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Writer’s Guide

We are no longer accepting new submissions. The Magazine’s last issue will be December 18, 2014.

General style

We want stories that take the reader through the process of understanding how something arose. That often involves at one or more person and their actions told chronologically. We like to think of this as pearls on a string: the string is the story and the pearls are the details (facts, background, anecdotes) strung along it. The story has a completion that calls back to the beginning: connecting the clasp to the other end of the necklace, as it were.

The more specifics you can use to root a story, the more that readers can relate. Offering broad summaries covering long periods of time can sound very bland, as can 10,000-foot views that don’t give the reader specific experiences, events, or anecdotes onto which they can latch. Details, interviews, and dissections help convey large concepts or sweeping stories.

Be succinct, straightforward, and active.

Get the name of the dog.

Write from your own perspective without excessive use of “I”, “me”, or “mine”. “Groundskeepers had just cut the grass, and the sweet smell of spring was all around,” as perhaps opposed to “I saw that the grass had just been cut, and could smell it all around me.” (Although, “I inhaled the sweet smell of spring,” would also fit the bill.)

A publication has a sense of artificial time. You conduct interviews and things happen to you in the past. Do you write about it in the present or past? The Economist has chosen to use the present tense when referring to interviews or events under discussion, so that one writes, for instance, “The legislator says that lighting artificial trees damages the mood.” The past tense is reserved for events that happened before the artificial time of the article. Other publications, like the New York Times, use past tense (with no definition of how far in the past). “‘You’ll like Greece,’ he told his dinner guest.” We use the Economist’s approach.

We prefer to avoid excessive use of the word “thing,” the verb “to do,” and the pronoun “it.” These three elements are often used to avoid being specific.

The Chicago Manual of Style is our default guide (not AP, which is aimed at telegraphed newspaper writing) except as we note:

Numbers

Spell numbers nine and below, and use numerals for 10 and above. There are exceptions, especially where single-digit numbers are being used to talk about things measured on a scale, like temperature in degrees or weight. (One wouldn’t want to write 1.5 pounds and then one pound next to each other.)

We typically spell out percent (as in “10 percent of people surveyed”), but in an intensively statistical article, use a % sign.

Punctuation

We like serial, sometimes called Oxford, commas.

The semicolon is like a cloying fruit. In small quantities, it’s delicious and enlivens prose. In larger quantities, the reader gorges upon it, and feels mildly ill. The same is true with long dashes — which we love! — but which are easily overused.

We prettify quotation marks automatically, so you don’t have to — just use straight quotes and apostrophes. These work better back and forth in editing. But use the following in writing (Mac shortcuts shown):

  • An en dash (Option-hyphen) to separate ranges of numbers, like 1950–1959, or connected place names, like the Ottawa–Montréal Highway. Use a hyphen when not on a Mac.

  • An em dash (Shift-Option-hyphen) for a “long dash” instead of two hyphens, and put a space before and after it. That is — here is one — you space it out to look correctly when set. If you can’t make this on your computer, write — (two dashes) instead and we’ll clean it up later.

  • True ellipsis (Option-semicolon) instead of three dots: It looks like … instead of ... and sets itself more neatly in the font. But neither put a space in front of nor after it. Ditto: If you can’t create this character, use three dots and we’ll clean it up later.

We hyphenate adjectival phrases that precede a noun (the max-out score), including hyphenated Americans (African-American man, for instance), but not when they are written to follow a noun (the score was a max out).

Headlines

The article title uses title capitalization while subtitles should be in sentence capitalization with the first word capitalized and the rest in lowercase except proper nouns. We like subheads, but not too many, to break up long articles into sensible sections.

Electronic words

We capitalize Internet and Web, and talk about Web pages and Web sites as two words, while email is a single word without a hyphen.

Photography

We pay additional fees for photos, including a bit extra for a photo that is used on the cover, when a writer can take pictures along with a story. Because photos in The Magazine can be viewed at a full 2048 pixels wide on a Retina iPad, the quality has to be extremely high — better than is typically required for print. (Also, that means we want photos at least 2048 pixels long at their widest edge.)

Please do not send photos via email because, holy cow, those files are big and email was never meant for attachments, really. Instead, please use Dropbox (free or paid) or WeTransfer (free). In Dropbox, share a link instead of making a shared folder.

Because of the design of our app, photos that are primarily oriented horizontally (landscape) almost always work better than those with a vertical (portrait) orientation. Vertical photos have to be shrunk in scale so as not to take far too much screen territory in the current app and Web design. But if there’s a compelling vertical photo or composition, you can make the case for it.

As a result, pictures taken on a smartphone or tablet are almost universally not of high-enough resolution, good-enough balance, nor free of noise and artifacts to be used. Yes, it’s possible, but it’s very difficult. Glenn wrote an essay about the difficulty of getting reliable and usable results and advocates getting even a digital camera in the $200 to $500 if you want to shoot photos (especially indoors) without the same degree of effort as with a smartphone or tablet.

When a story with your own photographers or those of a photographer with whom you’re working and we’ve contracted, please include:

  • A link to high-resolution images for previewing and downloading. (We can color correct and otherwise tune up images.)

  • Captions related to names for each photo, at least in brief. We can come back and ask for longer captions for the pictures we plan to run.

  • If you’re working with the photographer, make sure we have contact information for them. We need a signed contract, W-9/W-8BEN, email, and bio for photographers we are paying. For others, we need a clear grant of permission in email or writing.

If you’re relying on public-domain or Creative Commons licensing, please include:

  • Links to the original image or the images.

  • Captions for each image.

  • URL and other information so we can be sure we are properly using images.

Links

Our app allows us to show pop-up previews of links with brief text, and we encourage the liberal but not excessive use of links in articles. We like that any referenced person, Web site, or concept that someone could conceivably want to look up (like a writing program at a university or a concept like eclosure, the emergence of an insect from its pupa stage) should be linked so we aren’t forcing readers to formulate search queries for things we can simply direct them to a particular good resource for more details.

Please don’t link every word or put 15 links in a paragraph. But 10 to 20 links across a 2,000-word article is average for us for many topics. (For personal essays or first-person research, you obviously may have fewer things to which to link.)

Editing

Because we use a text format for publishing (see Formatting, below), we cannot easily use revision tracking. That’s also because no two authors we work with seem to have access to the same word processor.

To compare drafts, we use the Compare feature in BBEdit, which is also found in TextWrangler; the former is a commercial product and the latter a free one from Bare Bones Software for Mac OS X. One may select two open text files in the program and use Search > Compare Two Front Windows or other Search menu items to get a side-by-side look at an older and newer draft with a list of changes at the bottom. Click on an item at the bottom, and the changes are highlighted in the two drafts. There’s also software for Windows that does this, but I can’t recommend a package.

Typically, we ask that writers review changes, but then make incremental ones (rather than just revert to their own language) unless they’ve discussed it with us. We don’t think we’re the ultimate arbiter of what sounds right, but we know what works for The Magazine.

We tend to mark notes in the text itself in brackets with initials and often in all caps to stand out. [THIS IS A NOTE I MIGHT LEAVE ASKING A QUESTION THAT SHOULD BE ANSWERED IN THE TEXT AND THEN THE NOTE DELETED-gf]

Formatting

We use Markdown as our native text-formatting language in the content-management system. You can submit in Word, as a text file (.txt, .markdown, .md), as an RTF file, as a Pages file, or in other formats with advance notice. But the formatting should be as follows, not styled with bold, etc., in the program.

Markdown lets you write HTML using plain text, and then a Markdown interpreter converts the Markdown into the HTML we use on the site. This lets you avoid writing in HTML and yet write in a simple fashion that’s easy to edit even in its raw form.

We use UTF-8 encoding, a universal character method that’s standard for the Web, and which can sometimes cause problems as we go back and forth in editing. If you see strangely accented characters or believe text is missing, it is likely that either a file was corrupted before you received it from us, or whatever editor you’re using has messed up the file. DON’T PROCEED without checking in.

If you can write in Markdown, so much the better. If you’re not familiar with it, consult John Gruber’s documentation. If Markdown syntax makes your eyes water, the simplest way to give us clean copy is to follow four guidelines. This will make it far easier to edit your work.

  • Write in a text file with no styled text.

  • Separate paragraphs with a full empty vertical line rather than indenting the first line of a paragraph with tabs or spaces.

  • To mark emphasis, use an _underscore_ on either side of a word or at the beginning and end of a phrase. That is also used for italics for magazine, book, and movie names. (Articles in a magazine, episode names of TV shows, and chapter names in a book appear in quotes.)

  • For subheads within an article, start with two hash marks as in

##This subhead breaks up the article

  • Format links in the body of the document. Markdown uses brackets to format links that may be referenced at the end of a document. Put square brackets around the text, and then following that with another set of square brackets with a reference. The reference may be numeric or even a bit of text, but it must be unique throughout a document. For instance, [this link][2] refers to the URL marked “2” below.

We annotate HTML links so that when a reader taps on a link, he or she may see the reason for it as well as then tap to follow it to a built-in WebKit viewer in The Magazine app. If the page or item you’re linking to doesn’t have an explanation of itself, write a short description we can include in the pop-up link text. In most cases, we can extract a paragraph (automatically) from the destination page.

[2]: http://the-magazine.org/

Put information related to the link in the line after it so we can find it more easily.

  • Footnotes use Markdown Extra in the format with a caret before the reference.[^EXTEND] But don’t put footnotes inline. We need them as separate paragraphs both for editing and for publication. Make every footnote a unique name or number. You can use text, like ^EXTEND or numbers or letters like ^1, ^2, ^A, ^B, etc.[^SEE]

[^EXTEND]: The corresponding footnote appears later. We try to put the reference after a period or comma because of the space it takes inline to provide enough space for someone to tap upon.

[^SEE]: Here’s a second footnote.

Invoicing

Please send an invoice for the agreed-upon amount as a PDF (or, if you must, a Word document) to us via email at editors@the-magazine.org. You can fax to (815) 572-0459 if need be.

For articles in our regular issue format: We will try to remind you on publication day to invoice us and confirm the specific amount. But we do ask you to stay on top of invoicing, as we’re a small enterprise. We pay within 30 days of an article’s publication.

For articles in Medium: We pay 30 days following the end of the month in which articles appear on Medium (i.e., March 1 for an article that appears any time in January). Please do not invoice until the end of a month, at which point we will email contributors in case we exceed traffic goals, and can pay additional amounts.

The invoice should contain:

  • Your name (or LLC name if you’re organized that way)

  • Your mailing address and phone number — the phone number is critical for our online bill pay system!

  • Please do not include your EIN or SSN. We have a W-9 (U.S. taxable) or W-8BEN on file.

  • The date of invoice and a unique invoice number for your records.

  • An item listing the article, issue, and date of publication for articles in The Magazine; an item listing the article name and date of publication items in our Medium collection.

  • The amount being invoiced.

Billing should be to:

Aperiodical LLC
1904 E. McGraw St.
Seattle, WA 98112
206-427-7264

Email invoices to editors@the-magazine.org.

We pay by check for people who can receive mail within the United States. Checks arrive from a bill-paying service and should have BECU (our credit union) as the return address. Watch for the envelope!

For those without a U.S. address for receiving payment, please include your email address that accepts PayPal payments. PayPal may take longer, as we transfer money from our regular account in to send to you, and PayPal seems to take a week or more to make our deposits available.