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Writing for teen magazines

Teenage magazines can be a lifeline to adolescent girls but writing for this market is very specialised. Michelle Garnett explains what writers for teenage magazines need to know.

Life for teen girls is tough. Raging hormones, changing body bits, annoying boys and constant peer pressure, all gang up to present one huge challenge for them. And that’s where teen magazines come to the rescue, providing escapism and reassurance for their confused readers. But before even thinking about submitting your work to any teen mag, it’s vital to get a firm grasp on what they’re all about. Most mags tend to fall into two categories – ‘Lifestyle’ and ‘Entertainment’:

• The Lifestyle titles (think Bliss) provide info on anything relevant to teen girls’ lives, from reports on way-out new style trends and self-help features to dish out advice on coping with bullies to tips on bagging a buff boyfriend and gritty real life stories.

• The Entertainment titles (think Top of the Tops Magazine) focus on celeb, music, TV and film gossip with lashings of star interviews, celeb quizzes, posters and song words.

Both categories tend to overlap slightly, with the Lifestyle titles including a juicy dollop of celebrity gossip and interviews and the Entertainment titles enjoying a sprinkling of fashion and self-help advice.

These days, with teens spending piles of their pocket money on mobile phone top-up cards and quick-fix junk food there’s heaps of competition amongst the teen mags for high sales. So covers have to be attention grabbing. Cover lines must offer exclusivity (e.g. a gripping heart-to-heart with the latest X Factor winner), fresh ideas (new revelations about the murky depths of teen boys’ minds) and aspirational promises (easy steps to looking fab whatever your body shape). Cover images must be non-threatening (girls looking friendly, not bitchy), eye-popping (topless, and most importantly, hairless boy totty is usually a firm favourite) and colourful (you can’t beat a flash of fluoro to help you stand out). Most mags also rely on ‘free gifts’ to help boost their ‘come buy me!’ appeal.

Teen mag readership

But who are these teen girls that we’re trying to persuade to part with their precious pocket money? If you’re intending to aim your features at this discerning group of individuals you’d better get to know all you can about them.

    On the whole, teen readers are demanding, streetwise, fickle consumers who want to be treated with respect but view adulthood with apprehension, often clinging to the comforts of childhood to help them feel secure and safe when the pressure gets too much.

Here’s the scientific bit… Did you know that typical teen readers tend to fall into four very revealing categories? First off, there’s the ‘Obsessive Fan’. This girl has to be the first to know any gossip. She’ll usually be infatuated with one boy in particular – often this will be a celeb whose cute face will be plastered all over her bedroom wall, school locker, books, etc. She’ll spend every last penny on anything (including mags) that contains a fleeting mention of him. Sometimes her affections will be focused on a ‘real’ boy – it’s been known for Obsessive Fan types to keep a secret stash of her ‘crush souvenirs’, containing such gems as a dirty fork that he once used in the school canteen!

Next there’s the ‘Fashionista’. This girl is crazy about fashion. She’ll spend hours flicking through the style pages desperate for inspiration for her weekly shopping trips to New Look and Top Shop. The more creative Fashionista will copy the step-by-step customising guides to give her outfits that individualistic edge. She’ll be an expert with her make up brush and unsurprisingly, will be very image conscious. She might pretend that she doesn’t need to read features on ‘detox diets to make your skin glow’ but she’ll devour them in secret and then pass on her newly acquired tips to her gang.

Then there’s the ‘Reality Lover’. This girl is addicted to Jeremy Kyle and TV soaps. She’ll greedily devour tragic real life stories. It doesn’t matter whether the tale relates to a famous celeb or an ordinary 15 year-old from Leeds – so long as it’s majorly grim, with a positive ending, she’ll be hooked. It’s no surprise that she’s a fan of reality TV shows and dramas and loves gossiping about the latest shocking antics on I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here or Desperate Housewives. In fact, it’s reading about other people’s lives that provides her with some comfort and reassurance about her own life.

Lastly, there’s the ‘Info Gatherer’. This girl is a true magazine junkie! She uses her mag fix to get high on knowledge that’ll help her make sense of the world around her and will elevate her status in her gang. She’s not fussy about what she reads, is less street-sussed than other girls in her class and becomes easily bored. She’ll often have three different mags on the go at a time but will just as happily plough through her mum’s mags too.

But in case you’re thinking, ‘Hey, I was a teen once – I know what they’re like’ just remember one thing… 21st century teen readers are very different from those even just ten years ago. These days’ teens have much less to rebel about. The majority are actually best mates with their mothers and instead of shocking them with new pillar-box red highlights they’ll be out shopping with their trendy mums and swapping clothes! They’re also worldly wise and surprisingly ambitious about their future prospects.

Oh and don’t think you can ever pull the wool over teen readers’ eyes – they’re sharp and quick to judge and if you get even the smallest fact wrong, they’ll pick you up on it!

Considering writing for teen mags

So, now you’ve considered the kind of reader you’ll be speaking to via your feature, it’s time to get cracking, yes? No! It may sound mind-numbingly obvious but the first step when considering submitting material to a teen mag is to actually read a copy of that magazine! It’s amazing how many times I’ve received suggestions for short fiction pieces when we don’t actually feature those kind of stories in the magazine.

Familiarise yourself with the content, the look and the feel of the magazine. Many mags get revamped quite frequently to keep ahead of the competition, so it’s wise to regularly browse through the latest issues to stay up to date.

A quick glance at the mag should tell you which kind of teen it’s aimed at and therefore how you should tailor your copy or artwork to the targeted reader. As a writer it’s vital to soak up the tone of the copy. Is it streetwise and fast-paced or cheesy and fun? Are there any phrases or words that pop up on a regular basis, giving an insight into the kind of language the average reader uses? Features for the older Lifestyle magazines tend to adopt a punchy, straight-talking approach with, where appropriate, more caring ‘big sister' tone when tackling sensitive subjects. A magazine aimed at younger readers, such as Top of the Pops Magazine, veers towards a more excitable, upbeat tone, with the tendency to paint the pop world as bright, crazy and inoffensive.

Consider the tone of the actual subject matter too. Is it serious and gritty? Is it frivolous and tongue-in-cheek? Are there clear sections within the magazine which consist of a running theme? Bliss magazine features a strong ‘real life stories’ section which caters for their readers love for a dramatic, juicy read.

Another angle to reflect on is the topicality of the copy and pictures. When contributing ideas to a monthly mag think of a quirky spin you can give your idea to help give what could be a tried and tested subject a fresh makeover. If you’re intending to submit ideas to a weekly mag then you need to prove that you’ve got your finger on the pulse. Think about how you can make your work up to date and relevant. Ask yourself, ‘What’s affecting teens’ lives right now?’ Are they crumbling under the pressure of exams? Is there a huge blockbuster film on the horizon that’s set to capture their imaginations?

When High School Musical was first released it was noticeable how most titles were quick to spot the potential popularity of the film. By the time the third instalment hit the big screen, Hollywood star Zac Efron had firmly established himself as a teen heartthrob and his appearance in the film as the student Troy Bolton encouraged a stream of Zac-inspired features to whet readers' appetites. Paparazzi and studio shots of the actor were in high demand and real life titbits and Zac Efron quizzes were a staple diet for several months.

And of course, think seasonal. A few months prior to the summer holidays, monthly teen titles will be dreaming up cover-worthy concepts for the ultimate boredom buster feature. Conjure up a trend-based, original idea and you could find yourself commissioned to produce a hefty eight-page special.

Getting noticed

Finally… how to get yourself noticed amongst a sea of competition from other freelancers. Sometimes it’s all about timing. It may be worthwhile to find out if the mag you’re hoping to submit work to has a set date each week or month when feature ideas are discussed so that you can ensure your suggestions land in the Features Editor’s email box just when he or she is tuned into an ideas brainstorm. Don’t go the bother of sending in a fully completed article. If your idea is strong, a catchy headline and brief synopsis will grab their attention and the sheer mention of a juicy real life case study will be enough to get them salivating! And if you have a specialist subject area (style, real life stories, celebrity interviews) it could be worth suggesting a meeting with the relevant team member – if you impress them with your expertise you could bag yourself a regular commission.

But most importantly of all – don’t give up. If you don’t hear back immediately it doesn’t necessarily mean your idea’s been discarded. Many teen mag offices are hectic environments in which pressured deadlines often take on a life of their own. Your contact is probably furiously chasing a lead on a reality TV star’s love life trauma, while trying to persuade a gang of shy 14 year-old lads to confess their first date hells and batting around that ever niggling question: ‘how am I going to make our lovely readers feel entertained, shocked, reassured and hooked by my magazine this issue?’ And hopefully that’s when your life-saving email will come to light! Good luck!

Michelle Garnett was editor of Sneak magazine from April 2002 to May 2005. Previously, she worked for ten years in various roles in the entertainment industry including deputy editor of Top of the Pops Magazine, producer of cd:uk news, editor of worldpop.com, writer of pop band biographies and (her most bizarre job to date…) official news reporter for Reuters on the Backstreet Boys four-day round-the-world promotional trip (2000). She now freelances as a writer and editor for various publications.

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If you found this article useful, you might want to take a look at our other articles on Writing for Children.