Writing To Specifications

John Mason, ACS Principal, magazine editor and author of over 80 books, comments on his experience working to publishers’ specifications.

“In more than 35 years of dealing with publishers, I have repeatedly heard them complain that too many writers simply don’t write what publishers want and need.  It’s not that writers are not good at writing; it’s just that they are not good at writing to specifications.

If you want to make money from writing and pursue a career in journalism, you must learn to write to specification.  This means:

If the publisher wants 200 to 250 words, you MUST produce something not one word more or less than this range.

If the publisher asks for work by a certain date, ideally, you will supply it before that date, but definitely not even one day late.

If the publisher asks for a simple style, no jargon, or something for a particular target audience, you must be able to produce work that falls within those guidelines.”


Many publishers clear set down writing specs (specifications) to let authors/writers know exactly how they want work presented to them. If you engage in freelance writing, and find yourself submitting work to different publishers, you may need to work with a different set of specifications for each publisher.

Sometimes a publisher may not formally communicate their specifications. Nonetheless, they may still expect you to write a certain way and present your work in a certain way. As a writer, you must take responsibility for finding out what each publisher expects, and what standards of presentation are required.

Do your research! Many publishers now set out their submission specifications on their website. Some will send them out on request.
If requirements are not provided, then you can always get an insight into a publisher’s specifications by studying works that they have already published.


Style is not easy to define, but it is an important element of any publication. The style of a publication is a product of several elements such as design, format, mood or tone, language, visuals, etc., that are fairly consistent. If the style of a publication changes too much from issue to issue, readers will not know what to expect, and the publisher will be less likely to develop a loyal readership for that publication.

Also, readers expect a certain degree of consistency in what they read. Without it, the publication can feel disjointed or disorganised, and the reader can become uncomfortable.

Some key elements of style in a publication are:

Visual consistency - Consistent size and appearance of letters, consistent style of illustrations, and unifying colour schemes create a sense of order and organisation.

Similar language – Consistency of language style (eg. simple, complex, technical, with or without jargon, casual or formal) throughout a publication will attract people who like and expect that style of language, and are comfortable with it.

Format consistency – Ezines and other publications might have different well-defined categories of articles/contributions, and these may be used within any publication in consistent ways. For example, main or topical items may appear as long feature articles; editorials or special interest items may appear as short feature articles, each with their set place in the publication. Other categories might include short stories, product reviews, information/how-to items, photo-essays, news items, and so on. Categorizing and organising articles this way can create a sense or order or organisation that may attract regular readers, and let them know what to expect from that publication.

If the style of a publication keeps changing, it becomes difficult to build a loyal audience. It would also be more difficult and costly to publish, as it would require many additional adjustments in each edition.

Submissions for publications that are inconsistent with publication specifications - even if they were accepted - would also be more difficult and costly to publish. For one thing, if contributors submit material created with different word processing programs, or in different formats, this can cause difficulties in the publishing process. Even if the publisher does accept an item that is inconsistent with the style of the publication (perhaps because it's a really great article), it will still cost more time and money to bring that item into line with the style and specifications of the publication.

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