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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Women's mags = sensory overload

Last week, still high on the inspiration found at the ASJA conference, I decided to spend a few hours at the library becoming familiar with an assortment of women's magazines.

The plug, from the many editors and contributors at the conference, was that there's gold in them thar magazines, if only we had your incredible pitches. I figure, I'm a woman, I'm a writer, I have ideas, I can do this.

I literally jumped back in my chair when I began perusing the feature well of some of these mags. It's an exercise in sensory overload with obnoxiously screaming graphics, scripty fonts and headlines that scream Miracle This and How I Survived That and 5 Ways to Improve This and 15 Ways to Talk to Your Kids About That. (As an aside, magazines always use odd numbers in headlines. Sells better for some reason.)_

Some of the articles scared the shit out of me. But most of them began to blend together in a melange of disease of the week, miracle-worker of the month or how to keep our children from becoming ax-murderers stories.

I took a few notes, had a few private giggles at the expense of others and then packed up to head home. I've mentioned here that I'm hoping to stretch my writing into personal essays. Most of the women's magazines offer a space for personal essays (typically the back page) so that will be my focus for the next several months.

However, what I found somewhat disturbing was the amount of first-person writing in "reported" stories. Many of the magazines read as one giant estrogen-charged essay. I'll admit I've never been a reader of those magazines. I much prefer the cleaner aesethic and content of Health magazine or Real Simple or Country Living.

So I was thinking about how the information is packaged in these publications. As a former magazine editor, I tend to do those things. Mostly I fantasize about what I would do with some of their budgets. I wonder what consultant or market resesarcher told them that women prefer to be blasted with content in an ADHD way? Maybe I'm the oddball here, but I don't need anymore visual stimuli or chaos in my life. When I sit down with a pleasure magazine, I want the experience to be relaxing and inspiring. I want to look at my life and see possibilities. Quite frankly, that's what made Martha Stewart Living so appealing.

More than anything else, I was disappointed that so much of the content among the big three — Family Circle, Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal — was the same, over and over again. Don't the editors want something different? Don't they crave something different? Don't readers want something different?

I saw the bylines of many ASJA panelists, some of whom did the big push for six-figure freelance careers. Writing for me has never been about making gobs of money, so I skipped those sessions. It has always been about telling stories, primarily about people or issues that move me. I'm sure in some of their eyes, I will always be a failure as a writer, a less-than writer.

But when I do finally break into the national pubs, I want it to be work I'm proud of, not work capitulated to fit the sensation of the month. So I think I'll stick with pitching short essay pieces to start. Now I know it's easy to sit back and criticize when I've not worked on staff at that level or written at that level. But I'm hoping that breaking in on the back end will give me a better feel for working with editors and, hopefully, give me an entree to pitch quality stories for the feature well.

Creative Ink has been my laboratory for exploring different issues, different writing styles and for honing my voice. After more than a year, it's now time to muster the courage to take my personalized worldview wider. Stay tuned...

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