The Avwriter's Primer

By Ron Wanttaja
(Updated March 2008)

Anybody who reads for enjoyment has probably thought about doing some writing themselves.  But for many, the prospect of having to face the unknown world of publishing is daunting.   Nobody enjoys looking like a rank amateur.

What should the article be laid out?  What about illustrations?  How long should it be?  Will they rip me off by printing the article without paying me?  How can I maximize my chances of having my article accepted?

I get asked this kind of stuff fairly often. This posting is an attempt to answer the most common questions, to help the neophyte writer.  Following my suggestions won't guarantee an acceptance by the magazine of your choice, but I think it'll increase your odds.

How Publishing Works

Every month, a magazine's editor-in-chief is faced with filling a hundred or so pages full of material.  A good bit of space has been allocated to the advertising department.  Another batch of space goes to the monthly columns.  More space goes to regular features such as news summaries and cartoons.

Eventually, though, the editor has to find "N" pages of content.  He or she has a number of possible sources.  They could write the articles themselves.  They may task their staff writers.  They may ask a favorite freelance writer to write an article about a certain aircraft or topic.  They may grab a folder containing general-interest articles previously submitted by their favorite freelancers.

Or, they may drop their hand into the "Slush Pile" and check out the unsolicited manuscripts hopeful writers have sent them.

You can't control when the editor pulls your submission out of the slush pile.  What you can do is maximize the chances that he or she will decide to use your article, rather than dumping the piece in the trash.

You have to realize what the editor needs:  He or she needs to fill the magazine before the deadline.  They could do it themselves…but they have plenty to do already.  They want material that takes minimal additional work on their part. That's why they prefer to rely on staff writers or freelancers that they are familiar with.

Your job is provide an article that requires minimal additional work on behalf of the editor.   You want the article to be on the topics the magazine likes to cover.  You want the article to be the length the editor wants to see.  You want the grammar and spelling to be correct.  And you want to provide the pictures/illustrations and captions.

The editor is not your mother.  Nor is he your high-school English teacher.  Some people seem to think the editor will somehow recognize their great talent and spend the hours to polish a "diamond in the rough.

It probably has happened.  Odds are, though, it won't happen to you.  Misspell a batch of words in a vague, unfocused opening paragraph, and the editor will probably just toss your work in the trash and go on to the next submission.

So:  Let's see how to avoid that.

Manuscript Mechanics

The first thing you'd like the editor to see when he opens the envelope or double-clicks the attachment is a manuscript laid out in the format used by most professional writers.  Sure, you might be a newbie.  But don't let the very look of your submission scream it in the editor's face.

On the upper left side of the first page, put your name, address, and phone number.  In the center of the first page, about halfway down, put the title of your article.  I use all caps to ensure it stands out.

Titles are important.  Providing a good title means the editor doesn't have to try come up with one.  You'd like something fairly short, somewhat descriptive of the subject of the article, and alluring enough to make someone paging through the magazine want to read more.  "Painting Your Aircraft" is a good utilitarian title, for instance.  Nothing really wrong with it.  But a title like "The Crowning Touch" raises curiosity, and hopefully hooks the reader.

Skip another line under the title, then put your byline centered on the page.  "Byline"?  It's just a line saying "By Joe Smith" or whatever your name is.

Then skip another line or two and start the article.  Indent each paragraph, and don't put an extra line between the paragraphs.  Use subheadings if you desire.  At the end of the article, skip a couple a lines, and center "THE END" on the page…that's so the editor knows the article is indeed over, in case they are worried about missing pages.

If you're submitting the article in hard copy or as a word-processor file attachment, double-space the entire body of the article.  Put a header at the top of each page with the title and your name (The Crowning Touch/Smith).  If you submit as ordinary text on a regular email, don't insert any manual page breaks or headers, or add carriage returns to simulate double-spacing.

And for God's sake, don't use novelty fonts (12-point Courier or Times is fine), color effects, or HTML tricks like flashing text.  Don't imbed pictures or artwork; include a little note at the appropriate spot to indicate where the illustration should go.   Justify both margins if you really feel it's necessary, but no one is going to object to ragged right margins.

Some new writers think they should format their article exactly like it would appear in a magazine…two columns, rather small font, pictures imbedded.  Don't.  The editor wouldn't have his or her job if they weren't able to mentally picture how the article would appear in print.  The standard manuscript format makes it easy to read and to make notes in the margins, if needed.

Article Organization

Most aviation articles work best when organized in a simple, straightforward way.  "How to" articles aimed at homebuilders are even easier.  Explain the problem, discuss what approaches you could have used and why you picked the one you did, then go through the planning, preparation, execution, and finishing stages.

Should you do an outline of the article, first?  It's not vital, but they can be very useful in preventing your article from wandering off the main topic.  If a particular aspect of the project seems to be taking a disproportionate portion of the outline, maybe it's time to consider splitting it off as a separate article.

I outlined all my articles when I started writing, then cut back on the outlining as I gained experience.  But twenty years after my first sale, I still outline some articles.

While how-to article lend themselves naturally to a linear layout, you don't have to be wedded to it.  For instance, you could write an aircraft painting article backwards…start with the final coat, then verbally strip off every layer until you end with the bare airplane prior to surface preparation.

The big thing to worry about is the danger of making the article look "gimmicky."  I might take the risk when an editor I've worked with before…but I'd play it safe, with a new guy.

The Lead's the Thing

The most critical…and the most difficult-to-write… part of an article is the beginning, or "lead."  You want the lead to be so interesting that people will keep reading, whether they think they'll ever use the information or not.

The lead has other functions.  It informs the reader, in more detail, what topics will be covered.  It sets the "tone" of the article…serious, bantering, or outright humorous.

For a new writer, the lead has a few more major functions.  It's the editor's introduction to your ability to write.  Start your article with misspelled words or bad grammar, and the editor may not even bother reading the rest of the piece.  Add an erroneous apostrophe in the body of the article or misspell "RV" in the closing if you must, but make sure the technical aspects of the lead paragraphs are perfect.

All right…what should the lead contain?  There are dozens of basic approaches, but for me, the best ones contain either a question, a claim, or a challenge.  Let's take that aircraft painting article and look at some lead sentences that use these techniques.

Question:  "When you spend five years building your airplane, do you want to risk it all on a bad paint job?  You may have Lindy-class workmanship underneath those few thousandths of an inch of paint, but if the surface is uneven, fish-eyed, and blotchy, no one will ever notice anything else."

Claim:   "Painting an aircraft isn't easy, but it's something well within the capability of most homebuilders.  With a few basic tools and some know-how, you can produce an award-winning paint job without breaking out a sweat."

Challenge:  "You can spend $5,000 on a professional painter.  Or you can shell out less than $1,000 and get the same quality results."

How long should the lead be?  Generally, you're trying to hook the reader and provide a bit of background on what the article is about.  Typically, my leads are around three to five fairly short paragraphs.

Leads are the hardest thing to write.   After fifteen years or so behind the keyboard, I still sometimes take the coward's way out:  I start an article with the fifth paragraph, instead of the first.

Say what?

It's fairly simple.  If I can't seem to get a good lead going, I just start writing as if the lead is already in place.  For instance, if I were doing the painting article, I might just start writing, "The primary goal is to either find or set up a decent painting booth.  This can be a large area like your garage, or just a corner of the basement…."

After that start, I'll finish the entire article, THEN go back and add a good lead.  By this point, I have a better mental handle on what the story is covering, so I can go back and generate a good question, claim, or challenge that ties in smoothly with the rest of the article.

Endings

Personally, I like to end articles with a little wrap-up section.  You don't have to write much; it doesn't have to be as complex at the Lead.  But I think most readers like to have a little "cool down" that summarizes the major points of the article.

One hint:  I really like to make my endings tie into the Lead to some extent…and to echo the title.  For instance, if I used that title "The Crowning Touch," I might end the article…"It's hard work, but not something outside the capabilities of a typical homebuilder.  A decent paint job is the crowning touch for an eye-catching custom-built aircraft."

Overall Length

How long should the article be?  It depends on the subject and the publication.  Your best bet is to query the editor…send him or her email and ask their preferred article length.  If you just want to start writing, I'd shoot for a length of about a thousand words.  That's a medium-length article.

Writing Style

The style you use really depends on what kind of publication you're submitting to.  Just about all the aviation magazines use an ordinary conversational style.

In other words, write like you talk.  Don't try to get all formal, unless that's the way you converse with people.  If you force a more-formal style than you're used to speaking, it'll not only sound stilted to you, but probably to anyone who reads it, too.

Don't think you have to use eight-dollar words to sound "professional."  Use the simplest phrasing that gets the point across.

Writing Advice

It's too late for me to teach you composition techniques. But I can give you a few bits of advice that should improve your articles.

Editing

Your job doesn't end when you type in "THE END"…the most labor-intensive part of just beginning.  Good articles aren't written, they're re-written.  Go through it again and again.  Correct any awkward wording or bad punctuation.

Work hard on shortening the article.  Not because of the editor's length limitation.  But if you *can* shorten a sentence and still keep the same meaning, that means the words that were cut were just "filler"…they were just unnecessary fat.

How much should you edit?  I take at least three passes through the article.  I also prefer, if time permits, to wait a few days before the last pass so I can look at the article with a fresher outlook.  Do at least one pass reading the article aloud.  If it's awkward to read, reword it to make it smoother.

When I'm hitting a new editor, I make one more editing pass…but on a printed copy of the manuscript rather than on the monitor.  The different presentation gives you a better outlook.  Besides, you can concentrate on finding problems rather than getting distracted trying to rewrite as you come across them.

When I'm hitting a new editor, I take one additional precaution:  I get someone else to read the piece and edit it.

Who?  You'd really want another writer, or at least someone who reads a lot.  Someone not familiar with the writing process might not be able to specifically identify the aspects that bother them.  Still, ANY outside editing is better than none.

One fairly hard-and-fast rule:  Avoid anyone who might normally refer to you as "Dear."  You need critical comment, not a supportive spouse or your mom.  I admit, my wife sometimes edits my stuff.  But she's a full-time author, and we both know the importance of a thorough edit.  She happily bleeds all over my writing, and I happily bleed all over hers.

(And in case anyone is wondering:  I generally don't edit my net postings.  At most, they get a quick once-over before I hit the "send" key.)

Spell Checkers are the Devil's Spawn

Spell checkers make you lazy.  Don't rely on them.

Why?  Because spell checkers don't catch homonyms (words that have different meanings but sound the same) or the outright use of the wrong word.  Doing your spell-checking by hand forces you to read the article, and gives you a chance to detect these mistakes.  If you use the word "their" when you meant "there", the editors will notice.  And that'll be a big black mark against you.

I write with a paperback dictionary by my side, and probably refer to it twice while writing each article.  Use the spell checker for the last-ditch check prior to sending the article to the editor.

Illustrations

Pictures and illustration are an integral part of aviation writing.  You'll need to supply the illustrations for your own article.  Don't expect the magazine to supply them.  Maybe they will, if your article really is unique.  Otherwise, accepting your article just means more work for them and it'll end up in the trash, instead.

Digital cameras are pretty much the norm, now.  The important thing is the resolution.  The magazine-printing process is intolerant of low-resolution images.  Your image should be a mimimum of 300 DPI (dots per inch) in the size it will be reproduced in the magazine.  This means an absolute mimimum of a 4-megapixel camera.  If you're hoping to have full-page images reproduced (or even the cover!) you need 8 Megapixels or more.

Remember, though, it's not just pixels:  It's the imaging process.  There are a lot of cheap 8 megapixel cameras out there that really don't take good photos.  The size of the imaging CCD is important, but photography is an optical process.  The bigger the lenses, and the better quality the plastic/glass they're made out of, the better your pictures will look.  I brought a 8MP pocket camera to Oshkosh in 2007 along with a Canon Rebel of about the same resolution.  The difference in the image quality is amazing.

Like everything else, don't expect the magazine to correct bad images for you.  If the image can be improved by cropping or changing the lighting, do it yourself before submitting.

Name the photos.  Don't rely on the camera's file-naming process ("IMG_0045.JPG").  Rename each photo you take to make it at least a bit descriptive of the content.

Digital photos might be easy and fast to take, but that doesn't mean you send EVERY photo to the magazine.  Remember, again, the editor usually is a very busy person.  They don't want to wander through dozens of photos.  Only submit the best shots.  Unless the article is deliberately intended to be a photo essay, I don't send more than ~10 photos in with an article.  Again, submit only the best shots.  The editor won't use them all, but if they're rejecting some because they're too dark or out of focus, you aren't doing your job.

All illustrations must have a caption…again, you want to keep from making the editor have to write one.  The captions must be referenced to each picture.  Don't make the file name the caption, because sometimes you need a longer caption.  At mimimum, provide a table that provides the caption for each image file name.  Personally, I do a three-column table in Word...the first column is a small thumbnail of  the image, the second is the filename, and the last is the caption.

Targeting a Magazine

Who should you send your article in to?  Make sure the article fits the existing content of the magazine.  If you've got an article on trip to Baja in your Cessna, there's not much reason to send it in to KITPLANES.

One thing I warn folks about:  Articles about your first solo flight are a very, VERY hard sell.

Submission

In the old days, authors would write letters to an editor, asking if they'd be interested in an article.  Nowadays, you can phone or email.  Don't spend a lot of their time… just say, "I've got an article on painting homebuilt aircraft…would you be interested in it?"  If you call, the editor will ask your qualifications and what of illustrations you might use.  If you email, include this information in the email.  Include any writing credits you might have, but only those involving commercial or professional publications.  The editor won't care that you've been published on a web page or EAA Chapter newsletter.

If you're lucky, the editor will say they're willing to look at it "On spec."  "On spec" means "on speculation"…it's not an agreement to print the article, it just means they're willing to read it to decide whether they want it.  Ask how long they want it, and what format they want the pictures, and you're in business.

Generally, you'll probably be able to submit the article itself in an email.   I recommend that you don't email photos with an unsolicited submission.  If you've got a decent resolution camera, ten images might be 50 megabytes in size; most people don't appreciate having their mailboxes clogged this way.  Some magazines have FTP sites set up to receive the photos, rather than using email.

Just tell the editor that you have photos available, and let them instruct you how to send them.

Unless your piece is a press release instead of an independent article, don't submit to more than one publication at a time.  If both take it, you'll be in the embarrasing position of having to tell one editor they can't have it after all.  Editors tend to remember that.  A few years back, two competing magazines simultanously published the same article.  You can probably guess that writer never sold to either of them again....

The Financial Side

Hopefully, the editor will scarf up your article.  How much will you make?

Publications usually have a standard scale.  Regular authors might get a bit more, but the editor will usually be able to tell you the approximate payment you'll get.

Keep in mind that some publications do not pay.  They're typically up-front in that. If you are trying to break in to the market, they are at least a credit.

The paying markets generally pay "on publication." That means that you won't see the check until the issue of the magazine that contains it is published.  Magazines work many months ahead…in some cases, issues have "themes" and if your submission doesn't match the theme, it'll have to wait.  The delay can be a year or more.  The editor should be able to tell you at the time he or she accepts the article.

If you get lucky, the publication pays "on acceptance."  That means that the magazine will process your check as soon as the editor accepts your article.

Copyright

Writing copyrights are simple.  Whatever you write is yours.  You hold the rights to it…it is automatically copyrighted.  You don't have to register it in Washington or anything.

To formally establish the copyright, you merely have to include a copyright notice with the article.  The copyright notice consists of the year, the word "copyright" (or the C-in-the-circle logo), and your legal name:

Copyright 2008 Ronald J. Wanttaja

That's really all you need.  I usually include that notice on the top right side of the first page of my articles (opposite the name block).

A copyright is *not* a patent.  It merely indicates that you wish to retain the publications rights of the work in hand.  Some sources tell you *not* to include the copyright notice when submitting an article to a commercial publication.  Since you get the protection anyway, they say including the copyright notice brands you as a novice to the writing trade.

It makes sense to me.  But I still include the notice, anyway.

To print your copyrighted article, the magazine actually buys the "Rights."  There are three basic kinds of Rights.

"All Rights":  The magazine now owns the article, and can use it wherever they wish, such as in a book or on a web page.  You cannot subsequently sell the article anywhere else.

"First Time Rights" or "First Serial Rights":  The magazine gets the first opportunity to print the article, after which the rights revert back to you.

"One Time Reprint Rights":  The magazine gets to print the article, but doesn't care about being the first one to do so.  Generally, this is the type of rights you sell when the article had first appeared in another publication.

I usually include the rights I'm selling under the copyright notice.  So the top of my first page looks something like this:

Ron Wanttaja                                             Copyright 2002 Ronald Wanttaja
12292 SE 278th St                                      First Serial Rights

Keep in mind that the income from the writing is taxable.  The editor may need your Social Security Number if he or she uses your article.

On the same note, your writing expenses are tax-deductible.  Consult an accountant.

Will the Editor Steal My Article?

That's a fear some new writers sometime express.  If you just send the article in, what keeps the editor from stealing it and printing it without paying for it?

It happens.  One of KITPLANES' most popular authors was shafted that way by another magazine.  One famous author, part-time editor for another publication that was infamous for slow payment, took the precaution of submitting his work *encrypted*…giving the publisher the decoding key only after the check had been received.

Your basic protection is two-fold.  First, check around with other writers.  If there's a publication that shafts its writers, the word gets around.

Second, if you can't get a feel for the honesty of the magazine, don't send them a second article until they paid for the first.  Yes, it may take a while, but you can submit another article to another publication in the meantime.

Generally, though, you don't have much to worry about.  Editors continually need good material, and aren't likely the strangle the gold-egg-laying goose.  The more good writers they shaft, the fewer good articles come their way.

FWIW, I've written for KITPLANES, SPORT AVIATION, and AERO CONNECTIONS in the past year or so.  All have been prompt with their payments.

Wrapping Up

Dearie me…this IS a bit long, isn't it?

Anyway, let me wrap up this tome with a bit of a summary:

  1. The more publication-ready your article is, the less work is required from the editor and the more likely the editor will buy it
  2. First impressions are important.  Set up your article professionally, write a Lead with a "hook," and make sure the grammar, spelling, and punctuation are spot-on.
  3. After the article is written, polish, polish, polish.  Take at least three editing passes, with the last one happening on a separate day than the others.  Find someone knowledgeable on writing to edit your article.
  4. Good pictures are vital
  5. Query the editor by phone or email prior to submitting the article.  Get any unusual requirements from them.
The final suggestion:  Do NOT give up.  You may not sell the first article; you may not sell the second.  But you won't sell any if you don't keep writing, and it won't be anything more than a hobby if you don't submit the articles for publication.

It's hard work…but it's rewarding, in more than just the financial sense.

Good luck!

Ron Wanttaja
October 2002
Updated March 2008
 

Return to Sea and Sky Aviation Page