10 Writing Tips From a Reader’s Digest Editor

My Reader’s Digest editor taught me more about writing magazine articles and query letters than any other editor I’ve worked with. These writing tips are from Reader’s Digest, which is one of the most popular magazines in North America.

Writing Tips From a Reader’s Digest EditorFor a more in-depth look at freelance writing full-time, read Writer’s Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing by the editors of Writer’s Digest. It’s a bestselling book on freelancing.

If you aren’t sure if you want to be a freelance writer for magazines, read 10 Careers for Writers Who Want to Make Money. There are all sorts of options for people who want to write for a living. But, even if you don’t want to be a freelancer, you still need to know how to be a good writer. How to write well, I mean! And that’s what these writing tips are all about…

10 Writing Tips From a Reader’s Digest Editor

Before the tips, a quip: “Newspaper editors are men who separate the wheat from the chaff, and print the chaff.” ~ Adlai Stevenson.

Believe me, not all editors are this muddled. The ones I’ve worked with are dedicated to printing the best possible articles, books, and short stories. My favorite editor is from Reader’s Digest because she reviews my articles over the phone, which improved my writing immensely.

Here’s what this editor says about writing for magazines.

Eliminate comments from the “peanut gallery”

When I’m writing for Reader’s Digest, I’ve learned not to provide a running commentary. “Just the facts, ma’am,” is a good motto. Everything in your pitch and the article must be information that sources or experts actually offered (unless the article is about the writer, or the writer is an expert in the topic).

Provide accurate experts or sources

I include interview dates, names, email addresses, phone numbers and website urls in the footnotes that source my experts. This writing tip isn’t the same for other editors; one of the other magazines I write for recently told me not to bother including footnotes with sources! Sure, it’s a time-saver not to have to include my experts’ details, but those accurately sourced footnotes are a great way for me to do quick research later, for different articles.

Only quote from primary sources

Whether I’m pitching an article idea or writing the actual article, I never quote from secondary sources, such as websites or magazine articles, when I write for Reader’s Digest. If I don’t talk to the experts or sources directly, I can only quote from press releases, journal articles, or recognized sources such as the Canadian government or the FDA.

Be specific in your query letter and magazine article

Don’t just say “a man from Canada quit his job to pursue his dreams.” What’s his name? What city does he live in? How old is he? What job did he quit? What dream is he pursuing? What made him quit his job? Is he a short or a tall man? Good writing is concrete, specific writing.

Guard your sources’ privacy

Be honest with your editor about the real names of people in your anecdotes, but indicate whether their names should be protected for privacy’s sake. (Also – don’t make up anecdotes or experts. This should go without saying, but I know a couple of freelance writers who do this).

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Always respond to editors’ emails

Readers Digest Editor Writing Tips

10 Writing Tips From a Reader’s Digest Editor

Once, my Reader’s Digest editor sent me an assignment and I was like all “yay!” but didn’t tell her that. So, she had to follow up with me to ask if I was interested in writing the article, or if she should assign it to someone else. Fellow scribes, always acknowledge emails — it’s one of the best tips for working with editors.

Make sure your introduction or lead ties the whole article together

This tip reinforces the idea that the opening is a great place to put the best parts of the article and the query you’re pitching (sometimes known as the “takeaway”). For instance, if one of my takeaways is that Reader’s Digest editors love article query letters that are printed on lime green paper that smells like freshly cut grass , then I need to include that tidbit in my introduction.

Be EAGER to edit, revise, rewrite your work

Count yourself lucky if your editor asks you to make changes to your article, and explains why those changes are beneficial. This is one of the best ways to recognize your own poorly written work (and all writers — no matter how successful — have weak spots). The best way to improve your articles and pitches is to edit, revise, and rewrite again and again and again. If you have a professional eagle eye (aka a magazine editor) guiding you, be grateful!

Tailor your pitches or query letters

readers digest writing tipsThis Reader’s Digest editor was one of the first to tell me what she prefers writers’ pitches to look like. This is one of the most valuable questions I can ask after I submit my first assignment: “How do you like your pitches? Long? Short? Detailed? Summarized? Do I have to talk to the experts first, or can I just name them?” Successful writers find ways to tailor their pitches to editors and writing markets.

If you’re not sure what type of articles Reader’s Digest publishes, get a Reader’s Digest Magazine Subscription. The more familiar you are with their work, the more likely you’ll pitch an article they’ll publish.

Don’t use proper names as verbs

A short, sweet way to write better article pitches: “We don’t Xerox, we photocopy,” she said. This may be a common writing mistake; I’ve read this writing advice in other freelance writing resources.

For more tips on writing better article pitches, read How to Find Article Ideas That Editors Will Pay to Publish.

If you have any questions or thoughts on these tips for improving your magazine articles and query letters, please comment below…

Writers write while dreamers procrastinate.

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12 thoughts on “10 Writing Tips From a Reader’s Digest Editor

  • Thomas Franke

    My daughter, who is a registered nurse, recently wrote a letter to her physician who recently underwent a spinal simulator which ended 10 years of excruciating pain. She tells the story of the ups and downs of treatment to no avail until this procedure changed her life.

    Would you be interested in reading her story. If so, I will email her letter to you.

  • Mary pleuss

    I haven’t heard anything from reader’s digest but it’s only been a month. What’s normal if there’s such a thing in writing.

  • Laurie Post author

    Hi Mary,

    It’s been so long since I wrote for Reader’s Digest…I can’t remember their guidelines for article pitches and submissions! What does their website say about submitting story ideas? I’d look at the submission guidelines on the Reader’s Digest website, and follow their instructions.

    Good luck with pitching your article…I’d love to hear if Reader’s Digest accepted it; please do keep me posted!

    All good things,

    • lynnmarie

      the reader’s digest website does not give any specifics on how to submit a query letter or article idea. only gives an email address. i was confused as i thought years ago, i saw somewhere, the rules and regulations on how to do it. maybe in the actual magazine itself?

  • Mary Pleuss

    Thank you for this article, it was helpful. My question is should I send the entire story (human interest) along with a brief description in my cover letter or just the cover letter with a short paragraph from the story to give the flavor of it? Or both? Sure is intimidating but nothing ventured nothing gained!

  • Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen Post author

    Hi Tracy,

    I hope you give these writing tips a chance! Maybe your 10th pitch to the Reader’s Digest editors will be the one that gets you an article assignment 🙂

  • Lucie

    Laurie, Thank you for your response. I’m glad to know that the RD pile does get read. As someone who was saw first hand how other magazines handles their piles (read delete), it’s good to know someone can get to the other side.

  • Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen Post author

    I sent my first query to the electronic slush pile at Reader’s Digest, and it was accepted a few days later. They DO look at those electronic queries — but getting published in the magazine is really hard. For every 5 queries I pitch to the RD editors, I’m lucky to get one acceptance.

    It’s the idea that counts….and it’s hard to come up with great ideas!

  • Lucie

    I have been writing for a magazine owned by RD and have tried for years to get into the “real” RD magazine. I’m wondering – did you send this query directly to an editor or into the electronic slush pile? I’m convinced that to get an editor’s attention, it has to get in front of the editor.

    Thanks for your feedback,

  • siobhan

    This was an interesting article – especially since I had a conversation with a walking friend today that revolved around exactly this sort of thing! thanks for the tips!