About Writing

What Works in One City Magazine

What Kind of Magazine Is It?
The Washingtonian is a city magazine-it focuses almost exclusively on the Washington metropolitan area. The magazine was started in October 1965, and its ABC circulation is over 150,000, including 50,000 copies sold each month on area newsstands.

Our readers are concentrated in the District, in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, in Arlington and Fairfax counties and the city of Alexandria in Virginia, and in Loudoun and other counties surrounding the metropolitan area. About 75 percent of our readers live in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, 15 percent in the District, and 10 percent outside the metro area.

Mean household income of subscribers is $185,800 a year; almost all have attended college, and half have graduate degrees. More than half our readers are women, and most of them work. Eighty-five percent of our readers own their own home. On average, our readers have lived in the Washington area for almost ten years, and they spend an average of 96 minutes reading each issue. They make up an active, educated, affluent audience: Our readers travel, dine out, go to plays, entertain, read, and spend more than the average Washingtonian.

Thus, our readers are not a “mass” audience in the same sense as the Washington Post’s one million Sunday subscribers. The implication for the writer is that you do not have to write down to the reader. You do have to write clearly, directly, and intelligently. Our readers recognize underreporting, overwriting, preaching, unclear thinking, and pseudo-sophistication when they see it.

What Kind of Writers Are We Looking For?
Writers come in all ages and types and backgrounds. Some make their living as writers; others are lawyers or teachers or government officials.

More important than journalism experience is knowing a subject very well and being able to write clearly about it. We are very open-minded-as long as the article idea is interesting and relates to the Washington area.

If you have not worked with us before, send us a query about your article idea via mail or e-mail us at [email protected]. Tell us who you are and what kind of article you’d like to write. If your article is already written, mail or e-mail it or drop it off. Give us at least two weeks to respond to a query or submission.

The types of articles we publish include service pieces (weekend getaways, great places to live, wedding guides); profiles of people (Dan Snyder, Hillary Clinton); investigative articles (“Why Is Lead Still Poisoning Our Children?”); rating pieces (Bush’s Cabinet, top home-repair services); institutional profiles (“How the Carlyle Group Is Making Billions,” “Cracking DC’s Masonic Code”); first-person articles (“Confessions of a Car Salesman,” “My Son, the Mormon”); stories that cut across the grain of conventional thinking (“First, Kill All the Lawyers”); articles that tell the reader how Washington got to be the way it is; light or satirical pieces (send the completed article, not the idea, because in this case execution is everything); and fiction that tells readers how a part of Washington works or reveals something about the character or mood or people of Washington.

Subjects of articles include federal and local government, business, sports, education, medicine, fashion, the environment, how to make money, how to spend money, real estate, performing arts, visual arts, dining out, travel, health, nightlife, home and garden, self-improvement, places to go, and things to do. Again, we are interested in almost anything as long as it relates to the Washington area.

We don’t like puff stories or what we call “isn’t it interesting” pieces. There should be an idea behind the story. We don’t run articles on people, places, or businesses just because they’re there.

In general, we try to help our readers understand Washington better, to help our readers live better, and to make Washington a better place to live.

What Makes a Good Washingtonian Article?
A magazine article is different from a newspaper story. Newspaper stories start with the most important facts, are written in short paragraphs with a lot of transitions, and usually can be cut from the bottom up. A magazine article usually is divided into sections that are like 400-word chapters of a short book.

The introductory section captures the reader’s interest and sets the tone for the article. Scenes or anecdotes often are used to draw the reader into the subject matter.

The next section might foreshadow what the article is about without trying to summarize it; you want to make the reader curious. Each succeeding section develops the subject. Evaluations or conclusions usually come in the closing section.

We think there are three qualities to a good magazine article: Most basic is thorough research and reporting. Then a writing style that is appropriate to the material. But what separates the very good from the adequate is the writer’s ability to bring the material together and give it meaning.

Newspaper reporters ask who, what, when, where, why? The most important question a magazine writer asks is, “What does it mean?” Also remember that a magazine writer is usually more subjective than a newspaper reporter. In many good magazine articles, the writer’s passion for the subject shines through.

And because The Washingtonian is a monthly and has a minimum six-week lead time, keep in mind that our articles should have a long-term perspective that makes them as relevant several months from now as they are today.

Deadlines and Other Specifics
The magazine is published about the 20th of each month. The June issue, for example, is on the newsstands and reaches subscribers about May 20. We need completed manuscripts at least six weeks before publication; an article for the June issue should be submitted by April 5.

We don’t like to specify a length; we like each piece to run at its optimum length. Capital Comments run from 50 to 500 words. Most front- and back-of-the-book pieces run 1,500 to 3,000 words. Center-of-the-book pieces are usually 3,000 to 7,000 words, but a few run as long as 20,000 words. When in doubt, ask us about it.

We buy first North American serial rights plus nonexclusive worldwide electronic rights to cover posting on Washingtonian Online (www.washingtonian.com) and inclusion in electronic archives and publication databases such as Nexis.

Getting Started
We hope our writers are readers of the magazine. That’s the best way to get a feel for what we are trying to do and how your article might fit in.

Before you start an article for us, we’ll want to talk to you about your research, your interviews, the kinds of questions you are going to try to answer, the way the article will be organized. We may have suggestions on where to find background information and appropriate people to talk with.

As your research and interviews continue, don’t hesitate to call if there is some question about the direction you are taking. After you have finished gathering material, it’s usually a good idea to talk to us before you start writing.

Suggestions on Style
We have no rules on writing style. The style should come naturally from the writer and the material. In The Elements of Style, William Strunk made these suggestions:

  1. Be specific, concrete, definite.
  2. Use the active rather than the passive voice.
  3. Put the statements in positive form.
  4. Write with nouns and verbs.
  5. Don’t overstate.
  6. Avoid the use of qualifiers.
  7. Don’t explain too much.
  8. Avoid fancy words.
  9. Be clear.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell pointed to these sins of bad writing: “Staleness of imagery . . . lack of precision . . . the concrete melts into the abstract . . . a lack of simple verbs.” Some of Orwell’s suggestions:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

One last word: Speak to the reader as an intelligent friend. The best style is clear, honest, and direct. We like sophisticated ideas and simple language, not the reverse. And don’t forget the favorite question of the late New Yorker editor Harold Ross: “What the hell do you mean?”

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