Inspiration Writing

How to Read a Writing Magazine

I was lucky enough to pick up a few gently used writing magazines from our library’s give-away basket a couple of weeks ago. As I read them, I was reminded of the college textbooks I’ve occasionally bought and sold online. Often, when I’ve purchased a textbook from a user who mentioned getting an “A” in the class, the book has been in “acceptable” condition. There is writing in the margines, sticky notes fluttering from various pages, and very obvious signs of use. In contrast, I’ve also received books in pristine condition with unblemished pages, sharp corners on the covers, and no sign of ever having been opened.

Somehow, I feel that the crisp, near-new magazines I picked up and those unused textbooks have a lot in common.  In order to benefit from the knowledge and experience in any book or magazine, I’ve found that I have to interact with it. I need to read, absorb, analyze, perhaps argue, and finally, I need to apply what fits. Readers who are unwilling to “mess up” a clean page with notes and underlining may be missing essential knowledge.

Just think: If someone makes a habit of sitting down to a meal, glancing at every dish, perhaps tasting one or two, then getting up and clearing everything away, that person wouldn’t be healthy for long. Similarly, someone who skims a writing magazine isn’t going to have a healthy writing career until he or she chooses to absorb and apply available knowledge.

If you want to get the most out of a writing magazine, here are seven suggestions:

  1. Read the table of contents. Most magazines offer an annotated TOC that previews each article so that you can quickly identify those that might be most helpful. As you read articles, you can jump back to the TOC and rate them so that you’ll be able to find them again later.
  2. Have your idea notebook nearby so that you can record any ideas sparked by things you read.
  3. After reading the TOC, start at the beginning and read the whole magazine, including the editor’s letter, letters from readers, and short tips and features. There are reasons for each to be there, and you may find exactly the information you need tucked into an unexpected spot.
  4. Don’t glance at an article title and assume you know what an author is going to say. Arrogance is one of the most common reasons for missing great information.
  5. Don’t skip articles about things you don’t write. Even if you write only travel articles, for example, an article about poetry can help you write in a more evocative way.
  6. Make notes in the margins of articles and underline important thoughts. This will help you find significant points if you want to review them in the future.
  7. Use sticky notes to flag articles or other items that inspire you to action. If you read about an agent that might be a good fit for your work, flag the page. If there’s mention of a website you want to check, a book you’d like to read, or anything else that requires action, flag it.

It’s nice to be able to sell a pristine textbook or give away an almost new magazine, but the really valuable book or magazine is the one that has been read, absorbed, and used. To extract the most good from your writing magazines, study them and make them your own. You can’t become a writer just by reading a magazine, but you can become a better writer by actively learning from others who know something that you don’t know.

If you’ve reached the stage when you feel that you know all you need to know, do a quick career check. If you’re living the writing life you’ve always wanted, earning the income you believe you’re worth, then you may be right. If not, keep learning and growing. There’s almost always room for improvement!

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested:

that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously,

and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

Francis Bacon