Sailing yarns for sale

Selling articles to busy editors is not as simple as it might seem. It helps to get it right from the first word

It has been both a privilege and a very great pleasure to have been a nautical journalist and author for over 40 years. My first contribution appeared in 1972 but it was not later in the decade that I began to take writing seriously, at that time contributing to a number of US boating magazines.

In late 1995, back in the UK, I joined Practical Boat Owner — Britain's most popular boating magazine — as Associate Editor, leaving six years later to pursue a freelance career. My monthly column in PBO has been running continuously since 1996.

I would like to encourage others to do likewise. Cruising under sail presents a fantastic opportunity to gain the sort of experiences that can be translated into stories others would like to read. You don’t have to be a literary genius, but it’s important that any article is well written and properly presented.

But first a somewhat dampening note. Yes, the money will be useful but don't expect to hit the big time – let alone live off the proceeds. I have met more than one skipper who over-estimated the potential earnings. Write because you want to share – not because you have to!

How to sell your work – some useful tips
In common with all consumer magazines, those that cover the boating scene depend on outside contributors for much of their content. And that could be you if you present your articles correctly. Do remember that editors are busy people. Magazines work to strict deadlines with scarily little time between one issue and the next. Whatever you can do to make their task as easy as possible is certain to win you friends.

Therefore do make sure that your material fits the general tone of the magazine. For example don’t submit a practical nuts-and-bolts article to a publication containing sentimental cruising yarns. Nor, of course, vice-versa. You will waste your time and theirs. So, before you make a submission do some research.

You will probably find that few magazines print articles more than four pages long so don’t send them a wedge of text that would choke an elephant. However good it is, the sheer toil involved in reducing it to a publishable length will almost certainly deter. Similarly, most magazines are not keen on running a long series on a single subject – at least not from part-time writers. Yet hardly a week goes by without someone collaring an editor to inform him or her that he’s sailing, say, to the Mediterranean and could write an account of every mile sailed; Not a hope, I’m sorry to say. Do be aware that three to four pages is the realistic maximum which, at between 500-750 words per page (depending on how many photos or drawings are used) means no more than 1500-2800 words at the very most.

On this theme do take in the fact that short articles are much sought after and are a good way of getting started. Editors are often hunting for brief pieces – half a page or even less – to fill awkward gaps in their layouts. Don’t be deterred because you won’t be paid much. Getting your foot in the door will be reward enough.

On the matter of layouts or fancy formatting, don’t be tempted to do this yourself. Pretty much all modern word processors contain the facility to create simple layouts, embedding your illustrations where you think they ought to be, and you may think this would make your submission more appealing. It doesn’t. Before your article can be laid out in the house style, your well-intended formatting would have to be dismantled to separate the text from the ‘pics’ – just more hassle for the overworked staff. The simpler the better is the key.

Writing is a skill that comes naturally to some but others find more difficult. Don’t get too anxious about spelling and grammar (sub-editors get bored and fretful if they have nothing to correct!). Concentrate on developing an engaging form of expression. Practice helps a lot, as does studying the styles of seasoned journalists, but at the end of the day you must find your own voice. Do be as natural as possible and don't lapse into trade-union-speak (‘upon vigilant reflection I must differ with the utterance’) or extravagant literary-speak (‘the sun kissed the horizon with rosy red lips’) or pomposity (‘I remonstrated with the customs official and reminded him of my rights’).

Also don’t libel anyone. You might thing that somebody is an out-and-out villain, but you can’t say so without risk – even if you think you have cast iron proof. And if an editor gets even a sniff that you might be sailing a bit close to the wind, he will want to have nothing to do with your article.

Another important don't is plagiarism, which means to steal someone else's words – a form of theft which is recognised as such under the laws of most countries. Unfortunately, it's becoming more common with the internet where an article published say, in the US, can be copied and offered to a magazine in the UK.

However, there are circumstances when you can quote an author so long as you cite him or her. A typical citation might go like this: ‘so-and-so in his book ‘Sailing Is For Suckers’ wrote “blah-de-blah-de-blah”’. Such a citation does a number of things. Firstly, it acknowledges the author for his wisdom (or otherwise – and, if he’s wrong, he takes the rap not you); secondly, it shows you to be honest; thirdly, it indicates that you’ve researched your subject; and finally, it provides the readers with another source of information they might want to pursue. Don’t get hot and heavy with the jokes. Humour is a fragile commodity and it’s all too easy to overdo it. I call them ‘groaners’ – the jokes that no doubt had the author chortling but would have others shaking their heads. Laborious puns are even worse. A lightness of touch laced with an equally light wit is more than enough.

Do try to submit your article in a tidy and accessible form. Coffee stains and hoof prints from your pet giraffe won't impress. If practicable send a printed copy of the text, even if there’s a computer file included. Photos can be prints, transparencies or in an acceptable computer format (jpegs, tiffs etc). Computer images can be reduced in size but should be of good quality and have a resolution of at least 300 dpi (dots per inch). Include rough sketches for any necessary artwork. Label everything carefully and make sure your package is complete. If you want non-electronic material returned, supply an SAE.

Incidentally, don’t make multiple submissions, by which I mean offering copies of your article to all the magazines at once. This might seem like a good way to cover the field but professional journalists respect editorial confidentiality. This means they don’t disclose any inside knowledge of one title’s content with another they might be dealing with. If, for instance, two magazines published the same article at even roughly the same time you may find that neither will ever use this author again. Of course, if you get a rejection from one magazine, you should send it off to another – and don't think it necessary to mention that you have already been turned down. Don’t be dismayed if you don’t hear back immediately. Editors are inundated with submissions and it takes time to plough through them. Also, a subject which might be viewed lukewarmly one day might suddenly become red hot for an issue with a related theme. This is particularly true of seasonal subjects, and here it's worth mentioning that magazines are prepared ahead of such seasons. An article on say, winter lay-up, was probably bought in the spring and laid out in high summer.

It’s frustrating I know, but don't try to hound the editor – who might simply send the copy back to you rather than be prodded repeatedly. Tough, I know, but this is real life in the journalism game.

Finally, don’t give up! Established writers have achieved a sort of critical mass of work that gives their submissions momentum. Prove yourself both able and dependable and, believe me, editors will welcome you warmly. Good luck! Good writing! And fair winds!


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