The 15-Step Freelance Writers’ Guide to Writing for Magazines
Do you have this dream? You go down to your nearest big newsstand one day and check out all those big, glossy magazines. You flip one of your favorites open…and there’s your byline.
You’ve cracked the competitive world of writing for national magazines.
The good news is, this is not a pipe dream. You can do this.
There are no real qualifications for writing for magazines. I know people who have broken into major national magazines with no journalism-school degree, no newspaper reporting experience, and no previously published articles.
Despite what you’ve heard about the impending death of print media, national magazines continue to thrive, and many pay well — $1 a word and more.
And yet, the vast majority of writers who try to query or submit articles to magazines get nowhere.
How can you get your articles published in magazines? Here is my 15-step guide:
1. Study your target publication. Success begins here, where you dig in and research the publications where you’d like to appear. Get sample issues (or check if your library might carry it) and read several issues closely. Notice:
- Whether bylines match names on the masthead — if you see names that don’t match, this publication probably hires freelance writers.
- Identify the relevant editor — likely titles include managing editor, articles editor, features editor, or department editor. An executive editor or editor-in-chief is too high up the chain.
- What topics they have recently covered
- What types of headlines they use — Are they shocking? List-based? Mysterious? Do they ask a question?
- How they start articles — with a quote? A statistic?
- What types of sources they quote – are they academics? Ordinary people? Book authors?
- How many different sources are in a typical article
- What types of research or statistics are cited
- The writing style – is it conversational? Businesslike?
- How they end their stories — do they use a final quote? A concluding paragraph that sums everything up?
At the end of your research, you should have a strong sense of what departments assign freelance articles, who the right editor is to pitch, and the types of story ideas published.
2. Find story ideas. Now that you know what the publication has written about recently, your job is to find ideas that are in a similar vein to what the magazine has already covered, yet somehow fresh and new. Here are some places to look for story ideas:
- Friends’ conversations can help you spot hot topics. Your neighborhood may not be the only place they’re the buzz.
- Local events — restaurant openings, fairs, plays, town hall meetings and protests all make good fodder for regional magazine stories
- Your local newspaper may have human-interest or business-innovation stories with national relevance you could pitch to a magazine. Or they may have a story that leaves many unanswered questions. What’s missing could form the basis for a new article.
- Competing magazines are great to skim as well for ideas on what trends your target might be missing.
- Run Google alerts on key words for topics of interest.
- Think about what you know how to do that would make a good how-to article.
- Controversies and trends – these are always of interest.
- Celebrity access – if you know a famous-yet-reclusive person not every writer could get an interview with, that could be an easy ticket to your first magazine byline.
- “Where are they now” — if you’ve discovered what a once-famous person is doing who has faded from public view, that’s an ever-popular story type.
3. Find the “news hook.” Most articles assigned by magazines have a compelling reason to be written now. It could be almost anything — maybe there is new study data about your topic. Or it’s National Frog Month. Be ready to show why this story is timely. Otherwise, your idea may sit on the editor’s desk for ages or be discarded.
4. Leave enough time. Here’s the big secret with magazines: They work ahead. Way, way ahead. Think almost six months out for big, national magazines in timing your query to coincide with an upcoming event. You need to pitch summer-vacation stories in winter and vice versa. Ideas are commonly rejected because the pitch arrives too late for a print magazine to use.
5. Learn to write query letters. Unless you are submitting a personal essay, do not simply write up your article and send it in. This gambit almost never pays off — you simply don’t know enough yet about the publication’s needs. Instead, you should query the editor, pitch your story idea, and get an assignment. It’s just the way the magazine game works. The best way to learn to write compelling queries is to read query letters that got assignments — you can get a packet of them at The Renegade Writer.
6. Start small. While there is the occasional moonshot where a writer sells their first piece to Redbook, more often a new writer will have more luck pitching local or regional publications. For instance, my first magazine work was for Seattle Magazine. These publications are less competitive and more open to working with new writers. Plus, they cover doings where you live, which means you may well have ready sources of story ideas.
7. Try the front of the book. Rather than pitching a big, national magazine a 3,000-word feature assignment off the bat, try pitching an idea for a shorter, 300- to 500-word piece first. Nobody tells you this, but most editors want to try out a new writer on one of these small assignments (usually published in the front of the magazine), to make sure you can turn it in before they risk assigning you a longer piece.
8. Pitch trade magazines and custom publishers. Welcome to the low-glamour side of magazine writing! Trade mags and custom pubs are rarely seen on newsstands, but usually pay well and don’t get many pitches from writers, leaving the field wide open for your inquiry. Trade magazines cover a single industry — Daily Variety for entertainment executives, or Ad Age for marketing execs, for instance. Custom publications are created by and for businesses such as hospitals and retail chains, as well as government agencies. Some companies produce their magazines in-house, but many rely on custom publishers. Once you figure out who’s publishing a custom pub, you can pitch the editor or publisher. Here, a story idea isn’t mandatory. Instead, you can write a simple letter of introduction (LOI).
9. Learn LOI basics. What belongs in an LOI? Here’s a basic structure that works:
- Notice the tone of the publication and write your LOI in their style.
- Mention something you noticed in the magazine recently.
- Quickly introduce the fact that you are a freelance writer.
- Note your writing experience or personal life experience in their subject matter.
- End with an easy call to action that doesn’t require much of the editor, such as “May I send you a link to my writer site so you can view my clips?”
- Bonus: the best LOIs include a referral — the name of someone the editor knows who recommended you contact them. Not always possible, but use whenever you can.
10. Find sources. Once you have an assignment, it’s time to round up the research and do the interviews. Don’t be scared of calling people up and asking for an interview! You’ll find most experts are happy to chat with you. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Put out a request for an expert on Help a Reporter Out or ProfNet.
- Search on your topic on press-release sites such as PR Newswire or PRWeb for experts in your subject matter.
- Search Amazon.com for book authors on your topic.
- Read articles about your topic published elsewhere, and see who they quote. Stealing source ideas is entirely fair game.
11. Conduct interviews. Here’s a crash course in how to get a great interview:
- Prepare a question list beforehand to use as a starting point.
- Ask open-ended questions rather than ones that can be answered “yes” or “no”.
- Ask, “Is there anything I haven’t asked you about this topic that’s important for me to know?”
- Ask, “Who else should I talk to about this?” to get other source ideas.
- Ask, “Who disagrees with you on this?” to get more source ideas.
- Ask, “Is there anything else about this topic you would like to tell me?”
- End with, “Where can I reach you for any followup questions I have?” (Because you will have some. I promise.)
- If you have potentially offensive questions to ask, leave them for last.
If you tape your interviews, be sure to take notes also — tape recorders have been known to fail.
12. Write a first draft. Keeping your publication research fresh in your mind, it’s time to write a draft of your article. Remember how they started, structured, and ended their articles. Look at how they weave in quotes from experts. Then, put all your notes aside and just write the story in a quick draft, keeping their writing style and your target length in mind. You can go back and fill in missing facts and check exact quotes later.
13. Rewrite. Now that you have a draft, go back and polish it up. Tighten up the writing and remove any extraneous paragraphs, sentences, and words. Make sure each paragraph follows logically from the one before it. Reread your notes one last time to make sure there isn’t a really juicy tidbit you’ve left out.
14. Get feedback. If at all possible, before you send in your finished piece, get an experienced editor or writer-friend to read it over and make suggestions for improving it.
15. Turn in your story on time — and pitch another. It’s essential on a first assignment that you turn in your article by the deadline. If you can, turn it in a day or two before. Your best opportunity to get another assignment is now, so be ready with a few more ideas for your editor so you can keep this magazine-writing work going.
Got questions about cracking the magazine markets? Leave a question here and I’ll be happy to answer.