Freelancing 101: Writing for Magazines
Most writers, when they up a copy of Newsweek, Time or People in the supermarket or the bookstore, dream at least every now and then about seeing their names in print in one of the big-name glossy consumer magazines.
But as nearly every writer who’s ever searched for a job at a magazine knows, consumer magazine publishers almost never post their available positions on the major Web job search sites or really in any kind of high-traffic public-facing site, other than perhaps their own company’s sites. So where does an aspiring writer turn to find work with a magazine, especially freelance work?
Those who want to write for consumer magazines have to get creative with their approach to this kind of job search, because what you’re looking for isn’t the traditional full-time job, but rather a series of jobs — and a long series with a number of different magazines, if you’re lucky.
Be an Investigator: Seek Out Editors
To get freelance work with magazines, you need to get assignments from the editors who work at the magazines. That means you need to know the names and (preferably) the email addresses of the editors who work in various sections at the magazines you want to target.
While in the past, writers have been encouraged to write professional letters — with paper and envelopes — to editors, in today’s world email is equally if not more effective, and more often than not will be the preferred means of communication for most editors working in publishing today.
For print publications, the masthead — which is found usually in the first five to ten pages of most magazines — is the best place to start. It’s where you may find email addresses for staff writers and editors, but you will certainly find a mailing address for the offices of the publication if you can’t contact them electronically. Most magazines’ websites will feature an online version of their mastheads on their websites, which often will contain email addresses for contacting them (though not in every case).
Decide What You’d Like to Write
In most print magazines, the editorial content is categorized into a few major sections: “front of the book” pieces, which are usually short (no more than 500 words or so); feature articles, which can range from 1,000 to 5,000 words or even more; and “back of the book” pieces, which usually number only one or two in each issue and typically range from 250 to 750 words or so.
When they’re trying out new freelancers, most magazine editors will have their new writers write for these front- or back-of-the-book pieces before they give them a shot at a feature-length article. Features are generally reserved for writers whom the editors know well and with whom have developed a solid working relationship, and whom they know they can rely on to meet deadlines with strong, quality work.
Doing great work on the shorter pieces over a period of time with a publication is what earns you a shot to write the longer — and usually higher-paying — feature pieces. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t pitch feature article ideas to magazines when you first contact them — it just means that you should strongly consider pitching shorter article ideas at first, along with your feature ideas, because you’re more likely to have success with those ideas, especially as a new writer.
Craft Your Pitch
When you email or write editors, you want to include your best story ideas possible. You want also to impress editors that you know their publication — and the needs and wants of their readers — very well. If you’re targeting magazines that focus on a location or metropolitan area, read past issues to make sure you don’t pitch ideas that have already been written and published in the recent past, and pitch ideas that show your in-depth knowledge of the city or area. If you’re targeting publications that focus on a subject matter area, follow the same guidelines and make sure the editors know of your expertise in the topic they cover.
Shoot for sending three to five story ideas to an editor in your pitch, but try not to go beyond five — you want to include only your best story ideas in each pitch to an editor. Also include a possible headline and 50- to 100-word synopsis for each idea, with suggestions on some of the people you would like to interview.
Editors these days are busier and more harried than ever, with the reductions in editorial staffs at magazines virtually across the board and the perilous economic conditions many publishers face today. It may take time — days or even weeks — for editors to respond to your pitch, and it’s quite possible they may not respond at all.
That doesn’t mean you should stop pitching, however — if you don’t succeed with your first query, that’s just a sign that it’s time to move on to the next publication and always keep your “eyes on the prize.”