How to Write for the New Era— Without Developing Ulcers!!!


“You can work in here,” said Brian Kelly, managing editor of the New Era magazine, as he pointed through an open door into a small cubicle that was once a storage closet. “There is a stack of old magazines in the corner. Spend the first couple of weeks reading through them and jotting down ideas. Get the feel of the magazine; then we’ll see if you can write something.”

So saying, he turned and left. My first-day-on-the-job smile was wearing thin around the edges as I slammed myself into a creaky swivel chair, trying not to glare after Brian as he retreated down the hall. “Me, see if I can write? After a couple of weeks?” I muttered to myself. “After all, I was selected for this internship over many other applicants. My English professors have all said I have natural ability. I can slam out a news story before deadline better than anyone at the student newspaper. See if I can write? I’ll show him.”

Finishing this monologue, I positioned a typewriter directly in front of me and pulled out some clean paper. Just one problem. Nothing to write about. After a few false starts at heart-rending fiction and preachy tomes, I finally took a handful of magazines from the old issues stack and started reading.

The next two days convinced me that writing for the New Era was going to be a snap. The fiction was positive in tone, evoked a happy ending, and was populated by the sort of adolescents teenagers wish they were, i.e., clever, witty, involved, and never boring. The articles were glib, fast, and seldom complicated. And it took me only two days to complete that in-depth analysis of New Era style, not two weeks.

Wednesday morning I reported to Brian that I was ready for my first assignment.

“Uh, how about an article on scripture marking?” he said, after I had blurted out how prepared I was to take the New Era by storm. “Seminary students are studying the Old Testament this year, and an interesting piece on scripture marking would really help them out.”

Simple. I spent the afternoon in the church office library researching scripture marking and the next day wrote up a concise, seven-page article outlining different methods of scripture marking, their advantages and drawbacks. Early Friday morning I presented it to Brian.

“Nice information,” he said, as he handed it back to me. “Now try writing it so the youth out there will read it. Inject some of yourself into it, get some anecdotes in somewhere, liven it up, pull the readers through. I almost went to sleep reading it myself.”

The next two weeks were among the most trying of my life. Livening up a subject with the inherent deadness of scripture marking seemed a task suitable for Dr. Frankenstein, not me. Injecting myself into the controversy of shading versus underlining was something I didn’t quite know how to do. And anecdotes! Ever heard a good story about cross-referencing?

I had come up short against “New Era style,” and although I thought I understood it, I didn’t know how to produce it. The magazine’s style was different from other writing I had done. The New Yorker has its style, so does Time, McCalls, Good Housekeeping, and True Confessions. Each magazine requires a different type of writing. What worked at the student newspaper was definitely not going to work at the New Era.

Fortunately for me, I managed to master “New Era style” (or at least begin to master it) during a two-week struggle with endless drafts of the scripture-marking article. Unfortunately, some people who want to publish in Church magazines don’t have two weeks as a magazine staff member in order to get the hang of it. What follows might be called a short course in New Era style, or “How to get something published in the New Era without developing ulcers.”

1. Choosing the subject is the first step. Although ultimately the sky is the limit, there are some important qualifications. Generally the magazine looks for articles that show young Latter-day Saints in action around the world. Straight essay or research topics are discouraged. Look around your ward, branch, or group. Does someone have a particularly inspiring conversion story? Does your Aaronic Priesthood and Young Women group have a service project or just a fun activity planned that might inspire youth around the world? Do you live in a more out-of-the-way city and want to do some general public relations for the Latter-day Saint youth in your area? These are some of the places you can look for topics.

2. Next—and long before you begin to write—you can save yourself countless ulcer-producing hours of worry by jotting down your idea, with a brief outline of proposed contents, and send it in what’s called a “query letter” to the magazine. Then the managing editor will send a letter back to you explaining his reaction to the idea with either tips on how to handle the idea better or how to select a new idea altogether. Even if he simply tells you to go ahead as you planned, you’ll feel a lot more confident knowing he’s behind you.

3. The next step is to gather your information and illustrations. Read books. Talk to people. Look at places. The best thing to remember is the proverbial “Never leave a stone unturned.” You need more information than you’ll use just so you can be sure you’re on the right track with your idea and so you can really get into your subject. You’ve got to practically eat, sleep, and breathe your idea for a while.

4. Now you’re ready to start writing. This article itself is a pretty fair example of how to get into subject matter for the New Era. Don’t attack something head-on. Get into the subject matter by means of an anecdote or story. Set a scene. Paint word pictures. Avoid straight declarations—lure the reader on.

The first draft of the scripture-marking article began with a paragraph detailing the virtues of a well-marked set of scriptures. The final, published version began with a true short story from my own experience about how a set of marked scriptures would have saved me from embarrassment. Both served the same purpose, but the anecdotal beginning was more interesting and readable.

But be cautious. Don’t just throw in stories. Be sure they have a place. The anecdote I used at the beginning of the scripture-marking article commented on most of the benefits of scripture marking that were outlined later in the piece. In fact what you have just read has already outlined how to write for the New Era. I’m just going into it in more detail now.

5. Inject yourself into what you write. This doesn’t imply the use of personal pronouns (I think, I feel, I believe, etc.); it implies that you must become involved and interested in the article’s subject matter. If you aren’t “turned on” by the subject, you probably won’t be able to excite your readers about it either.

6. Watch the tone of articles written for any Church magazine. Most magazines have a strict editorial policy, and Church magazines especially have to be sensitive because they represent the gospel to the world.

Articles published by the New Era must be positive and uplifting. That does not rule out articles on negative or unsavory topics, it simply dictates how to handle them. During my internship with the New Era. I wrote a lengthy article on youth misconduct in Church buildings. The article involved stories of arson, broken fixtures, and general vandalism. The editors agreed that the article was timely, but it was sent back four times for revisions until it was positive enough.

Positive meant that examples of poor conduct in the article have to be outweighed by illustrations of good conduct.

Most articles in the New Era avoid scholarly trappings. But they do try hard to capture a certain style and flair. They must read easily, quickly, and interestingly to catch and keep the attention of the magazine’s youthful audience, ages 12 to 18.

Vary the length of sentences; choose words carefully. Avoid too many adjectives and adverbs. Let the verbs do the work. Above, all, remember the New Era is for teenagers. Use words they will understand. While this may depress some erudite writers, the hard reality is that the magazine must aim at an audience of average LDS youth.

A good way to get the “feel” of the magazine’s tone is to digest several back issues.

Before turning in a manuscript to the New Era editorial staff, try it out on a few LDS youth. Ask them for their honest appraisals. (Of course, “honest” appraisals are difficult to obtain, but try anyway.) Ask them to point out places that are hard to read, hard to understand, or boring. It may save you the ego-deflating experience of having the article rewritten by a staff member.

7. Thoroughly understand what you are writing about. You cannot explain something clearly and concisely until you understand it in depth.

8. Finally, be ready to work. A thoroughly researched and well-written article of average length and difficulty will usually take anywhere from 50 to 80 hours. Research (reading, interviewing, organizing notes, etc.) will take a large chunk of time. Writing, rewriting, and editing will likely take longer. Never be satisfied with the first, second, or third drafts.

Two weeks and eight drafts after that Friday morning in Brian’s office, an article titled “But It Was in Amos Last Time I Looked” was sent off for final approval before publication. Finally.

We do want to hear from you! Did you know that as high as 70 percent of some New Era issues are made up of material received from people just like you? An average of 50 percent of each magazine comes from what we call unsolicited manuscripts. With some thought and concentration, you can do it too. And as if having your work published isn’t enough, the New Era pays for the articles we want to use.

There are regular departments in the New Era that accept manuscripts and that may interest you. You might want to know a little more about them:

Feature Articles can be written about anything from apricot leather to spiritual lessons learned to zoos in Tasmania, as long as the research is sound and the subject is interesting to Latter-day Saint young people. On major articles it is best to send an outline or query letter to make sure we are interested in your article and its particular slant.

Participatory Journalism is a department that features personal stories from New Era readers, showing what it’s like to be a young Latter-day Saint in different walks of life and in different parts of the world. And it gives New Era writers the chance to express their feelings and experiences.

Missionary Focus gives you the chance to share your experiences with missionary work at home or in the field. Have you known the sweet joy of conversion or seen it in the life of another? How did it happen?

Do you have the sensitivity and self-discipline for poetry? Do you like to let your imagination rove to find a fiction story that would capture the New Era audience in fascinated reading? What about humor? Do you see humor in the culture in which we Latter-day Saints live? Then there are Mormonads that are fun and easy to think up—how would you promote the gospel through a one-page idea?

If you need further ideas, refer to page 16 of the 1976 August New Era, “For a few good … Writers, Artists, Photographers.”

But there are just a few more things you need to know:

1. Type your manuscripts on white, 8 1/2-by-ll-inch paper.

2. Include your name and address with every submission.

3. When sending pictures, protect them with some kind of cardboard or heavy paper.

4. Submit either black and white prints with the negatives or 35 mm color slides. Color prints and Polaroid pictures without negatives are extremely hard to reproduce well in the magazine.

5. Allow four to six weeks for response from our editorial offices.

6. If you would like your work returned, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

You may also be interested in the annual New Era contest. See the September 1976 New Era, p. 14, for further details. Now go get out that paper and pencil or that camera and get to work—we expect to hear from you.

[photos] Photos by Eldon Linschoten and Jed Clark