The following content is adapted from a workshop delivered in September 2022 at the University of Cambridge by Caitlin Kight and Devathi Parashuram, editors at Current Conservation magazine.
Watch a semi-interactive video workshop here! And see the resources section at the bottom for more.
There’s nothing quite like magazines. They alleviate the boredom of a long plane journey, provide distraction for nervous patients waiting at the doctor’s office, offer a light reading option at the beach, and entertain readers in a myriad of other ways and locations. In fact, publishers have been printing magazines for hundreds of years and continue to have success with this mode of communication despite the rise of competing media channels such as blogs or TikTok.
Every modern science communicator should consider publishing in magazines, and the following article will explain why. By the end of this piece, you will understand the role of magazines in the contemporary science communication environment, be more familiar with the wide range of formats that magazines can accommodate, and know how to prepare a magazine submission that will impress editors.
Understanding the role of magazines in the contemporary science communication environment
While magazines date back to the 17th century, general-interest publications comparable to those we might buy today did not emerge until the 18th century, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that this medium really exploded in popularity.
Magazines filled an otherwise empty niche between newspapers and books:
- Newspapers: fast production, rapid turnover of topics, distributed over a narrow geographic range, targeted a generalist readership
- Books: slower and more expensive to produce, less time-sensitive content, distributed more widely, readership comprising people who selected books to suit individual interests
Between these two ends of the spectrum, the magazine emerged as a flexible medium providing a range of aesthetic styles with a growing number of dedicated publications for enthusiasts with niche interests.
Magazines remain popular today largely thanks to the same traits that cemented their success two hundred years ago. Science communicators in particular should find them appealing because:
- There are hugely popular. A UK survey found that 66% of the population reads magazines each month; in the US, a similar study documented engagement rates of 91%.
- Magazines are read by audiences across a range of demographics. Interestingly, however, younger people are slightly more likely to read magazines; an Australian study reported 94% readership in the <35 age group. Some of the most popular magazines are those produced (often by or in association with schools) for children and families.
- There is an enormous range of magazines currently being produced worldwide. In the US alone, there are over 7400 different magazines in publication, with hundreds more added each year.
- Readership trends vary amongst regions, but reports consistently show that while some types of magazine are struggling (especially ‘women’s weeklies’ and publications associated with fashion and beauty), magazines with science and nature content are doing well.
- People read magazines in multiple formats. While online circulation continues to increase, one study found that 73% of readers prefer the tactile experience of reading magazines in print. Many publications offer both digital and physical formats, which may be exactly the same or offer slightly different content. Magazines also have good engagement on social media – particularly Facebook and Instagram; overall, readers report trusting magazine content over other sources of information (e.g., from individual social media communicators).
Appreciating the variety of formats that magazines accommodate
From the earliest days of magazines, they have made it possible for contributors to share content in a variety of formats – from those that are heavy on text (editorials, features, news summaries, reviews) to those that rely more on images (infographics, photo essays, art layouts); from non-fiction (as above, but also interviews, letters to the editor, advice columns) to fiction (short stories, serialised novels, plays) to poetry; from pieces that you read to those that you engage with more actively (how-to guides, puzzles).
Different publications feature different shapes/sizes of piece, and communicators will need to consider both the thematic focus of a magazine and the format in which it allows them to share their story. There is no one right way to decide how to balance these two factors: Perhaps an audience is most likely to engage with a specific format and so it is necessary to find a magazine that accepts this style; on the other hand, perhaps a particular audience is likely to read a certain publication and so it is necessary to submit in a format favoured by this magazine.
Ultimately, only the communicator will know what outlet is most appropriate for a particular goal or project. Their decision can be informed by:
- Exploring each magazine’s submission guidelines, to see what sorts of pieces are acceptable and to find out about associated constraints such as word limits, structural requirements associated with each publication’s ‘house style’, and whether/how the magazine makes use of aesthetic elements such as photographs or other artwork. (It can also be helpful to review readership and engagement statistics for each publication, to better understand who reads the magazine, and how. This information is often found near the submission guidelines.)
- Where relevant, considering whether a particular publication allows/prevents the inclusion of in-text references, a list of works cited, suggestions for further reading, or other acknowledgements of related content elsewhere.
- Researching whether a magazine incorporates advertisements that may be featured on the same page as a submission, perhaps breaking up the content and making it less aesthetically pleasing. Some communicators may also have ethical qualms about having certain products or companies featured near their work, or may even have conflicts of interest.
- Knowing whether the magazine allows writers to publish biographies, contact details, social media handles, and other information that can facilitate networking and potentially support the generation of additional revenue.
While not directly related to format per se, writers may also want to consider other factors, such as:
- Whether and how much contributors are paid per piece. Many magazines – especially those produced commercially – can offer a set price per article, while other publications pay per word.
- The copyright implications of publishing in different magazines. Some publish under a creative commons license while others may expect to have full control of a piece for a set period of time. Contributors should always know how much ownership of a piece they will retain if their work is accepted (especially if they originally published the work on a personal blog, or are interested in syndicating).
- Whether editors they prefer or require submissions from a particular type of writer – e.g., a professional researcher, a professional communicator, or something in between. Some magazines do not just want a scientific or journalistic voice, but specifically want to feature the work of scientists, journalists, or other particular types of contributor. Communicators may also be interested in seeking out publications that specifically platform the work of certain demographic groups – e.g., women, people of colour, LGBTQIA+.
There is rarely only one right option for where to publish a particular piece – and sometimes it is necessary to make compromises. While it is often the case that magazines will invite successful contributors to submit additional pieces in the future, this may not always be the best option. Especially early on in their careers, communicators might instead benefit from experimenting with a range of formats and outlets, to help them find their voice and develop a better understanding of how to successfully reach different audiences.
Knowing how to prepare a magazine submission that has a good chance of being accepted
Magazine and journal submissions are most commonly rejected for two problems that can be easily avoided: the piece does not meet basic requirements associated with topic or format, and/or it contains significant typos. This means that contributors can vastly improve their chances of success simply by putting in a little extra effort before submission —specifically, by:
- researching the magazine thoroughly to ensure it is a good fit for a particular article,
- reading and following the submission guidelines,
- and editing thoroughly.
Of course, these represent the bare minimum. Other tactics that can make a piece more appealing include:
- Aligning it to what is timely or topical. If there is particular interest in something because of a recent current event or an upcoming holiday, for example, try to capitalise on this ‘hook’ – but remember that some magazines may be producing issues months in advance, so you won’t want to leave things to the last minute.
- Emphasising the human interest element. Editors will be drawn to things that feel relevant to them and/or their readers, so make these connections clear – and don’t be afraid to appeal to people’s emotions (which you can do by telling a story rather than simply listing facts).
- Reading pieces that have previously been published in your focal magazine, so you can get a sense of whether there is a typical style or tone; likewise, explore back issues for pieces related to the topic you want to address (and to make sure you aren’t proposing something that has already been done). You can use this information to show how your proposed piece either fits in or stands out – whichever you think will make it more attractive to the editor.
- Demonstrating a good understanding of the magazine’s demographic by tailoring your approach to suit their needs and interests. This may mean adjusting language, structure, depth/breadth, perspective, and many other features. Communicators often find it particularly challenging to write for audiences of different ages or educational backgrounds; sampling pieces aimed at target individuals and getting feedback from ‘beta testers’ can help with this.
- Experimenting with innovations (assuming these are permitted given submission guidelines) that make a piece more interactive, engaging, or aesthetically pleasing. For example, could you include a side bar or inset? Can you feature a list of key terms or perhaps an infographic that quickly summarises basic background details? Would subheadings and bullet points make a submission more easily digestible? Maybe you could offer to create an accompanying video or podcast that could be embedded in an online publication – or perhaps instead of an article, you could present the same information as a game. The possibilities are endless, and while some publications may not be able to accommodate alternative formats, many will – and will be grateful for the opportunity to publish content that sets them apart from competitors.
If this piece has increased your interest in publishing your work in a magazine, then you may want to start by exploring Current Conservation. CC welcomes contributions at any time from researchers, writers, and artists. However, thanks to a special partnership with the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), authors of papers in SCB journals (Conservation Biology, Conservation Letters, Conservation Science & Practice) are automatically invited to write a lay summary of their paper for CC’s ‘Research in Translation’ section. Further information about submissions – including to CC’s annual children’s supplement – can be found here.
More generally, if you haven’t already, you should consider following magazines on social media and exploring the wide variety of publications, formats, and styles on offer in both digital and print versions; this will provide you with inspiration for your own pieces and also help you identify potential venues for your work.
As with most science communication, the most important thing is…practice. Whether you’re writing your first-ever magazine piece or are a seasoned contributor who needs to adjust to the requirements of a new publication, nothing builds competence and confidence like practice. Decide on your topic, identify likely publishers, select an appropriate format – and get to work!
If you have questions or comments about this piece, publishing in magazines, or science communication in general, please feel free to contact the author at email@example.com.