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One of the Better How-To Books
on Magazine Research and Writing


Basic Magazine Writing
Barbara Kevles
Writer's Digest Books, 1986, 268 pages, $16.95 (U.S.)

Reviewed by Noelle Boughton

As a journalist who has spent several years learning about both magazine writing and feelancing from trial and error and hints culled from books, I read Basic Magazine Writing: How to master the seven most important article forms and get published in the leading national magazines with a certain longing. From its opening pages on "How to Become a Magazine Writer" through 16 chapters on queries, story formats and writing techniques, I couldn't help wishing it had been on book store shelves when I began freelancing.

As anyone in the freelance magazine writing field can attest, Barbara Kevles' new Basic Magazine Writing is not the only "how to" magazine writing book around. But it is definitely one of the best I have seen. It covers the A to Z of magazine writing in a readable manner and offers hints for the advanced as well as beginning magazine writer.

Kevles, an American magazine freelancer of 20 years and a veteran writing teacher, brings several strengths to her book. Having written for many major American publications, ranging from The New York Times and Working Woman to The Saturday Evening Post and The Village Voice, she has numerous personal hints and experiences to draw from. She couples these with writing samples from both her students' and her own portfolio and critiques both. And her format is so logical and well-organized that anyone wishing to skim a chapter can still get its value form her regular selection summaries.

Basic Magazine Writing's 16 chapters cover everything from the pros and cons of query phone call versus letters, where to find saleable ideas and identifying the right magazine market for an idea to how to get and do an interview, writing article outlines and overcoming writer's block. These chapters are the most interesting, but they are interspersed with more technical chapters on how to write seven article types: profile, service, issue, exposition, question-and-answer, "as told to" and celebrity interviews.

Throughout the book, Kevles thoroughly covers the basics, such as becoming familiar with a magazine before querying its editor, researching before interviews and finding timely stories. But she also suggests some gems such as contacting editors new to a magazine to check if they want new writers, prefacing tough questions with a personal appeal for the subject's help and asking distracted subjects what is troubling them so they can air it and get on with the interview.

These are the pluses, but Basic Magazine Writing also has some flaws. I question Kevle's urgings to rewrite people's quotes to add more colourful language - as long as you don't change the intent - and her note taking method of using a typewriter during an interview. As one doctor finally told her, that can be hard for the subject who is talking.

The final flaw is that the book is all American. All magazines and editors named are American, suggested story lengths and needs are for American publications and often irrelevant to Canada and some article types - such as the "as told to " format - are rare in Canada. But, given the book's strengths, this is only a minor annoyance and Kevle's Basic Magazine Writing comes highly recommended.

This article originally appeared in
Sources, 10th Anniversary Issue, Summer 1987.

Noelle Boughton is a freelance writer who lives in Toronto. Her recent book, Margaret Laurence: A Gift of Grace, is available from the Women's Press imprint of Canadian Scholars' Press, Inc., at www.cspi.org, or by calling toll-free to 1-866-870-2774.


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