Writing for the major national magazines isn't easy, but someone has to do it!
So, you’re tired of writing for peanuts or contributors’ copies. You’re a good writer with less than dazzling credentials. You’re ready to break into the “bigs,” but you just don’t seem able to take that next crucial step. Is that what’s bothering you, bunky? Well, relax, because we have the prescription you’ve been waiting for!
Follow a few common-sense (and a few more not-so-obvious) suggestions, and the next by-line you receive just might be in Ladies Home Journal or National Geographic. What are these mystical suggestions you ask? Observe:
Look for trends in magazines and exploit them. Does a particular magazine revisit the same theme year in and year out? Does it do so in the same month? Or, does the magazine like to run a certain type of article once each year? Search the magazine’s on-line archives to find out. If it does, anticipate next year’s offering and be the first in line with a query. Send it off at least four to five months in advance of publication date. Example: Most regional and city magazines and many national publications run ski articles each fall. Find out when and then work up a dynamite destination ski query.
Peg an untimely story to a specific calendar event to make it more appealing to the editor. Let’s say that you have an article, or at least an idea, on house-boating down the Mississippi River. Since houseboats are great for entire families, you decide to query Family Circle or Better Homes and Gardens. Instead of just another turn-down, increase your chances for acceptance by tying the article into National Houseboating Week. You can do the same thing with nearly any topic you can think of. Remember: if it’s important enough to mention, someone somewhere has dedicated a day, week, or month to it. Get on the Internet to find out when. Check out Holiday Smart and The Worldwide Holiday and Festival Site Examples: National Nurse’s Day and National Teacher’s Day (May 6) and Earth Day (April 22).
Send out a cover-story query. No doubt about it, Cosmopolitan is the Queen of cover blurbs, but every magazine uses them. Check the last few covers of the magazine you’re interested in writing for and see what kinds of stories they highlighted with blurbs. These are likely to be the magazine’s bread-and-butter stories, their draw-the-readers pieces. If you query the editors on something similar, you could well have an inside track on one of the publication’s next lead stories. As a bonus, many magazines pay extra for lead pieces and cover stories.
Provide photos—or at least describe what the photo possibilities are. Editors hate (no, no, on second thought, editors despise!!) having to take the time to come up with quality photographs to illustrate a story. If you can convince an editor that you’ll supply professional-quality photos (or that you know where the magazine can get them), you’re one step ahead of the competition. One word of caution: if you promise professional-quality photos and deliver point-and-shoot drivel, except a quick and definitive rejection.
Make your query sing. Brevity is important (a query should never run more than a single type-written page, no matter how much you have to say), but so is completeness. Your query isn’t a letter asking for a go-ahead on speculation or an assignment; it’s a tool for bringing the feeling of your entire proposal to the editor’s very soul within a few short paragraphs. Be descriptive, be concise, be persuasive. Above all, be positive. Don’t say, “I think this might be a good article for you because ....” Do say, “Why this article? Because it gives your readers exactly the kind of information they want!”
Know your audience, and show the editor you know it. Editors are skeptical by nature. If your were an editor and ninety-nine out of a hundred articles crossing your desk every day missed their mark by a mile, you’d be skeptical, too. Tie your proposal to something you’ve seen in the magazine in the past, but don’t offer a rehash of the same old thing. Let the editor know that you’ve studied his magazine—as well as the magazine’s market listings—and he’ll be much more receptive to your offerings today and in the future. Example: “Your readers want to know why they should consider buying larger cars despite the oil crisis—just as they were ready for your January piece on buying larger homes in uncertain economic times.”
Go out of your way to befriend an editor ... but don’t overdo it. Editors know a good snow job when they hear one, so be sincere, be specific, and be brief. Offer to help by supplying potential cover blurbs. Write your own captions to the photographs you supply. Send the editor a note asking if there’s anything else you can provide him in order to help him decide on your proposal or to publish your article. Include an extra sidebar of related material—editors love sidebars because they make great fillers whenever necessary. Example: You send an editor an article he requested on the growing popularity of automobile racing. You include a sidebar of dates and places where the top 10 races are being held this year.
Anticipate new trends and ideas. If you’ve already read about something in Time or Newsweek, chances are you’ve already missed the boat for the same story in U.S. News and World Report (or even, for that matter, The Elks Magazine). Remember: if you read about it somewhere, your editor has, too.
Get your facts straight. Whenever you’re preparing a query—or writing the article—check and double-check each item, no matter how unlikely it seems that you might be wrong. Nothing will kill a proposal (or a writer’s career, for that matter) faster than playing loose with the facts. It’s called journalistic integrity, and every editor expects no less from his writers. If you’re not certain about something, either do more research or leave it out. Never make “educated guesses” presented as facts.
Don’t “stretch” the truth. I know one writer who took the stories of two foster families and combined them into one in order to make the family members look more heroic. She gave the family a pseudonym, secure in the fact that no one could research them and uncover the fallacy. Imagine her surprise when the magazine’s fact-checker asked her for the address and telephone number of the exaggerated family, and she couldn’t produce them! She lost the assignment and credibility with that editor overnight.
Bury your axes as far from your story as possible. If you have a bone to pick with the CEO of Time-Warner, for example, do it in your local newspaper’s letters to the editor pages—not in your article! Editors at top magazines can spot journalistic bias a mile away, and the last thing they want to do is to whip their readers into an irate frenzy. If it’s a justifiable critique and you can prove it, go ahead and be controversial. Otherwise, forget it.
Flatter your editors. Tell them you liked a particular issue and why. Say you’ve done research into a certain topic that the editor covered in a past article, and he hit the nail right on the head. Editors—despite popular rumor to the contrary—are human. They enjoy the admiration of their writers. Just remember the mantra at the basis for all successful writers’ careers: be sincere.
Follow these few simple rules of engagement, and you’ll be around at the end of the war to fight again ... and to reap the rewards of victory.