My Reader’s Digest editor taught me more about writing magazine articles and query letters than any other editor I’ve worked with! These are the ten most important things I learned about writing for Reader’s Digest; these tips will also help you understand and follow the submission guidelines for contributors (which can feel overwhelming to freelancers).
Looking at the cover of a recent Reader’s Digest will tell you almost everything you need to know about writing for this magazine. Put yourself in Sherlock Holmes’ shoes, and look for the clues that are plastered all over the front page! What are the articles about? Who are the readers, what do they want to learn about, what scares them? What problems, anxieties, and worries are they dealing with? What types of feature articles, health quizzes and research shorts are profiled on the cover? That’s how to write an article for Reader’s Digest: answer questions and solve problems for the readers.
Here’s another interesting fact about writing for Reader’s Digest: when I went to Amazon to look for an annual print subscription to this magazine, all I found were Large Print issues. The regular print issues are only available on Kindle or digitally. What does this tell you about the publishers and editors? Put your businessperson’s hat on: what decisions need to be made about advertising, market share, the cost of printing paper magazines, and the readership?
You don’t need to know all the answers to my questions about writing for Reader’s Digest. Just know that the editors aren’t only thinking about your story, profile, or feature article. They’re thinking about the problems their readers have, what their readers need to know, and how to keep their readers coming back for more.
The editors and publishers – of all magazines, not just Reader’s Digest – are also thinking about attracting new readers, finding more advertisers, and even hiring aspiring freelance writers like you!
10 Writing Tips From My Reader’s Digest’s Editor
Writing for Reader’s Digest was my most rewarding job as a freelancer. My editor helped me pitch better query letters, find more solid research studies and think from the readers’ perspective. She also reviewed and edited my articles over the phone, which improved my writing immensely. It also showed me how she as an editor viewed the articles, magazine, and big picture.
Not all writers get this perspective; I have no idea how I got so lucky! And if you’ve seen this magazine’s submission guidelines (which you can find by searching for “how to submit an article to Reader’s Digest“), you know that writing for Reader’s Digest is a competitive business. But good news! My tips will help you get your articles published in more magazines than you have time to write for.
1. Hold your tongue (show, don’t tell!)
When I’m writing for Reader’s Digest, I’ve learned not to provide a running commentary. I don’t editorialize or share my opinions on the content of the article, profile, research short – or even my own story. This is the classic “show, don’t tell” advice. Everything in your pitch and the article must be solid information that sources or experts actually told, gave, or showed you. Even if you’re writing about your own experience, share what happened. Use your sensory details to fire up your writing.
2. Use reputable, provable experts or sources
If you can, talk in person to local sources who are considered authorities on your topic. I always include interview dates, names, email addresses, phone numbers and website urls in the footnotes that source my experts. Not every editor requires this; one of the other magazines I write for recently told me not to bother footnoting or even citing my sources. But if you’re pitching a query letter or writing an article for Reader’s Digest, submit all your source information (even if the contributor’s guidelines don’t state this).
3. Only quote from primary sources
A direct quote is in quotation marks (for example, “I love writing Reader’s Digest because they pay a dollar a word!”). A primary source is someone you see or talk to in person. You can also quote from a book, magazine article, research journal, or even a blog post or website. A secondary source is a “he said/she said” experience (for example, “Laurie said she found the Reader’s Digest submission guidelines for writers.”). If you can’t or don’t feel like talking experts or sources directly, you can only directly quote from press releases, journal articles, or recognized sources such as the Canadian government or the FDA.
If you already know you don’t want to be a freelance writer because it really is a ton of work, read 10 Careers for Writers Who Want to Make Money. There are thousands of options for aspiring writers who aren’t interested in reading the submission guidelines and pitching query letters to Reader’s Digest or other magazines.
4. Be specific in your query letter and article
Avoid vague, imprecise, dreamy descriptions when you’re writing for Reader’s Digest or any magazine. For example, don’t write “someone quit her job to move somewhere else.” Instead, be concrete and specific: “a writer in Vancouver, Canada quit her job tending sheep to move to New York City to pursue her dream of a freelance writing career.” Answer these questions: 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? Pretend you’re a curious reader.
6. Guard your sources’ privacy
Tell your Reader’s Digest editor the real names of the people in your anecdotes, but indicate whether their names should be protected for privacy’s sake. Also, never make up stories or people or places – unless you’re writing fiction for Reader’s Digest. Check the submission or contributor’s guidelines for their rules.
7. Never ignore an email from a Reader’s Digest editor!
Don’t do what I did. My Reader’s Digest editor sent me an assignment – which I hadn’t even pitched a query letter for – and I was like all “yay!” But I didn’t tell her that. I didn’t acknowledge her email or accept the assignment. My editor had to send me another email asking if I wanted to write the article for Reader’s Digest or if she should assign it to someone else. Fellow scribes, always acknowledge emails — even the thousands of rejection letters you’ll inevitably get from editors and publishers if you’re a real writer.
8. Make sure your headline and intro grabs readers
Writing strong headlines (article titles and even paragraph subtitles) is one of the best ways to get your article published in Reader’s Digest. Speak directly to the need or problem the reader has. Be clear and specific about what they’ll learn, how they’ll benefit, or why they need to read your article (sometimes known as the “takeaway”). Know your main point, present it clearly and compellingly, and stay focused. Learn how to write titles and intros that grip readers by the throat!
9. Be EAGER to edit, revise, rewrite your work
The most important thing you need to know about writing for Reader’s Digest (and getting repeat assignments from editors) is to eagerly, enthusiastically tackle revisions of your work. Do not think if your magazine article, query letter, or even an excerpt or book chapter of your memoir as “your baby.” It is your work, not your baby. You created it – and you may even have birthed it! But it is not perfect, and an editor can make it better. I don’t know if this writing tip is in the Reader’s Digest submission guidelines for contributors, but it should be. The only way to truly grow as a writer is to edit, revise, and rewrite your articles again and again and again.
10. Tailor your writing to Reader’s Digest readers
My Reader’s Digest editor was one of the first to directly tell me her preferred way of receiving query letters from freelance writers. One of the most valuable questions you could ask a magazine editor or book publisher – especially on the phone or face-to-face (such as at a writer’s conference) – is how they like to be queried. “How do you like your pitches? Long? Short? Detailed? Summarized? Should I interview experts first, or can I just name them?”
Bonus writing tip from my Reader’s Digest editor…
Don’t use proper names as verbs. “We don’t Xerox, we photocopy,” she said. This is a common writing mistake that doesn’t just apply to making print copies of stuff. Maybe you’ve heard of the “catsup versus ketchup” wars.
Have you tried writing for Reader’s Digest? Maybe you found the contributor’s or writer’s submission guidelines on the magazine’s website, and felt overwhelmed or unworthy. Or maybe you’ve pitched multiple query letters and keep getting rejected. Feel free to share your experience below…
Want to write for magazines such as Reader’s Digest, but don’t know what to write about? Read How to Find Article Ideas That Editors Will Pay to Publish.