Magazine Writing – An Outline Of How To Work It

by Anne Wayman

ideas for writersI got this guest post from Darrell Laurant. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was – I’m not used to lists like this. But the more I looked at it the more I realized there’s gold here.

IDEAS

A. WHERE TO FIND THEM:

1. From your personal experience — things you’ve done, places you’ve been, people you’ve met, events you’ve attended.
2. From your local newspaper. Read it as often as you can, and keep an eye out for things that might have “legs” beyond your area. Example: Three new members are elected to your county’s governing body — no legs. The chairman of that board is blind — legs.
3. On the Internet. If you have a subject that interests you, do frequent Google searches under “news,” or set up a Google alert linking that subject to your area.
4. Random information. If you see something on TV or hear something on the radio or in a conversation that interests you, jot it down.
5. From inside your head. If you have one of these “I wonder why this is?” moments about something, it might be a story. Chances are, other people have wondered, as well.
6. Your opinions. If you can back it up, and it’s something other people can relate to, there’s probably a market for it somewhere.
7. Lists. The Ten Best, The Twenty Biggest, The 15 Worst, and so on. It’s all subjective, but who cares?

8. Anniversaries of events. Magazines love these, but it has to be a round number, like 10, 20, 25 or 50. Go to Wikipedia, look up specific months and years, and you’ll find a lot of possibilities.
9. Special months. National (whatever) months are often a good hook for a story.

B. QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF:

1. Again, is this something that would likely interest someone in another state, or readers of a national magazine?
2. Could it be a jumping-off point for a broader story?
3. If it’s strictly local, is there a good local market it would fit?
4. What is the shelf life? Since most magazines operate three to six months in advance, Christmas stories should be pitched in July and August, Memorial Day stories in December or January, etc. If the shelf life is shorter, you might be better off contacting Websites or newspapers. Of course, most stories are more evergreen than that.
5. Is this something you can realistically accomplish? If you live in Maryland, you might think twice about pitching a California story, unless you plan a trip there in the near future or can pull it together online and on the phone. Can you gather all your information remotely, or is this something that really needs a dash of color and firsthand observation?
6. Is this fresh? You wouldn’t want to send out a query on “How Sept. 11 Changed My Life,” for instance, unless it was some sort of anniversary.
7. Is it specific? Ideas like “Sexual abuse” or “Diabetes” won’t fly. You need to find a niche within the larger subject, or some recent development involving it.
8. Can you produce photographs? This is a strong selling point, since magazines (and even Websites) are becoming more and more visual.

THE HUNT

A. FINDING MARKETS

1. It has its flaws (like not always updating information), but you really can’t beat Writer’s Market for possible connections. It’s what they do.
2. On the other hand, there are some good markets that don’t want to be listed there because they don’t want to be inundated with queries. You can often find those with Google searches (i.e., “cancer research + magazines”)/
3. There are a number of lists of writers’ guidelines out there — again, use search engines to find them. Always check the Web addresses, though, to make sure the publication still exists. These days, you never know.

B. TARGETING QUERIES

1. If you can find a Website for a publication that seems like a likely match for an idea, go to either “About Us” or “Contact Us” and look for the name of an editor. If someone is listed specifically as the managing editor, they’re probably the best bet, because that person probably does more of the hands-on work with queries (executive editors eat lunch with advertisers a lot). If you can’t find a listing on the site (which often happens), try searching for the name of the magazine plus “masthead.” If all else fails, just address your query to “To the Editors.” Note: If the editor is named something like “Pat” that can go either way, gender-wise, see if they have a Facebook page.
2. If it’s an e-mail query, you want to make sure it doesn’t find its way into a spam folder. What I do is use the name of the person I’m contacting in the subject line: “Article query for Judy Jones.” People are more likely to open something that has their name on it.
3. Before you send a query, you might try a search that connects your topic with that magazine to make sure they haven’t written about it.
4. Read over at least one or two issues of your target publication on-line, to get a sense of their style. It’s always good to subtly let the editor know you’ve done that by saying something like “I see that your publication often explores (topic) …”

C. MATCHING MARKETS WITH TOPICS

1. Remember that the most obvious market isn’t always the best. If it’s a story that’s perfect for that magazine, chances are they’ve already done it. On the other hand, don’t assume without checking.
2. Avoid tunnel vision. There might be an angle to your story that would appeal to a market that at first would seem unlikely.
3. Cut and paste. In many cases, you can take one idea and spin it in several different directions.


THE QUERY

A. GENERAL RULES

1. When you’re talking about non-fiction articles, it’s almost always better to query an idea rather than send a completed manuscript. Editors like to be able to establish the length, tone and focus of what they print (it is, after all, their magazine or Website), and you take that away when you dump a finished piece on them.
2. Don’t take the “No simultaneous submissions” admonition too seriously. In the first place, how would they know? Moreover, this is aimed largely at writers who compose what is essentially a form letter and send it around to everyone and his brother.
3. Having said that, though, it’s not really a good idea to pitch exactly the same idea to more than, say, two markets at a time.

B. THE QUERY ITSELF

1. Remember that the query is, in effect, your audition. Don’t overwrite or make it overly long, but make sure it’s your best writing and free of typos or grammatical errors. I’m always happy to look over anyone’s query before it goes out.
2. A query is never about you, but always about the editor and the readers of that magazine or website. The editor doesn’t care that you’ve always wanted to get published, or that it would be an honor for you to appear in the pages of that magazine. Rather, he or she wants to know three things: Is this a good idea for that particular publication, are you a good person to produce it, and can you be trusted?
3. Display confidence, but not arrogance. If you talk too much about what a wonderful writer you are, you might be sending the hidden message: “This person is going to be difficult to work with from an editing perspective.”
4. Gauge your salutation to the tone of the market. If it seems low-key and informal (a music, gaming or sports magazine, for instance), you might address the editor by first name. You wouldn’t do that with Smithsonian.
5. Keep it short and to the point. The old journalistic admonition “don’t bury the lead” applies threefold here.
6. Be careful with your clips. It’s fine to send them to an on-line repository of your past writing, or to your blog, but make sure there isn’t a poorly written piece featured prominently. If you send clips, make them relevant to the job at hand — you wouldn’t try to tempt a tech magazine with a batch of poems. If you’re just starting out and don’t have any clips to show, you’re in trouble — but you might pull it off by not mentioning clips at all and wowing them with your query letter. Or, even better, start a blog.

THE FOLLOWUP

A. WHEN THERE’S NO RESPONSE

1. Don’t automatically assume that this means disinterest on the part of an editor. Your query could have gotten lost, or wound up in a spam folder.
2. Re-check the Website of your target market to make sure you didn’t send your query to someone who no longer works there.
3. What I do is wait 30 days. If I don’t hear anything, I re-send that query with a brief note that says: “Last month, I sent you a query about —-. Since I received no response, and knowing that e-mails often get lost in cyberspace these days, I’m taking the liberty of re-sending.” I do this no matter what the listed time frame of the market might be, because it’s a way of getting your name and idea in front of them twice. If I still get no response over the following two weeks, I start trying other markets.
4. Do not e-mail or call editors to ask when they’re going to get back to you. They hate that.

B. WHEN THE RESPONSE IS NEGATIVE

1. Acknowledge it. As soon as possible, contact them to say something like “Thank you for your consideration. Perhaps I can tempt you another time.”
2. Don’t take it personally. Remember that this is just a choice on the part of the editor, often a subjective choice, and not necessarily a reflection on you.
3. Have a backup plan. It’s natural to feel a quick stab of disappointment and/or anger when you get a turndown. Use that as energy fuel and immediately send out a query to someone else. You’ll feel better.
4. Don’t burn bridges. Don’t contact the editor to ask why your wonderful idea wasn’t welcomed with open arms. Accept their decision and move on. If you handle this professionally, they’ll remember you the next time.

What would you add to this outline?

Darrell Laurant is Director of The Writers’ Bridge a Virginia-based marketing and support group for freelancers. 

Two newsletters:
Abundant Freelance Writing - a resource for freelance writers including 3x a week job postings.
Writing With Vision - for those who want to get a book written.

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by chrstphre

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Jack@Bad Credit March 26, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Loved these tips! I’d been considering submitting some work to a magazine recently ’cause it’s a fantastic tool in branding and increased exposure. Your tips helped me make an action plan, thank you!

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annew March 27, 2012 at 10:10 am

Let us know how it goes.

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Ron's Copy-e-writing Blog March 25, 2012 at 11:27 pm

One niche I was always curious about…!
Ron’s Copy-e-writing Blog recently posted..Should A Freelance Writer Offer Free Service Ever?My Profile

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Anne Woodman March 19, 2012 at 11:07 am

This was a very thorough post. Thank you for including all the information and ideas!

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annew March 20, 2012 at 8:37 am

You’re welcome Anne.

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Naomi @ Writing for the Web March 18, 2012 at 3:44 am

Thanks for such a thorough article. Another way to get ideas which works really well is to hand around social media groups and forums that are popular with your target reader. E.g. if you are writing for new moms, hang around one of the super-popular forums for that group. Any new discussion topic that quickly get 100s of comments and generates heated debate is obviously going to make great material for a well-written, informed journalistic article. Many experienced journalists use this trick to get ideas for hot stories.

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annew March 19, 2012 at 7:26 am

Yes, this also works. Thanks

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Derek March 16, 2012 at 7:37 pm

Thank you for a very interesting article. You’ve given us a lot of very useful information to think about.

I do have one small quibble, however. In The Query, A: 2. You say not to take the ‘No simultaneous submissions’ rule seriously, then, in the same section, B:2, you say that the editors want to know that they can trust you. These two pieces of advice seem to be in conflict. How can the editors trust you if you are breaking their rules?

You suggest that they would never know that you were doing so. But that seems to presuppose the idea that you don’t think your piece is good enough to be accepted by either of the markets. The editor of at least one of the markets would find out that you had been making simultaneous submissions when you sent them an email saying that you were withdrawing the piece from consideration due to having had it accepted elsewhere.

The only way that neither of the editors find out that you are making simultaneous submissions is if both of them reject it.

Wouldn’t it be better to make your article so good that you don’t think anyone will reject it, then submit to one market at a time?

Simultaneous submissions is a great idea, but it seems to me that the best way to do it is to write multiple articles. That way you can have several articles out for consideration at the same time without losing the trust of the editors.

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annew March 19, 2012 at 7:22 am

Derek, the reason I’m comfortable doing simultaneous submissions is the prohibition on them amounts, in my opinion, to an unpaid option on my article. I don’t think magazines are entitled to ask me to stop marketing while they make up their minds – unless they want to pay me for it.

While I’ve been told be at least one writer they had to withdraw an article because another market had accepted it, it’s rare and it’s a risk I’ve been willing to take.

Writing multiple articles is double the work or close to it.

But I’m also willing to have you and others disagree with me.

Btw, took a brief look at your site… speculative fiction… interesting stuff.

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