F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that writers write for three reasons: fame, fortune, and the love of beautiful women. But he missed one ... the initial "kick" you get the first time you see your by-line on something you've written.
If you're a serious writer, you want to get your material published, no doubt about it. I've been lucky enough in my writing career to have experienced (to varying degrees) fame, fortune, and beautiful women. And, while it's always nice to be recognized, get a check in the mail, or have that someone special fawn over you for reasons you find unfathomable, a writer can get by without all of that. But get by without a by-line? Hardly. Not a day goes by when I can't recall the tingle inside of me upon seeing first pulls of a new book or tear sheets of an article or short story from a newspaper or magazine. The power of the by-line. See what I mean?
All of these meandering musings are yet one more way of saying, "Get off your literary butt and get something you've written published!"
What's that you say? You've tried time and time again and failed miserably? Well, here are a few pointers that help me grab by-lines on a regular basis (and the fame, fortune, and women that go with them, naturally!).
Don't Aim Too High. If you're constantly being turned down with your article suggestions or story outlines by the nation's leading publications, you may well be your own worst enemy. Writing for large-circulation magazines is a great idea, but breaking in with them as an unpublished writer is just plain nuts. As one-time editor for one of the largest circulation monthlies in America, I used to get 200 - 300 editorial submissions a week. I had room to run four or five articles a month. Imagine how many manuscripts the top ten circulation mags receive each and every day! Then try to calculate the odds of one of them uncovering, reading, and publishing your stuff.
I'm not saying that you should never query a large circulation publication with an idea. If it's just "made" for Esquire, by all means let the editors there see it. In the meantime, set your daily sites on more reasonable markets. Your local area newspapers, alternative publications, regional magazines, and specialty markets are a good place to start.
Analyze Your Markets Carefully. The worst way to write an article or short story is to go through all that work and then try to find a publisher willing to buy it. Much more effective: Pick up a publication for which you'd like to write, see what kind of material the editor there is buying, and come up with something that's "the same but different"--that is, something similar but grabbier, more exciting, more readable than the stuff they've been running. You'll find your success rate will skyrocket.
Send Out Multiple Queries. I know, I know. At one time in history--I think it was B.C. (Before Computers)--this practice was considered an editorial faux pas. Today, it's just common sense. Find a publication for which you want to write, come up with an idea, and generate a query. Then send the same or slightly revised query (personalizing it as much as possible, of course) to similar, competing magazines. If you are lucky enough to get two requests to review your material, you can always tell one of the editors someone else beat him to it. Or, better still, tell the second editor that you've already sold the piece unexpectedly, but that you'd be happy to write a completely different article on the same topic for him.
A Query a Week. I used to subscribe to a philosophy of sending out a query a day, and it did net me a lot of sales. But the record-keeping drove me crazy; so, now I'm back down to a more comfortable query a week. If I don't get any takers from, say, 10 or 12 editors I query, I'll revise and strengthen the query and send it out again the following week to another 10 or 12. If those queries don't get me a sale, I slither off with my tail between my legs, file the idea away, and move on to a new and fresher topic.
What's that they say about beating a dead horse? Believe me, the same holds true for milking a stale story line.