still want to help you. But let’s make a deal here.

Please open your eyes.

Do so properly, at a major newsagent. You don’t necessarily have to shop there – I want you to support your small local independents too – but the exercise needs to be conducted at the biggest you can access.

Then I want you to do what I do not usually do.

What I usually do is let my legs lead me blindly to the men’s magazines, then check out the health magazines, scan the nationals, and perhaps a local, then embark on the expedition to discover this month’s nominated hiding place for the writing magazines – ah, behind the architecture titles! Who’d have thought! – and finally take whatever I have retained in my arms to the till. All a bit automatic.

Don’t do this. Instead, stand a bit back. Imagine you’ve been asked to take a photograph of the magazine section in its entirety – and look at it all, from a slight distance. Take in the body of magazines and papers as a whole. Vast, isn’t it. Start at one end, and move a bit closer. Look at the categories of titles: those you wouldn’t even normally notice if they on fire. Cycling magazines, combat magazines, knitting magazines, art magazines, train magazines. Really properly take them in. Count a category. Twenty-odd car magazines? Amazing, right? Move on through, slowly, taking them all in.

If you feel the usual pull towards The Lady, Reader’s Digest, People’s Friend or Psychologies, then resist. These, along with Saga, appear to be the most commonly targeted publications by new writers, if my workload is anything to go by. Yet even in these cases sometimes I wonder whether students actually bother to read them: Arlene Usden left the Lady a while ago, but I’m not convinced everybody has noticed Rachel Johnson’s modernising revamp, while Reader’s Digest is a far more sophisticated magazine than many people give it credit for, thanks to the brilliant editorship of Gill Hudson.

If you’re restricting yourself to a handful of magazines – and not even reading those properly – and you’re eliminating entire categories of other publications (those newspapers and women’s magazines I wrote of earlier), then you’re reducing your chances of selling work two-fold, three-fold, lots-fold.

Increase your chances by looking at less commonly targeted publications. Look beyond the obvious. Jets Monthly. Practical Pigs. Blonde Hair. Koi Carp. First Eleven. Music Teacher. I can’t remember ever having read a piece for these magazines from my students. Pick some of them up. Spend five minutes looking through them. Take one to the till.

Might it be one of the best pieces of advice for a new writer to make a point of buying a magazine you’ve never thought or heard of – let alone read – about a subject you assume you have no interest in, and read it cover to cover and back again?

Shall we do this? I will – it’s been a while – if you will. Let’s do it without putting pressure on ourselves to come up with ideas for the publication we end up with, but let’s see whether it changes our perspective on an unknown subject, on reading, and on writing for publication.

Comments 14

  • Great idea Alex – I will do it! And on the subject of reading material, I am amazed at how little people read! (I mean the small amount that they read not the means by which a short person manages to read… you know what I mean..!)I buy a paper or magazine (often more than 1) just about every day.They're not that expensive and on the whole I find them interesting and inspiring. I was talking to one of my (new) Creative Writing groups about writing letters to magazines the other day. Which magazines did they read? I asked, as a bit of an 'opener'. Blank looks. It turned out, that out of a class of 19 people, all of whom apparently want to write, they collectively read: 'Private Eye' (one person) and 'Country Life' (one person – 'for the houses'). Gobsmacked of Coleshill, that's all I can say….

  • I make a point of buying one new magazine at least once a month. It's surprising what you find, that way. And NEWSFLASH to any men out there thinking that only women can buy women's magazines …. when a man buys a woman's magazine, funnily enough the assistant behind the till doesn't snigger. (Well, not until your back is turned, but then, if you don't see it, it doesn't matter.) But my point is this, if I hadn't bought Take a Break magazine, I may not have read the short stories in it and decided to have a go at writing them. I've only had a handful of short stories published in Take a Break, but that's over £1,000 I wouldn't have earned, had I not seen the market.

    Every word in every publication was written by somebody, so why should't it be you? Or me 🙂

  • Absolutely agree, Alex. Although it's a neccessary expense it can be too expensive to buy some magazines but there are other ways of accessing them via the larger libraries, for example, or on-line, Also, a good way to gain access to a wider variety of magazines is to form a magazine pool where several writers get together, each buys a different magazine and then you swap. Cuts the cost down somewhat.

    I'm also loathe to buy a magazine where it isn't obvious whether they take work from freelancers, I don't want to waste my time and money or the editor's time by pitching to someone who just isn't interested. So I note down the mag title and the e-mail address and/or phone numbers so I can inquire before I buy. If I can't find out then I take caution to the wind and give it a go. If there are lots of rticles in the mag with different names on – names that don't appear in the editorial who's who info bar then there's a good chance they take from freelancers.

    I'm trying to break into new markets at the moment with nil success so far, but I'll keep trying! It's a good excuse to sit down and read too.


  • @ blogabout writing – 'for the houses' has been my LOL moment of the day

    @ Si – But have you ever bought Hair and Beauty magazine? (We dare you.)

    @ Julie – Great idea re: swap. I would say over 99% (literally) of publications take work from freelance writers. Very very rarely come across one which doesn't. I've said before on the blog, I think, that if your idea is strong enough and unturndownable – even an editor who says 'we don't buy' will think of buying…

    Thanks for comments, all, and keep them coming.

  • I write women's fiction so my choice of magazines is limited since so many of them have stopped publishing short stories. I have spent hours in newsagents searching, unsuccessfully, for new markets.

    However, the bright side, if there is one, is that I can at least afford to buy them all fairly regularly without breaking the bank.

    I've nominated you for the Friendly Blogger Award, Alex. If you decide to accept, please pop over to my blog to collect.

  • Thanks for the nomination, Gail. Yes, I guess tougher to find for women's short fiction – do you follow womagwriter? There's a link in my Writing Blogs box on the LHS.

  • Yes, I've followed her for a long time. A great site!

  • Re the dare to buy Hair & Beauty – can't find one in my local village newsagent – give me till the weekend, where this Saturday I happen to be in a branch of WHSmiths signing books! I'll have a look there.

    PS – For a moment there, my eyes thought you were daring me to buy a copy of Hare & Beauty magazine 😉

  • Ah, Hare and Beauty Magazine. I've been quite successful pitching to them. Did you not see my Ten Steps To Luscious Longer (Back) Legs? 😉

    Good advice as usual. My tiny village library has just started stocking magazines (albeit a very small selection), so I need to pop in soon and see what it has.

  • Haha – I think I really would struggle with a hair magazine (think they're more about the pictures than the text) but I edit a skincare website so perhaps I shouldn't be put off the beauty side… Will wait to see what you report, Mr Whaley…

    Very encouraging to see mags in libraries, Alison – especially with all the threats to them. In my experience they do have the odd 'wildcard' or quirky magazine, so you never know what you may find…

  • Excellent advice, will try to follow it. I make a point when at doctor's surgery, or dentist or hairdresser, or anywhere I have to wait, of looking at all the magazines on offer. Some very strange things, but they can stimulate the mind.

  • Yes! Agree. I like the old tattered copies that have clearly been knocking about for a decade – always interesting to see what was being published… and what potential there is for an updated version…

  • Hi Alex,
    I've just spent about an hour reading your blog – you are my tutor on the WB course which I started a few years ago and have so far only completed two assignments.
    This was mainly due to being a full time carer for my mum, who sadly passed away in May.
    I've felt 'lost' since then, with no enthusiasm to do anything, but reading your blog has given me inspiration to pick up my writing once again – for that I thank you.

  • Hi Lynn,
    Sorry you've had a tough time this year – but really glad you've been motivated by the blog. Great to hear!

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