Sailing and writing go hand in hand. Almost every sailor I know has a blog or website or keeps a journal of their experiences. And there seems to be a ready appetite for sailing related stories. It captures the imagination and transports the reader to a far away place of romance and adventure, and quite often, the inside of an engine room. As a result, the magazine culture in sailing is still going strong.
Writing for magazines can be not only emotionally rewarding, but can put quite a bit of money in your back pocket as well. Magazines are hungry for good content and are always welcome to ideas and queries. With the breadth of available topics and the appetite for new material there is almost no reason not to try writing for magazines. We’ve sold dozens of articles to the likes of Good Old Boat, Cruising World, Sail, BoatUS, Ocean Navigator, Pacific Yachting, Cruising Outpost and others, and if we can do it, anybody can!
But I’m not a professional writer
When we started writing for magazines we had almost no previous publication experience and we had no clue how to go about writing for sailing magazines. A friend had written a few published articles when she and her husband crossed the Pacific. The first article I wrote was for Good Old Boat and was about fixing our broken stern tube (the part of the boat through which the propeller shaft travels). I couldn’t find any good information on how to repair a stern tube and I wanted to help others in our situation. My first draft was terrible, but the editor took the time to provide me feedback and encouraged me to try again. I incorporated her suggestions and modified my tone. My second attempt was successful and a couple of months later I had published my first magazine article.
A good way to practice for sailing magazines is to write a guest post for an edited blog or website. At YoungandSalty we are always looking for new content and are interested in helping develop burgeoning writers. Submitting an article to us is a good first step towards writing for sailing magazines. To find out visit our Submit a Story section.
Pick a topic
Initially it might feel like there is nothing to write about; that everything has already been done. That’s simply untrue. There is always a plethora of topics to write about, and even the ones that have already been covered have unexplored angles. On a recent trip, we found a leak in our engine and then we accidentally pumped a bunch of saltwater into our diesel tank. We called it a ‘two-article trip’ because we used both problems to turn into articles. Instead of a frustrating day of fixing things on the boat, we made $600 USD.
There is probably an article to be written if:
- You can’t find good information about it online
- It’s a topic that frequently comes up in discussion with other sailors
- You have a burning question that you don’t know the answer to
- Something strange happened that’s worth telling your family about
- You repair or install items on your boat yourself
Another good source of topic ideas are past magazines. Flip through articles from three years ago and make a list of topics. Sailing magazines seem to be on a sort of three-year cycle. Things have usually changed somewhat in the intervening three years so a new perspective is easy to develop. Electronic charts are a good example of this.
Editors will often ask, “what’s the angle?” Basically, they are trying to figure out how what you are proposing is different from past articles on the same topic. There is usually something unique in every situation and it’s a matter of finding out what that is. In a recent case, I submitted a query for an article about dropping our rudder for repairs. This is a topic that has been covered many times before and the editor asked me, “what’s the angle?” I wrote back that the angle is that we dropped the rudder while still in the water (not an easy thing to do) and we were helped by young, handsome, demi-naked Swiss men. “Love it,” was the response.
Media is very visually driven today and sailing magazines are no different. Having high quality images to supplement your article will often make the difference between being accepted and not. We try to document every boat project we do. Most newer phones and tablets take pictures that will pass publishing requirements, but a good DSLR will make a huge difference in the quality of images you can provide.
Queries are a short synopsis of your article idea. They generally run about 150-200 words and introduce the topic, angle and provide a teaser. A catchy title is quite helpful, even if it isn’t the final published title. A query should also include an estimated word count and what kind of visual media will be accompanying the article and.
Queries are sent to editors and they respond as to whether they are interested in the article or not. It’s customary, and even explicitly directed by some magazines, not to send duplicate queries to different magazine editors. If an editor says they are not interested, then by all means send it to another magazine, but there is nothing more awkward than getting the nod from two magazines to write the same article.
A query is a great device because it indicates the level of interest in the topic. A couple of times, what I thought was a great idea was not picked up by any magazine. It could have been because they published something on it recently, or it didn’t fit in with upcoming content, or they just didn’t like it. But I’m glad I didn’t go to the trouble of writing an article nobody would buy.
An important note is that just because an editor indicates interest in a query doesn’t mean they’ll buy the ensuing article. In most cases they will, but on the odd occasion they choose to pass on the article. This isn’t a big deal and you can quickly turn the query around and send it to a different magazine.
Here’s an examples of a recent queries that led to a published article.
What is the ITCZ and why should you care? – 1000-1500 words (images, surface analysis charts, illustrated maps)
On our recent crossing from Mexico to the Marquesas, the spectre of the ITCZ came up regularly in discussions. There were strategies for how to find it, how to avoid it and stories from sailors in previous years that did neither. We kept looking, but never found the fabled ITCZ and it raised the question; just what exactly is the ITCZ and why is everybody so afraid of it? This article describes the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) based on an interview with a representative at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It describes the conditions that give rise to the ITCZ, what weather resources to rely upon to find it and what one can expect from a transit.
Style and format
Each magazine has its own style, not only in the topics on which they publish, but also in the tone and writing. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the different magazines and their respective styles before querying in order to ensure a tailored and appropriate fit for your article ideas. Each magazine publishes style guidelines online, including query guidelines.
National Geographic used to describe its tone as “writing a letter to your aunt.” It is the same tone for sailing magazines, which could also be described as familiar formality. The point is to convey information in a relaxed and interesting way; to delight and instruct the reader.
Having a good organizational framework is key to a good article. I find putting time into a good outline pays dividends in the long run. There is always the desire to ‘just start writing,’ but taking time to think about the overall thesis of the article, the various sections and the flow throughout will make the writing process more efficient and the article much clearer. For a technical piece, I write the first sentence under each section, which should encapsulate the idea in that section. The rest of the paragraph(s) should provide evidence proving that first sentence. The introduction are then recaps of the article, the former piquing interest and the latter summarizing the main thesis. There are many good websites that provide direction on how to structure and write a good article.
Sailing magazines pay relatively well for the magazine market. Depending on the type and length of the article, payment ranges anywhere from $100 for a 500-word ‘reflection’ piece to $600 for a 2000-word DIY project. Each magazine has different payment amounts. Usually the more involved the article (pictures, diagrams, instructions) the more it is worth to the magazine. As you get better established the remuneration will increase for feature articles. We’ve made as much as $1500 USD for a feature article.
Payment is usually not processed until the article has been published, which can be anywhere from 3-18 months in our experience. There is something of a delayed gratification in the magazine writing business, which makes it difficult to rely on for a hand-to-mouth lifestyle . We know of almost nobody who subsists entirely on writing magazine articles, but that’s not to say it can’t be done.
Michael Robertson, the Managing Editor at Good Old Boat, has written the definitive text on how to write for sailing magazines. His book Selling Your Writing to the Boating Magazines (and Other Niche Mags) is available for download through Amazon and should be considered required reading for aspiring authors. You can read a free excerpt from his book on coming up with story ideas that sell.