Ever wondered how to write for boating magazines? Whether you’re looking to generate income while cruising, want to become a full-time writer, or just have a couple of stories you’d like to see in print, Selling Your Writing to the Boating Magazines (and Other Niche Mags) is the ultimate guide and the book that Robin and I used to get published in magazines like Good Old Boat, Cruising World, Boat US, SAIL, and many more. Writing for magazines kept our cruising kitty afloat while we sailed the South Pacific last year – the book has paid for itself a thousand times over! We’re delighted to have, Michael Robertson, author and Editor at Good Old Boat Magazine share some ideas from his book. Your writing income is only limited to how many good story ideas you can think of and sell so read on for how to come up with story ideas that sell.
No matter how many stories I’ve sold to magazines, no matter how much I improve as a writer, no matter how hard I work, no matter the strength of the working relationships I develop with editors, every story I sell is like starting over. Because every story must still begin with a new idea that has to come from me. No idea, no story.
Some writers always seem to have a dozen stories they are chomping at the bit to write and sell. Others not so much. For me, coming up with a saleable story idea is the biggest roadblock I will face on the path to finally picking up that magazine issue with my name and words inside. What in the world should I write about? That question always looms large. However, this idea hurdle has become easier to clear with time. It is a matter of developing a mindset whereby I consider all facets of my life and thoughts and experiences as potential story fodder. Successful writers do this and they recognize the good story ideas.
I will give you an example.
Years ago, around the time I was starting to consistently sell my writing to the boating magazines, I was having dinner with new friends. Sitting around their fireplace afterward, they told a story of how their 40-foot sloop had gone ashore during a strong Pacific Northwest storm. They were aboard at the time, along with their young daughter and the family dog. Everyone survived unscathed and their insurance company recovered and repaired their boat in the months that followed. Our friends pulled out a photo album dedicated to the episode and the pictures were as dramatic as their story.
A few months after our dinner, they wrote about the event on their family blog. Six months after that, their story was published in a national sailing magazine—written by a savvier, more prolific writing friend of mine who’d seen the blog post and contacted the family for an interview.
How had I completely missed the boat? That story was mine for the writing.
The answer is that I was not then in the writer’s mindset. I was not yet thinking about the things I was hearing and experiencing in the context of a story I could potentially write and sell. That’s key.
I cannot get into your head and help you find story ideas, but I can help with the following tips, each inspired by my own experiences.
1. Read the magazines in which you hope to be published.
You really must do this. As in any business, you need to know the market to which you are selling. Reading, even studying, the magazines to which you hope to sell is how you get to know the market. And knowing the market will serve to inspire story ideas. Read magazines in your target market with a critical eye. Notice the names of the freelance writers whose work appears regularly. What are they doing right? Can you do the same? Could their story idea have been yours?
I once read a short article in Cruising World magazine about one sailor’s experience feeding the stingrays in French Polynesia. “Where the Rays Roam” was about 300 words long, featured a single photo, and appeared in the Underway section of the magazine. While I read, I saw parallels to a recent experience I’d had: seeing and touching gray whales and their calves from a panga in the birthing lagoon of Mexico’s Bahia Magdalena. I fired off a query to the editor of the Underway section. I wrote that I had read “Where the Rays Roam” and that I had a similar, compelling story to offer. I called my story, “Where the Grays Go.” She loved the idea and when I submitted my story a week later, she bought it.
2. Stay in the magazine-story-idea mindset and keep your eyes open.
A friend of mine was in a Toys-R-Us store and spotted a PLAYMOBIL playset featuring a PLAYMOBIL family in a lifeboat, part of a series of real-life adventure toys for kids. She thought it was absurd and hilarious, snapped a photo of the box with her smartphone, and emailed it to me for laughs. I too thought it was absurd and hilarious and then I realized that boating magazine readers would feel the same way. I forwarded the photo to a magazine editor with a note telling her how I felt about the photo and offering to write a short humorous piece. She told me to go ahead.
3. Ask, what is unique about your circumstances
The first story I ever sold was to SAIL It was a feature-length story about cruising on a shoestring budget in my twenties, falling in love with my crew, and later marrying her. It was an obvious life experience to write about. What about you? Are you a traveling retired teacher, sending dispatches back to kids in classrooms? Are you dropping in at the same anchorages that Graham, Aebi, Moitessier, and Roth stopped at, contrasting the voyage you are on with the voyages that inspired you? Are you a veterinarian/ophthalmologist/dentist lending your expertise to small communities along your path? Many sailors have fascinated me with their unique stories (I have even written and sold a few of these stories). Identify the thing that makes your journey (or someone else’s journey) unique and then consider writing about it. If you are boating in a remote location, you are the closest thing to an expert on boating in that time and place, period. If you are sailing with babies aboard, you are a member of an interesting minority. If you are out on the water and immersed in the boating world, chances are you are having unique experiences (or have a unique take on common experiences) that are fodder for saleable story ideas. You simply must identify them.
4. Think about what you are learning and what you want to know
With a long motoring trip planned in our sailboat (up the Inside Passage from British Columbia to Alaska), I needed to learn to calculate the exact fuel consumption rate for our old Yanmar auxiliary. I turned to the Yanmar manual. Inside I found a few charts and a power curve graph. I realized all the data was there, but it was not presented in an accessible way. I wrote some equations, got out the calculator, crunched some numbers, put in some variables, and came up with the information I wanted: the amount of fuel burned per hour at a given RPM. With this info, I made a laminated chart for my nav station that lists, for specific RPM, the horsepower generated, the fuel burn rate, and the boat’s speed in flat, still water. Figuring Ocean Navigator readers might be interested in learning the same about their motors, I sent my query and sold the story.
Another time, surfing the web, I stumbled on an article written by Peter Smith, the inventor of the Rocna anchor. In his article, Peter explained his controversial idea that, except in very deep water, the catenary provided by heavy, all-chain rode does not provide a benefit that warrants carrying that weight. He wrote that in very high winds, when holding is paramount, the rode will be drawn tight regardless of composition and therefore, scope is all that matters. This was a new and interesting idea to me, and I thought it might be as unfamiliar and interesting to Pacific Yachting readers. I pitched and sold a story in which I shared what I learned from reading Peter Smith’s ideas.
5. What questions are people asking you?
There may be no greater indicator of the knowledge and perspectives you possess—and that others seek—than the questions people ask you. Several sailors have asked me how they should go about selling their stories to the sailing magazines. Their questions are what sparked the idea for this book. If you have a blog, what are readers asking? When my wife and I began cruising again in our forties, with our two young daughters, the question friends and strangers most often asked was: “How did you do it? How were you able to afford to jump out of the rat race at that time in your life when you’re supposed to be tending to your house, kids, and career?” I had been reading Cruising Worldand I knew they had not run an article that answered these questions, so I pitchedone to an editor there. I wrote in my query that I would interview five cruising families, learn how they did it, and write a story based on those answers. I wrote that I would include a photo of each family I interviewed. The editor told me to go ahead. I interviewed five families, wrote my story, and submitted it.
6. What surprises are delighting you (or what are the go-to stories from your life you like to share)?
Days before we dropped the hook off Mexico’s remote and tiny Islas San Benitos in 2013, I began thinking of the time I was last there, almost twenty years before. About an hour before we dropped the hook, it occurred to me that I had digitized photos from that long-ago trip stored on a hard drive aboard, photos of people we met on that first trip. Wouldn’t it be fun to…yes it would. I found the pictures on the hard drive and fired up our printer. When we landed, I showed the printed pictures to the first people we met and we soon had a crowd gathered around us. Then, an elderly woman pulled me aside to tell me that one of the young boys in my pictures was her son. He was doing well, working in a fish camp on 80 miles away; she did not see him often. She asked if she could have the photo. I asked if I could take her picture holding the photo. Later, after looking at the picture I took of the woman and after sharing that story with several people, I realized what a great story I had and I pitched it and sold it.
7. What is happening in the world around you?
On three serendipitous occasions, I got a writing assignment: Cruising World asked me to review a cruising guide for an area I had just explored, Good Old Boat asked me to cover a yacht race happening where I happened to be, and then Cruising World asked for a report on a hurricane that struck an area I was near. This serendipity was only possible because I had already sold stories to those editors and formed relationships with them. I was in contact and they knew where I was at the time. However, note the last two examples. In those cases, I simply happened to be where something of interest to the magazines was occurring. I was fortunate to have the editor relationships I did, but if I had not, my location would have been a great segue to pitch the same stories. What is happening around you that might be of interest to the magazines? Niche-market magazines usually do not have the staff resources to send reporters to where the action is. If you are where the action is, do not delay! Start taking pictures, writing queries, and reaching out. Unleash your inner journalist!
I hope those thoughts and anecdotes help you to generate your own story ideas. However, do not chase just any idea that pops into your head. Remember that the best stories are going to be the ones you want to write, the ones you are motivated to write. Learn to recognize that feeling in yourself, the one that distinguishes an idea from a good idea that excites you. A saleable story idea in the hands of a writer not interested in that story probably will not end up being a well-written story. Know yourself. If you enjoy writing about the technical side of life, do not try to wax poetic about the sunsets that wowed you on a 4-day passage. Instead, give your idea a twist so that it becomes something you are eager to explore and share. Perhaps learn about the green flash, what it is and the atmospheric conditions necessary to see one. Then write a story that shares your technical knowledge and perspective in the context of your recent passage, and the green flash the crew waited hopefully to see each evening.
In addition, an idea for a story does not necessarily have to be current to be relevant or saleable. I see articles all the time from cruising sailors describing adventures I know occurred years before. Of course, some ideas do not age well and will be stale no matter how you write them. However, if you have a good story from long ago, consider whether it still holds appeal.