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How to Write a Magic Article

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Hello, Nation! Writing about Magic is different than writing about other things. Writing about work is boring. Writing about life is mundane. Writing about Magic? That’s a joy! I’ve been thinking of penning this article for a while, and I decided that it’s finally time. Today, I want to talk about how to write an actual Magic article.

A lot of people are qualified to write this article. Editors see one aspect of this process, and they know a lot of detailed information, such as numbers of hits, how many other articles readers are checking out on the website, purchases made from associated stores based on links in your article, and so forth. There is a plethora of information out there from editors. You can find writing guidelines in a lot of places, and I advise any potential writers to review as many guidelines as possible before writing that first article.

Today, I want to focus on this as a writer. I have to give you my obligatory bio to prove my qualifications: I’ve written almost five hundred articles over more than ten years—for magazines, websites, and even games that are not Magic, so I feel qualified to talk about it. There are many websites out there that will publish good unsolicited articles. Find them and send them an article! (Hint: We are one such website!)

Everybody has a good article in them. You probably have something major to say about Magic, so jot it down on paper. Write and put all of your thoughts behind it. What is not being discussed online that you really are passionate about? Find that which moves you and put that moving material in words. You can always edit it later.

Again, I’m not writing this from the perspective of an editor, so I don’t have advice like that. I can tell you that one of the best pieces of advice I ever heard from an editor was that I overuse the word “get” in my articles, which was totally true. Every time I finish an article, I search for that word and find ways of saying what I want to express without using that weak verb. There are a lot of these issues out there, and I can’t advise you on those things. I can’t tell you what verbs to use, what Magic terms are capitalized and which are not, and so forth. What I can do is talk to you about my tips and tricks to successfully writing—no matter if it’s your first article or you have a regular column.

1) No Matter Who Your Audience Is, Always Assume Someone Is Reading You for the First Time

I don’t care if you are writing an article on StarCityGames, writing about Vintage, or writing a submission piece for us on your own rogue Standard deck; you should assume that at least some of your readers have not read your stuff before. If you just assume that everyone is familiar with your work, you will leave some readers feeling left out. That’s not a positive response. For example, every time I talk about card advantage in multiplayer, I always remind my audience that you are being outdrawn by the number of foes, so you already have negative card advantage, and you have to make up for that with the cards you play. By reiterating this every time, I won’t annoy new readers who may not be familiar with my stuff. I can make the description a brief two or three sentences because I also don’t want to alienate my regulars.

2) No Matter Who Your Audience Is, Always Assume You Have New Players Reading

Again, I don’t care what you are writing or for whom, but you need to assume that you have some readers out there who just picked up Magic six months ago. Make sure you are explaining tricks, and never, ever use a common abbreviation for something without first spelling it out. For example, “I played Dark Confidant (Bob) against him. After a few turns of cards drawn and beats ensued, Bob really helped me grab a dominant board position.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used common Magic slang for something and received a comment questioning what I meant. I try to stay clear of it now by doing that trick. I also explain card interactions when they are not obvious. If I have Icy Manipulator and Howling Mine in the same deck, I won’t gloss over the interaction in my column, but I will spell out how one taps the other to prevent my opponent from drawing cards. Always assume you have new players reading your article.

3) As a Sidebar to the Above, Always Include Rule Tips

This is especially true of me, since I write for Causal Land, where a lot of readers may not be up on rules tips. When I discuss a card or a deck, I talk about the rules interactions involved. A classic example is Portcullis. This is a card I love, so when I write about it, I mention a lot of the things you can do, such as bring a creature into play, then exile it with the Portcullis. Since it does enter the battlefield (ETB), it triggers any ETB abilities. I mention this rules quirk of the card so readers will be informed for their own deck-building purposes. This is something I recommend highly for most articles.

4) This Is an Article, Not a Blog

Blogs are awesome! They give a lot of people places to vent and give ideas and opinions unfiltered by anyone! However, you are not writing a blog piece, you are writing an article. Issue articles should be professional, not ranting. Deck articles should include detailed information about the deck, including analysis of how it plays. A great blog post might clock in at eight hundred or a thousand words, and that’s way too short for most articles. I aim for twenty-five hundred words minimum for my articles, and I usually wind up in the mid-three-thousand range. While I’m comfortable publishing an article that has fewer words, it’s not something I like doing often. I remember writing my first few articles and being concerned that I would not have enough to say on a topic. That does not happen—trust me. Every article should fully explore one topic. I’m rarely a fan of multi-part articles unless they are absolutely necessary. Just explain every single thing about your topic, and you will have a nice, well-written, and fleshed out article about something useful.

5) You Are the Most Important Thing in Your Article

Sometimes I don’t include a lot about myself in my articles, but your articles should include your games, your friends, and your stories. Anybody who has read at least three of my articles knows I am an enthusiastic optimist. I love people, life, and Magic! (In that order.) You shouldn’t shy away from talking about yourself. Even if you wrote some generic article about something Magic-ish, it would be biased, since you are the only Magic player you’ve ever been (I hope!) Embrace your bias. It still needs to be a Magic article, but allow it to be your article and no one else’s.

6) One Article in the Pocket Is Worth Two in the Queue

These next two principles are meant more for those who publish regularly. There are two ways that I keep myself writing topic after topic, column after column. The first is to have an article that I’ve already written and ready to go in storage. If work becomes really busy or life kicks me in the crotch, I can just send it out and meet all of my deadlines. I used this when my grandmother passed away a couple of years ago to keep meeting deadlines. I didn’t feel like writing, so I just sent it out.

7) One Article in the Queue Is Worth Two in the Head

My second part of this overarching principle is that I keep a file in which I save all deck and article ideas I have. When it’s time to write an article and I don’t have an immediate idea, I just check the list and find inspiration. For example, the last six months, I’ve had this idea of composing this article about how to write articles. Over time, I’ve added various principles I wanted to discuss. Now, when I think it’s time to write it, it’s basically already written. These two tricks have helped me to keep my articles both fresh and on time through the years.

8) Titles Are Everything

The Ferret believes that having a powerful title brings in the readers. The better your title, the more likely your article is to hit the buttons. It is better to have an extreme title to bring in folks than to have a less extreme one that may better reflect the content of your article. For example, I once titled a recent article “Commander Decks You Shouldn’t Play,” when the subject was really more along the lines of “Commander Decks That Sort of Irritate Me a Little.” Clearly, one of those titles is going to bring in more readers than the other! (Similarly, check out my article title for GM called “Ten Enchantments You Should Play (But Aren’t)” . . . as opposed to “Ten Enchantments You Might Want to Look at Again.”) Don’t be afraid to put the subject matter in the title: “Five Decks from Innistrad” may not be exciting, but it conveys the point. Clever titles that don’t mean anything until you’ve read the article shouldn’t be your strategy. When you create a perfect title, you’ll know it—trust me. (I’m particularly fond of “26 Islands”.)

9) Do Sweat the Small Stuff

I’m not the best writer in the world, but— through the years, and by various editors—I’ve been told that my articles need very little editing. That’s because I edit my own articles before I send them off. These next two principles will sort of blend together, but I don’t want an article published by me to have grammatical errors in it. That looks bad on me. I remember in elementary school some students failed to clean up their trash because they claimed that’s what the custodian was for. They got in trouble anyway. You clean up your stuff, even if someone comes by later to clean. I feel the same way about writing and editing. I edit my own stuff even if someone later comes by to polish it off. Editors do not catch everything, and when it goes out, I’m the one with the criticisms about my articles. I do what I can to make sure things are grammatically correct. In order to do that, I leave my article for a day and come back the next day and reread it. That’s also when I do things like search for “get.”

10) Error-Pocalypse

This next issue is the biggest one. I don’t recall seeing any info about it in various writers’ guidelines across the years and websites, so I want to talk about it at length today. This single issue is so big that I thought about writing a whole article on just it. Instead, we’ll just take a chunk of today’s article to talk about it.

Writers are humans. Editors usually are as well. Because of this, we make mistakes. We are flawed humans, and every person who publishes a work anywhere should be prepared for mistakes to enter their articles. I’m not talking about grammar like Principle #9 above. No, I’m discussing content mistakes that are made. You will find them in virtually every Magic article from DailyMTG.com all the way down. I remember just a few days ago, an ESPN article said that a coaching hire for the Patriots had done a really good job in Jacksonville earlier. He had never coached in Jacksonville, but instead coached in Denver and St. Louis. I have no idea why this professional sports writer thought Jacksonville, but that’s what he wrote. There are several types of content mistakes in Magic articles, and I usually don’t comment on them in the forums when I see them. Understand that readers are not that gracious. If a reader reads something, he or she is much more likely to point it out then a friendly fellow writer. This does not include disagreement over opinions. If I rank Mother of Runes as the best 1-drop in Casual Land and you think it’s Birds of Paradise, that’s not a content error—just a disagreement. One thing to note is that content errors are rarely corrected by editors. I don’t usually receive e-mails back telling me about an issue or fixing it.

A) A Slip of the Tongue

So many Magic cards have similar names. Sometimes, you just slip and say one card when you meant another. I once built a deck around Darksteel Reactor, but wrote Darksteel Forge in the decklist. Whoops, wrong card. It’s clear what I meant, and it didn’t hurt the content of the deck or the article. This can distract some readers, so you want to avoid it, but it’s not the end of the world when it happens. Many readers will miss these because they know what you mean.

B) Read the Freaking Card

The most annoying mistake I see—and sometimes do—is to think a card works one way when it works another. I can read the card ten times and still miss it. This is most likely to pop up in reviews of new sets, when so many cards are spoiled and fresh. Look for it this season as you read Dark Ascension articles. If your misread of the card changes the nature of your review or your deck, this is a major problem. If not, this may not be the worst error for your article you’ve ever seen.

C) An Error That Reveals a Bias

Sometimes, you’ll find an unfiltered bias in an article when the writer doesn’t even realize it. The biggest issue is gender bias. I can’t tell you how many human females have been called male in articles. I had this issue recently, although I did it with Zedruu, and since she’s a Minotaur, it may not matter as much, but I missed and used the male pronoun, so it happens. Someone will always point these out. One occurrence is just a mistake, but when a writer does it many times in the same article, that can be a problem and perhaps reveal something more sinister.

D ) An Error in Detail but not in Point

This content error happens when you have a good point and then use some examples just to bring the point home. When you do, you forget to check if those examples work, and then one doesn’t. Suppose I wrote the following: “Sygg, River Cutthroat is a great card because not only is its ability very powerful, but its inherent weakness lulls people into thinking it’s not a problem. Since they can kill it at any time with Lightning Bolt, Swords to Plowshares, Doom Blade, or even Psionic Blast, they don’t fear it.” Clearly, Doom Blade cannot kill Sygg—because Sygg is black—but that one quick example does not change the point. Just swap with Rend Flesh or Eyeblight's Ending or Go for the Throat and move on. This can throw people because it jars them out of the article, but it’s also clear that your point stands; all you have to do is change the example. It’s not an article-ending mistake or anything. This category also includes things like having a deck with fifty-nine cards in it.

E) That’s Not What Happened

One of the risks of writing any article that relates a game of Magic is that your memory may be off. No one remembers everything exactly. When writing a tournament report, you might forget things or swap them in your memory. This is especially true when facing several opponents during the day with similar decks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read about a writer playing someone’s deck with a certain card in it only to see that the card was not in the author’s foe’s decklist. You’d be surprised how often this happens even from Pro Tour–level players’ articles. Usually, these are easily explained away. People understand these incidents, and they don’t hurt your article too much.

F) Errors that Demonstrate You Don’t Know What You Are Talking About

This is the only major error that is subjective. This is just not a disagreement over content. I can think your analysis of what card goes best in my Legacy Pox deck is way off without thinking that you are an idiot. However, there are times when someone starts talking about a deck or format and it is blatantly obvious that the author has absolutely no idea what he or she is talking about. The experts of Vintage, multiplayer, Standard, Commander, or whatever will be reading your article. If you don’t know the format and are just trying to slog through an article, the readers will find out and take you to the cleaners. Beware.

There is a side point to this. If you are going to write Magic articles, you need thick skin. Errors will be found and pointed out to you. People will attack you. You will have comments from readers who honestly think that because they disagree with your content, you are an idiot and worthless. They are not going to hold back. Most Magic players are awesome! Negative comments are part of the feedback process, but most are constructively so. You do find a few who can’t help, but who personally attack you because they disagree with you. If that is going to throw you and impact you emotionally, you may need to reassess what you write and where you publish. Perhaps you want a site that does not have article responses at the end of the article.

G) Article Killers

There are a handful of errors that just end an article. I’ll give you my only example—from a recent article for SCG. I wrote about my evaluation of the new legendary creatures from the Commander expansion six months later, with a lot of play. How do I think they rank now? It’s a good idea for an article, and I started writing. I had a copy of each of the legendary creatures from the set in front of me, and I also looked at the Gatherer list online to make sure there were no Oracle updates and changes. Despite this, for some reason, I skipped past Basandra, Battle Seraph. I didn’t just fail to include her, I completely forgot about her, mentioning the “fourteen” legendary creatures from Commander instead of the actual number (fifteen for those counting) When it was pointed out in the comments, I was so embarrassed, and I couldn’t write a response for a couple of hours. Eventually, I went in and tried to troubleshoot my way out.

How you respond to errors pointed out to you really says a lot about you as a writer. I never ignore an error—even a minor grammatical error or a miswritten card. I always thank the person and move on. Yes, obviously I meant Darksteel Reactor and not Darksteel Forge, but this person took the time to let me know. He or she cared enough about my article to write back. Even if I would have preferred a different comment, I’ll take it. I want to express my thanks for thinking enough to even write. I want to express my gratitude for reading my article in the first place (and finishing it!) It’s important to acknowledge your errors when they are pointed out. Nothing is more demoralizing than spending hours of my life writing an article that I am quite proud of, editing it once or twice, sending it off, and then seeing a major error. Trust me. Just stand up and move on. I like to laugh them away, and if it’s a major error, I fix it in the forums or in the article responses. I included a full evaluation of Basandra in the comments, so if you want it, you still got it. If your deck doesn’t work the way you thought it did because you got the rules wrong or failed to check the Oracle wording of a card, just fix it in the comments.

One More Thing

I know a lot of writers just write an article and then move on. When people feel strongly enough about my articles, I always try to respond. Sometimes, I’m too busy, and I tell them that, and sometimes, I just say “Thanks!” You put hours in the article, so finding a few minutes to read the comments and respond shouldn’t be too tough (unless your article has struck a chord and has dozens or hundreds of comments) At the end of the day, you aren’t writing this article for yourself, that website, or the money. You are writing this for your readers. That’s what this is about. Care about them, and they will care back. Love them, and they will love back. Ignore them, and watch as your hits drop south like ducks in winter.

Wrapping Up

Writing is a privilege. It’s an honor. When you publish that first article, you are going to be so happy! If you’ve been publishing for a while, I’m sure you remember that feeling. Always keep it with you every time you write an article. Remember: Writing about Magic is not a chore, it’s not drudgery, and it’s not boring. It’s an absolute joy!

See you next week,

Abe Sargent

 


P.S. Here is the GatheringMagic.com info on writing for the site.

P.P.S. I’ve written this before, but every Magic article fits into one of the following categories of article:

  1. Tournament Report – I played in this tournament, and here’s what happened.
  2. Card Evaluations – I like these cards in Limited from Innistrad, but not these. Here are some cards to look at for your next Commander deck.
  3. Decks – I built this deck, and here it is! I’ve played this deck, and here is how it works. I’m a crazy Johnny deck-builder, so I built five decks around Web of Inertia, and here they all are.
  4. Issues and Rants – I can’t believe that Wizards screwed up green again. I can’t believe that the DCI screwed up tournaments again. I can’t believe that people are allowed to get away with cheating.
  5. Strategy – Here is how you win in Standard against the metagame. Here are some tips to stop being attacking in multiplayer. Here is a way to outsmart your foe.
  6. Financial – What I will trade for cards. Here is how much stuff is actually worth.
  7. Format Overview – Here is the Five Color format and what it does. Here is the Hot Widget format and what playing it is like.
  8. Other – Everything from art to Vorthosy stories to outside-the-box articles.

Whenever you write an article in the Other category, you have to be prepared. Sometimes, people will eat it up, and sometimes, they won’t even sniff it. I’ve had articles that are unusual among my most favored and others that barely received any notice at all. It’s a shot in the dark, but one often worth it.

P.P.P.S. I want potential writers to know this, but I don’t want it to come across as bad mouthing editors. Editors are great people, but they are busy. Anyway, here it goes. During my many years of writing, I’ve had lots of editors. They almost never give you tips and information about your articles. They either publish or they don’t. I’ve talked to other writers, and their experience is similar to mine. The only times I’ve ever received feedback is when an article was rejected, or a few times here at GM.com, and that’s it. They just don’t have the time to give a writer detailed feedback. As a writer, you largely stand or fall on your own, so make sure you get as much information about writing articles before you send out that first submissions piece.