3 Tricks for magazine writers: How to write on a theme and still make your deadline

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Before you start to type, you might want to try one of these 3 things.

One of my writing jobs is penning teen and tween stories for Jewish magazines. Before getting this gig, I had to learn an important lesson: most kids’ magazines select one theme per issue, and they are only open to stories on those themes. That means you have to write what they want, when they want it–but you’ve got to still tap into your creativity to make your story fresh, fun, and readable.

NOTE: Writing contests (although many are scams, there are plenty of legit ones) and classroom assignments frequently require that submissions/assignments include a specific topic or theme and have a deadline, as well. You don’t have to write for magazines to benefit from these 3 tips.

Sometimes, I get the heads-up on what story the editor wants on what theme a month in advance. But sometimes it’s a lot less. How do I come up with a story on short notice? 

  1. Cluster
  2. Play with words
  3. Journal archeology

1) CLUSTER Remember when your elementary school teacher taught you about prewriting and clusters? You can still do it when you’re an adult. Simply draw a circle in the center of the page. Write the theme in the middle of the circle. Radiating out from that word/phrase, add additional words or phrases that the theme brings to mind. You might have whole memories or references to books/songs/films come to mind. Don’t self-censor. Keep the ideas flowing until something strikes your fancy. Some people prefer to write a list instead of drawing a cluster.

For example:

Theme: January

mother’s birthday, grandfather’s birthday, garnet

cold, snow, storm

dark, early sunset

winter, ice, snowman, bare trees

Northridge earthquake

ice skating, snow day, no school…

2) PLAY WITH WORDS Write down the theme. Now, write down any related idioms that use the words in it. Also, try switching around tenses and parts of speech, like writing a verb as a noun.  Read your list. Does one of the phrases you wrote down evoke an idea? Make this the title of your story.

For example:

Once I was given the theme “Write it in Rhyme.” I turned it into “Written in Rhyme” and a story popped into my head.

Another time,  I received the theme “The Olden Days.” I thought, “Golden Oldies,” and “Golden Days.” These ideas eventually lead to my story: “Golden Days or Olden Days.”

3) JOURNAL ARCHEOLOGY This final strategy only works if you write regularly (see my recent post on the subject). Dig around in your journals or in your old computer files. Do you have a scene, an idea, a rant–anything–that touches upon or evokes the theme you’ve been given?

For example:

Once I asked to write on the topic of genealogy. I have a crazy family story that I’ve always wanted to write about…this was the perfect opportunity to incorporate it into a story.

These are my top 3 strategies. If you have others, please share them in the comments below.

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