What 8 Best-Selling Magazines Can Teach You About Irresistible Content

image of newsstand sign

Copyblogger sits atop Ad Age’s marketing blog throne for one reason: they deliver smart, sexy, and super-useful content over and over.

Brian Clark and the Copyblogger team have built an online empire by creating content that entices readers, feeds them profitable advice, and gives them the essential elements of online marketing that works.

While many factors contributed to Copyblogger’s dominance, here’s one that I’ve picked out that you can easily grasp and imitate: write like the hottest magazine publishers around.

How do magazines keep readers coming back every month and issue after issue flying off the racks?

And what does that have to do with blogging?

Let’s find out.

The gravitational pull of good writing

Remember way back when, when Brian held those Cosmopolitan and Details headline writing contests?

Do you think he chose those magazines randomly?

No, he latched onto those two because they’re incredibly effective at hooking and keeping reader interest.

Snag one of those magazines off the rack and you’re a goner. Your wife and children will have to yell at you from the parking lot to get you to put it down. (This has never happened to me before. Honest.)

But you have to take it a step further to apply this tractor-beam of attraction to blogging.

To discover the best techniques for writing potent, compelling copy, you have to actually read an issue of Cosmo — or any of the eight magazines below — with a writer’s eye and the willingness to learn.

That means:

  1. Paying hyper-close attention to the headlines (this is number one for a reason)
  2. Studying the articles’ opening sentences
  3. Copying their tricks to closing an article
  4. And pillaging their word purse

Next time you’re in a book store, pick up one of the magazines in the following list and don’t come up for air until you’ve got yourself some killer copy chops …

Details

From the rude-but-spot-on headline “Are You Raising a Douchebag?” to the homage of the greatest male hairdressers in history, Details magazine entertains.

You won’t get many discussions of particle physics here, but you will find topics their readers want to know more about — fitness, the latest consumer toys, and how to have more success with women. Details combines those tried-and-true topics with gem headlines that jump off the page.

Bon Appétit

Bon Appetit is the Cosmopolitan of the food world: sultry and simmering with tips you want to try … this flipping minute. Part DIY chef and part narratives on food, its pages are full of words and pictures that mess with just about every sense in your body.

Us Weekly

No one does photo-storytelling better. You get hooked on some silly narrative like William and Kate’s all-evening post-wedding bash or that 53-year old Lorenzo Lamas just married his fifth wife and you soon realize this — you are jealous you are not one of them.

Wired

This magazine on all-things technical is a tour de force of language, design, and creativity. Each month you get a carefully-packaged theme where the writers, artists, and editors sweat the small stuff. From the features to the blurbs, it’s loaded with language you must steal. No wonder it won multiple awards at the Ellies.

Men’s Health

If you can overlook the heavy-handed smut push or obnoxious weight-loss and muscle mass claims, you can key into some strikingly useful ways to use numbers, lists, and words to make what you write very seductive.

The fact that they’ve boiled their cover strategy down to a well-honed formula is amusing, but it also shows how well that formula works.

Car and Driver

You wouldn’t expect a car magazine that often skirts the outer edges of immaturity to create a strong gravitational pull on readers, but C+D does. Each issue is full of prose that’s hilarious, cranky, and near-unbelievable at times … but isn’t that what makes great copy great?

Vanity Fair

Who can resist the potent writing of rabble rousers like Christopher Hitchens and James Wolcott? And VF’s addiction to the rich and famous — replete with beautiful photographs of beautiful people — make them a one-stop shop for everything you ever wanted to know about people’s pride and obsession with fame. Entertaining storytelling at its best.

Rolling Stone

Sure, some issues it feels like someone’s dad who wants to be cool, but RS can still pull out some probing features (like “People v. Goldman Sachs”) and rivet your attention with solid, fascination-rich headlines.

Here’s the deal: you’re not going to become a great blogger unless you read widely, and steal every trick you can.

Famed copywriting teacher John Carlton calls this the mindset of a word slut.

The best writers have it because they can’t get enough of the warm breadbasket of language. And when they write, their readers can’t get enough.

Copyblogger is living proof.

What’s missing from this list?

So tell me, what’s your favorite magazine?

Is it Glamour? Reader’s Digest? The New Yorker?

Any of these could help make you a world-class blogger. Let us know your favorite in the comments!

About the Author: Demian Farnworth is a freelance writer who hustles the finer points of web copy at the blog The CopyBot. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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Comments

  1. My Favorite Magazine: Entrepreneur

    I believe that writing is an art form. Having the ability to paint a picture with words certainly doesn’t come overnight.
    All successful writers and publications have a certain “tone and voice”, a personality that appeals to the reader. For me that personality is the deciding factor in whether I’m going to continue reading or not.

    Design is also very key. Design plays heavily into presentation and delivery. The ultimate reader hook: A Killer Headline. Headlines are the achilles heel of any blog, media outlet, and publication. Headlines win readers.

    Great Post! I really enjoyed this one.

  2. @Demian: I think you just nominated yourself for creating a Magazine Deconstructions series here at Copyblogger (similar to the Landing Page Makeovers). I’ll look forward to that for sure. Nice write.

  3. I have read couple of these…. still nice and helpful collections…. i will read these on weekends. thanks alot.

  4. I really like Inc. — I can put myself into the shoes of the people they write about, and for me they have a good balance of depth without overwhelming me, New Yorker-style.

    I like Fast Company as well, but their design is too fidgety for me, I can’t figure out where my eye should go. (Wired has that effect on me as well.) I think it probably works well for most people, but it’s too ADD for my reading style.

    • Sonia, agree with you on Fast Company. Nice reads, but graphics hard on the eyes.

    • Exactly on the FAST Co design issue! I thought maybe it was just me having issues with that. For a magazine that touts design in all areas, has great content, it’s a little too hyper and fidgety. Maybe taking the fast thing too far? WIRED also appears a little too caffeinated for me at times but I’ve learned to tune in my own ADD to it and skim it for eye ease.

    • Both have really good stories, nice to know I’m not the only one who gets the fidgets at their design.

  5. Great post, Demian, but as for my favorite magazine… do people still even read magazines? I thought everything had gone online… ;)

    • So true. I worked in print for 2 years after working in digital for seven and I was like, this is beautiful, actually holding it in your hand. I don’t know I’m a texture guy. ;-)

  6. Oooh, I like that “warm breadbasket of language.”

  7. The biggest similarity each one of these magazines possesses is they understand their reader. They have their niche (woman’s beauty, men’s health, technology) and they know the exact type of people who are interested in that niche.

    With that said, they choose their wording with this in mind. They talk the talk of their reader. This is a great lesson for understanding your demographic.

  8. Great Post! The Hollywood Reporter (THR) revamped their magazine last year and content and it was a major improvement. THR remains one of our favorite magazines.

  9. Glad to see this article and I’ve shared with a lot of colleagues already. Too many (Bloggers included) people read only the blogs by certain authors and columnists. I keep hammering that you need to read their books, read their articles, read the environments they’re in. Otherwise they’re little more than sound bytes.

    However, I’ve felt that the best bloggers are also excellent writers beyond their blogs (articles, essays, books, etc.). Thats where the truly compelling content lies. It’s in their language, discipline, outlook, tricks and what they make you visualize and experience with their words.

    Check out their breadbaskets.

    • Joe, Google’s suggested web writing guidelines makes that very point, which is when you are writing something for the web–article or blog post–could it be published in a magazine? I think that’s a rule of thumb.

  10. Sounds like a good plan! In a similar exercise, I’ve recently been studying headlines and story concepts from the Reader’s Digest magazine, and I was very much impressed with the readily available nuggets of copywriting wisdom available, for anyone who observes such publications with analytical eyes. I’d long given up on reading magazines, but this seems like a good reason to get back.

    • There was a reason Reader’s Digest had the highest subscriber rate in the world at one time. That got their audience pinned.

      Another good obvious magazine choice: Writer’s Digest.

  11. Hi D, as a subscriber I get all of your posts in my inbox but after reading this I had to pop over and give you props.

    I really enjoyed this big dose of info. I liked how you chose a variety of magazines, some of which I would never pick up on my own and made me think about them in a different light.

    I’m also thinking of my blog formula and how I can tighten it while keeping my own particular style.

  12. One of the best things about Men’s Health is the layout. Information is broken down into bite-sized chunks. Much like good online information, they make use of headers, highlighting and white-space to clearly and concisely display their content.

    • Yeah, and they’ve got some beautiful ads/sales letters for their products…well worth taking the time to study if you want to write persuasive copy.

  13. I don’t know about ya all but I find Cracked (the website) to be a time sink. These guys have fine tuned the art of catchy headlines and list articles down to an art from. After all, how can you resist an article like “The 6 Craziest Sieges in History” or “7 Insane Easter Eggs Hidden in movies and TV shows.”?

    Another thing that I have noticed about Cracked articles is the imaginative use of literary devices like analogies and metaphors. And while it bills itself as a site not to be taken seriously most of the articles are well referenced and linked back to authoritative sources like books and newspapers.

  14. The Atlantic Monthly.
    I subscribe to this magazine because of the way I get pulled into articles on subjects I thought I had absolutely NO interest in. Graphics, hook titles, quote placement…this mag is a well oiled machine of compelling content. Since Atlantic Monthly has been around for several centuries (a proud shout out to you, Abolitionists!), you can also get a master class in what has gone before you through their online archive.
    Can’t live without this magazine.

    • Atlantic is a great example of a magazine that combine’s all the right elements to be compelling…like you described, there’s a host of issues behind presenting compelling copy beyond the words themselves.

  15. Denise Brown :

    Perhaps it does not have as broad an audience base as many of the magazines mentions, but New York Magazine is the epitome of knowing their audience and writing captivating headlines with content that is targeted, concise, well written and lives up to its teaser headlines.

    • Yes! Perfect! What a great example of a magazine who’s courageous enough to narrow their audience and cater to them only. New York Magazine also employs a very provocative model to nurture readership: put people’s names in the magazine. Who wouldn’t read it to see if they made in the pages? Some thing to keep in mind as you write.

  16. Great list. I would add the New Yorker and Vanity Fair also Whole Living.
    One thing I have done for forever when I was in advertising is go to my local public library and read magazines for ideas and inspiration. Blogs are great but magazines you can hold in your hand.
    right now am clearing clutter from office and have come across some great articles from days of your (20th century) some are funny but better some have great little tidbits to build upon and they came from magazines.

    Thanks for this article. Enjoyed.

  17. I don’t read magazines with any regularity these days, but I grew up reading Reader’s Digest. My grandparents had a collection going back decades, and it was fun to read some of the really old ones and see what people were interested back then.

    I read just about everything I can get my hands on, but mostly that’s online articles and books.

  18. Discover Magazine. They have such interesting stories about science that are quirky and great to keep up with innovation.

    Learned about writing headlines from an author who writes for Reader’s Digest and they use all 4 of the journalistic openers in the first sentence to hook the reader. Their stories are so compelling. It doesn’t matter if they’re writing about a guy whose leg got stuck in a sewer pipe or someone overcoming cancer, the stories are so well written that they keep you reading all the way until the last word.

    Plug for Cosmo – their headlines do grab attention.

    Great post and conversation. Thanks Demian.

  19. The Economist. They have a distinct style of writing and generally have better content than other magazines. Being unique and of higher quality is key.

  20. I totally forgot about reading magazines. I’m going to check out Rolling Stone and some of the others. Thanks for the tip!

  21. David Grant :

    I dig Outside magazine. Maybe its the adventure junkie in me, but I end up trashing it after it has several sweat smudges, olive oil and bike lube stains, and signs of whatever other activity it inspires. Thanks for the great post.

    • One of the greatest articles I’ve ever read was in Outside [I think]: Why Smart People Do Stupid Stuff. Starts with compelling story of how champion climber Lynn Hill [is that her name? Man, I'm getting old] puts on her harness, slides the rope through–but forgets to tie it off. She falls far, but survives. Great story.

  22. Hey Demian!

    Congrats on yet another fab CB guest post. Pretty soon “guest post” might become an obsolete term for what you do here. :O)

    As for magazines, I generally check them out for the ads! The New Yorker does have some good ones. Oh yes, and Architectural Digest sometime boasts some decent prose.

    Rock on!

    Peter

  23. Yep – Outside Magazine for sure. In paper form.

  24. Inc is also good, especially for small business. They come up with content that resonates with that demographic.

  25. Hey Demian,

    I’ve been looking for this article for so long.

    After I read Brian Clarks advice on Cosmo, I wasn’t sure what other mags are as effective.

    These are all excellent magazines and I need to go and check these out now.

  26. Top Gear Magazine is great.

    Not business related at all but the writing is brilliant.

  27. Archan Mehta :

    Demian,

    I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for contributing such an insightful guest post on this blog.

    I used to read The New Yorker and enjoyed it. However, in recent times, it has become a bit too pretentious and perhaps glosses over real issues/events in favor of celebrities and the cocktail circuit and page 3 crowds. I also think they could do a better job in terms of what poems to publish: most of the poems are so lame.

    Other than that, it is still a good read, but some articles are better than others: I have enjoyed reading a few profiles, features and interviews. The Economist, by far, is my favorite read: top-notch analysis by the Brits; less of propaganda, more incisive journalism. Plus, the language is great: it is like going to a library, literally. They do a better job than some of the American magazines which I will refrain from naming–but you know who they are without name dropping.

    Reader’s Digest was the glory of my childhood. It was attention-arresting from the first page. I especially hankered after the jokes section. The pictorials were funny and the tone was often comedic. Their timing was just right and they have expanded to other parts of the world as well. There are other magazines I have enjoyed reading too.

    I appreciate writers like you who provide links to other writers and their works or blogs. I am always searching for the “right” blogs to read, so thank you for this gesture. Your discussion here has been the best part of my day. I wish you the best of luck in your career and hope to see your articles more regularly on this blog. Cheerio.

    • The jokes in RD rocked, didn’t they? And this is coming from an English Lit major, book snob and writer of very bad poetry [which makes me a wonderful judge of it--I know it when I see it] that MOST poetry is pretty lame. Read all of Billy Collins poems. You’ll fall back in love with poetry.

  28. Don’t forget that people are drawn to copy time and time again if they think they can get something out of it, not just for the sake of reading gossip or the writers opinion.

    “What’s In It For Me” attitude still prevails, people want to take what the read and use it in for themselves. For me a blog or magazine that I can take content and use (cooking, decor, fashion, tech, photography, even marketing) in my personal or professional life, is worth my time, money and loyalty.

    • Indeed, Cindi, you are on the money. That’s why you see so many DIY and list style articles that are successful. People want answers and information they can use. So true.

  29. Esquire. I devour it the day it comes in the mail.

  30. Great Article, I am off to enlarge my magazine subscriptions :)

    I love Car and Drive. They literally put you in the car and give the experience as if it
    is happening.

    I will take all the advise I can when it comes to writing better copy.

    Thank you for your contribution,
    Jeff Faldalen
    The Possibility Coach

  31. The Atlantic and Vanity Fair are my two favorites. Who says we need subheads every paragraph and short articles to maintain attention? Their choice of topics and writing are so gripping I can read a 5,000 piece in one fell swoop. Essential reading for anyone wanting to keep their brain trained to read at length, without being distracted.

    • Hey Liz, great point about the subheads and short articles. Truth be told anyone will read 5,000, 100,000 words if it’s about them, their interests, etc. Subheads help the skimmers [like me] decide whether they want to deep read [which I will do if it interests me]. Off the top of my head I don’t remember which ad man who said it, but a client balked at “a lot of copy” to which the ad man said “I can get you to read any long copy…all I have to do is title it ‘This article is all about [insert their name].” Thanks for the comment!

  32. For the past couple of years I have been turning myself from a writer for scholarly journals mostly on one subject into an Internet writer on multiple subjects. Judging from the comments I get on some of the content sites I write for, I have been quite successful. Judging from the traffic to my blogs, not yet successful enough. I have no particular interest in any of the eight titles described in the post except perhaps Mens Health, so I was very glad to see Readers Digest listed at the bottom and in so many comments. I subscribe to that and read it cover to cover. I will write your four points on an index card and use it for a bookmark! I also take Smithsonian, American Heritage, Guideposts, Charisma, and Prevention. Maybe I’ll have to make several bookmarks.

  33. The Economist and the Atlantic Monthly are my very favorite for the information they provide but I enjoy some of the others too. I concur with Liz’s comment “who says we need subheads and short paragraphs to maintain attention” Most of the advice for blog writers says so and my Scribe SEO ends it’s post analysys with this ” Flesch Reading Ease Score is 53.82 which indicates the readability of your content is “fairly difficult.” for a post talking about including raw vegies and fruit in our diet!

    Do the magazines mentioned on this page have to conform to this Flesch Reading Ease Score to be accepted by the editors?

    Fran

  34. That’s a great question, Fran. The best thing to do is keep your readership in mind. Reader’s Digest would die on the vine with a high Flesch reading score. Smithsonian or Economist, not so.

  35. A great list – I would add People. They understand that people are always curious about other people.

  36. With a lot of people switching from mags to blogs for their daily reading fix – maybe you guys need to do a ‘what 8 most visited blogs can teach you about irresistible content’ to help out the mag publishers..

  37. Great thought, Daniel. Got any you would nominate?

  38. I like B Beyond magazine (bbpublications.org so not to be confused with Beyond magazine!) because it profiles some of the world’s most private yet most successful individuals – in their own words. Stunning imagery and great for peeping into the psyche and private world of the ultra successful.

  39. I’d add Fast Company, Entrepreneur, & Outside magazines. I like the diverse topics in Fast Company and Outside within the market. Entrepreneur always has some great new info for entrepreneurs.

  40. Nice list. Magazines can really give you a lot of inspiring content. Actually, reading gives me a lot of thoughts. Learning and having fun at the same time.

  41. I love the 4 points you tell people to focus on in the content of these magazines!

    I’ve never seen this before but it makes perfect sense! I’ve always just plundered the covers of Cosmo but now I’m gonna have to dig in and add these other magazines to my pleasure/learning experiences.

    • Lewis, I’m glad the 4 points were helpful…besides the obvious, what drew you to Cosmos?

      • Great question Demian.

        Besides the obvious and not so obvious that you stated in your post here, I guess I’d have to say… feminine radiance.

        I could’ve easily saved myself a ton of grief from having my friends seeing piles of this magazine in my house by buying a manly mag like Men’s Health but there were long stretches in my life where the combination of my being a single guy moving to a new city, working from home, my fear of talking to strangers (especially women) and being unwilling to pay to play equaled a total absence of intimate feminine energy in my life.

        So I guess I welcomed a female voice. I still do.

        Nowadays, I keep buying them because it’s so easy for me to adapt bullet copy using the cover copy. Some people argue that because it’s a chick mag that those topics don’t lend themselves to copy that doesn’t go to women. I say they’re being lazy wanting to copy almost word for word what they’re modeling or… they lack imagination.

        I have years worth of covers scanned and I’ve used the hell out of those blurbs to jump start my bullet writing. And with your new suggestions, I’ll be adding to my collection.

        I might not buy them though. I think I’ll pull a Rich Schefren and just go to the book store and take pictures of the covers with my phone and come home and put them into a file on my computer that I can peruse for jumping off points.

        Thank you for your thought provoking question Demian! I appreciate thinking further into this topic.

        • Thanks for the response. Yeah, Cosmos headlines–any headline really–can be flipped into any subject matter. And I love me some Rich Schefren. Good work and look forward to talking to you in the future, Lewis.

  42. I love this post. I read it, have already been to the bookstore to browse magazines for awhile, and came back with several ideas for new posts — in addition to ideas for writing some better headlines and content.

  43. On my way to the magazine stand now… WORD SLUT – love it.

  44. Harvard Business Review is a good magazine. It’s $17/ month although if you have a subscription it can be a lot cheaper. On the Nook it’s like $7. Business colleges use it in a lot of their classrooms.

    Your right though a catchy title is a great way to draw people in. I’ll check out those magazines you suggested, and I’ll see what I can find.

  45. I borrow HBR from a buddy of mine who has a subscription…it’s worth getting your hands on for sure!

  46. GREAT article! Thanks for this wonderful idea. I’m going to head down to my library this week, and get a few copies of these magazines out and get a great copywriting education.

    Never would have thought of this. Thanks for the great idea!