Selling to the Sisters

What’s not to like about writing for women’s magazines? Many pay big bucks—$1 to $2 per word and more—and get your name in front of millions of readers.

And don’t think you have to be a sister yourself to break into the titles collectively known as the six sisters: Family Circle, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, Better Homes and Gardens and Woman’s Day. My husband, W. Eric Martin, has written several pieces for Woman’s Day, and Pam O’Brien, executive editor of Ladies’ Home Journal, says her magazine uses several male writers on a regular basis.

I spoke with several women’s magazine editors as well as writers who have been published in the magazines to give you the scoop on selling to the sisters. I also drew from my own experience in selling to these magazines: Since 1997, I had been pounding the women’s pubs with queries and receiving nothing but form rejection letters in reply. Then, within one month in 2000, I sold articles to Redbook, Family Circle and Woman’s Day. Since then, I’ve written for the latter two magazines several times.

Ready, aim …

First step: Study the magazines so you’ll send just the right idea to just the right person. You’ll also learn what not to send editors. “I can’t tell you how many poetry submissions I receive,” says Cari Wira, Woman’s Day assistant features editor. “All of these writers get rejected, not because their writing isn’t good, but because we don’t ever publish poetry.”

Studying a few past issues will give you an idea of the magazine’s demographics and the attitudes of its readers. “As a writer, you need to think about who will be reading the article,” says Stacey Colino, who’s written for about a dozen women’s magazines including Redbook and Ladies’ Home Journal. “Do these women have kids? Do they work outside the home? Is their style more suburban soccer mom or urban hip? Factors like these will affect the tone, content and angle of the article—and these need to be reflected in your query.”

For example, when studying Redbook, I noticed that writers tended to use short, spunky words like “nix” and “zap,” so I used these words when writing my query for (ahem) “The Better Orgasm Diet” to show the editors that I understood the tone they were looking for: “Nix the caffeine for a better sex life,” and “Alcohol will zap your sexual energy.”

Once you have an idea ready to go, find out which editor should be the lucky recipient of your query. “[My pet peeve is] when they pull the name of an editor from an outdated Writer’s Market or old masthead,” Wira says. “If a journalist can’t pick up the phone to find out who the correct editor to query to is and how to spell their name, then there is doubt in my mind that they will be able to find the correct information for an article.”

Think small

The fastest way to break into a woman’s magazine is to aim for the shorter department pieces. “Most writers who either haven’t been published ever or who have been published in small publications have a lot of great ideas for magazines,” Wira says. “Unfortunately, many of them propose huge features right off the bat before getting their feet wet. My best advice to writers who are just starting off, either in women’s writing or writing in general, is to start small. Three hundred and fifty-word pieces for regular columns are tough for editors to brainstorm every issue. To get in the door and cultivate a relationship with an editor, try pitching smaller pieces, which can always lead to larger pieces.”

That’s how Kathryn Lay, whose credits include Woman’s Day, broke into her first woman’s pub. “I’d been trying for several years,” she says. “I think it was in breaking into the small sections [that I had success]. I’d always tried to start with a major article idea, but had no large clips to back it up with.”

And even unpublished writers have a chance with opinion pieces and essays, since it’s standard practice to send in those pieces as complete manuscripts—no clips required.

Get real

Compelling real-life stories always stand out in the slush pile. “The best way to break into Ladies’ Home Journal is through our column called First Person,” O’Brien says. “Many of these are as-told-to stories. We need such a steady supply of them and such a variety of them that it’s a good opportunity for writers.”

Melba Newsome, who’s written for Good Housekeeping and Redbook, broke into women’s magazines with a story about a woman who was taking on a corporate polluter. Newsome had read about her in the Sierra Club newsletter. “I realized that the women’s magazines get so many service pieces, that you should not even try to do a service story, in my opinion. And they come up with so many of them in-house,” she says. “What they don’t come up with in-house are the kinds of stories I do—the ‘My husband had a sex change and ran off with my lesbian lover’ kind of things.”

Contact Information
  • We’ve included the addresses and selected editors and wants of the six sisters. For in-depth listings, consult www.WritersMarket.com or the print edition, Writer’s Market (WD Books), available at your local library or for sale at your local bookstore or www.writersdigest.com.
  • Better Homes and Gardens
    www.bhg.com), 1716 Locust St., Des Moines IA 50309-3023. Tel: (515)284-3044. Fax: (515)284-3763. Contact: Nancy Byal, food and nutrition editor; Mark Kane, garden/outdoor living editor; Catherine Hamrick, health editor; Richard Sowienski, education and parenting editor. Needs: travel, education, gardening, health, cars, home, entertainment.
  • Family Circle
    (www.familycircle.com), 375 Lexington Ave., New York NY 10017-5514. Tel: (212)499-2000. Fax: (212)499-1987). E-mail: nclark@familycircle.com. Contact: Nancy Clark, deputy editor. Needs: essays, humor, opinion, personal experience, women’s interest subjects such as family and personal relationships, children, physical and mental health, nutrition and self-improvement.
  • Good Housekeeping
    (www.goodhousekeeping.com), 959 8th Ave., New York NY 10019. Tel: (212)649-2000. Fax: (212)265-3307. Contact: Judith Coyne, executive editor. Needs: consumer, social issues, dramatic narrative, nutrition, work, relationships, psychology, trends.
  • Ladies’ Home Journal
    (www.lhj.com), 125 Park Ave., 20th Floor, New York NY 10017-5516. Tel: (212)557-6600. Fax: (212)455-1313. Contact: Myrna Blyth, publishing director/editor in chief.
  • Redbook
    (www.magazines.ivillage.com/redbook/), 224 W. 57th St., New York NY 10019. Contact: Article Department. Needs: social issues, parenting, sex, marriage, news profiles, true crime, dramatic narratives, money, psychology, health.
  • Woman’s Day
    www.womansday.com), 1633 Broadway, 42nd Floor, New York NY 10019. Tel: (212)767-6000. Fax: (212)767-5610. Contact: Stephanie Abarbanel, senior articles editor. Needs: family life, child rearing, education, homemaking, money management, careers, family health, work and leisure activities. Also interested in fresh, dramatic narratives of women’s lives and concerns.
  • Divine inspiration

    All this advice is easy enough to give, but where do you come up with the ideas that will have editors adding you to their favorite writer lists?

    First, take a look at the magazines and see what they run month after month. These are called “evergreen” stories because they never lose their freshness. In Ladies’ Home Journal, for instance, it’s the story of an exceptional woman. “We’re always looking for stories about women who are doing interesting things,” O’Brien says. “Great human interest stories, women who have overcome obstacles—women who both you and I want to read about.”

    Evergreen topics in Woman’s Day include finding time for yourself and your family, ways to save money and learning to love yourself, Wira says. Other good solid standbys for women’s pubs include how-to’s on relationships, parenting issues, health and saving money. Just be sure to give a tired topic a new twist. For example, I broke into Woman’s Day with an article on not just saving money, but on unique ways to save money on big-ticket items like appliances, furniture and cars.

    Being a bookworm can help you come up with query-worthy ideas. “I get ideas reading everything: great literature, contemporary fiction, other magazines and newspapers, Web sites,” says Jennifer Nelson, whose publishing credits include Woman’s Day. “I’m on a ton of mailing lists for news, PR releases, health letters and medical advances.”

    Your life should also be mined for all it’s worth. “I draw directly from my life,” says Diane Benson Harrington, managing editor of Freelance Success (a weekly guide to freelancing opportunities), who has written for Woman’s Day and Family Circle. “Thus, I pitched `The I-Hate-Housework Guide to Cleaning and Decorating,’ which offered tips on how to decorate your house if you hate to clean and [on] how to clean with absolute minimal effort.”

    Query tips

    Editors are inundated with queries, so it’s imperative that yours stand out. A reader-grabbing lead is the way to start. Here’s how Harrington started a query letter that got her into Family Circle:

    My ideas may not be orthodox, but they generate plenty of money—at least when it comes to yard sales. I’ve made more than $1,000 at every sale since my first. In fact, I pulled in more than $2,000 at my last one. And I didn’t have to part with my antiques, either. How’d I do it? With a little common sense and a lot of humor.

    Putting dollar amounts right up front grabs the editor’s attention, and the end of the paragraph makes the editor want to read the rest of the query letter and find out what Harrington could possibly mean by “a little common sense and a lot of humor.”

    When I finally hit Woman’s Day with an idea that drew interest, the editor called to ask me to do more research and resend the query. I gathered up some sources, got some good quotes and stats, and turned in a three-page query. Success! I then used this tip to break into Family Circle and Redbook with well-researched two- and three-page queries.

    “I don’t think it’s the length of the query so much as the quality of the idea,” O’Brien says. “Our policy isn’t to say, `If it’s longer than a page we’re not going to look at it.’ If it’s a good idea, we’re going to keep reading it.” But she does suggest keeping your query to three pages max. Don’t force yourself to write long queries, but be bold enough to include any appealing information even if it does push the query over the standard length.

    Include in your query the names and credentials of your sources (plus a juicy quote or two from one of them), plus any stats that show why your idea needs to be written.

    For example, in a recent query on women in martial arts, I included a statistic that proved women are joining martial arts classes in unprecedented numbers. And women’s magazines are sidebar-happy, so be sure to include information on any sidebars or boxes you plan to include.

    About clips

    It’s hard to break into women’s magazines without related clips, but you can’t get clips until you’ve written for women’s magazines. Well, take heart. I broke into Woman’s Day, Family Circle and Redbook with clips from health and business magazines. Lay sent clips from kids’ and religious magazines, and Harrington sent newspaper articles. Clips from Web sites and regional magazines also work. “Even if it’s just from a newspaper, any clips you have will help you get your foot in the door,” O’Brien says.

    Once you land an assignment and get a clip from one woman’s magazine, you’re in. “Half the editors at every national magazine in the country must have read my first published clip in Woman’s Day,” Nelson says. “At many places, the doors seemed to open up immediately. Even some magazines that were rejecting my pitches appeared to take a teeny bit of extra time, at least reading them, or responding with a personal rejection.”

    So whether you’re a sister or a mister, a greenhorn or an old hand, nix the negativity and target that market!

    This article appears in the January 2003 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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