You get that wistful look in your eyes as you stand at the grocery checkout line. You sigh a little, fingering the glossy covers of those gloriously popular magazines. A single tear forms as you realize that, for the 35th month in a row, your byline is in none of them.
Sure, you have your little successes. Your work has appeared in smaller magazines. Maybe your articles even show up regularly in local publications, on Web sites, in trade magazines or in those mid-sized consumer magazines that never quite make the cut at the supermarket.
But you can’t deny that you ache to finally crack those glossies and feel like you’re a member of the upper echelon of freelance writers.
How do I know? I’ve been there. And now that I’ve had the exciting experience of casually flipping to my articles and pointing them out to my friendly supermarket cashiers, I want to help you do the same.
1. AIM BIG, BUT THINK SMALL
If you don’t have a bio and clips to die for, major magazine editors aren’t likely to trust you with a long feature assignment right away. Instead, aim for the short articles in the front of the magazine and stay on the lookout for appropriate ideas you can flesh out in a few hundred words or less. For truly short articles, you can skip the query and just write the entire thing if you preferit usually requires about the same amount of effort.
Linda Wasmer Andrews has now written 1,700 articles for a wide list of impressive magazines. But she says her first big break came in 1985 when she sold several short pieces to American Health. “Back in those prehistoric days, you couldn’t just surf the Internet for leads. So I’d go to the local medical library and spend hours combing through the current issues of medical journals, looking for quirky ideas that would make my queries stand out,” she says. “The first one that sold was a short item about the air quality in ice-skating rinks. Other successful pitches included seat belts for dogs and a curved-bristle toothbrush. Those short clips in a big magazine landed me long assignments from small magazines, which landed me long assignments from big magazinesmy ultimate goal, of course.”
2. FIND LOCAL SUBJECTS
Savvy freelancers never discount their local newspapers and radio and TV stations. You never know when you’re going to find out that one of your neighbors has a story worthy of a national audience. Be especially aware of local volunteers, extraordinary human-interest stories and town projects, and interesting entrepreneursmany magazines are on the lookout for these subjects. And don’t ignore kids’ accomplishments: Teen magazines use plenty of stories about outstanding youth.
Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt broke into American Profile by paying attention to her surroundings. “I pitched the magazine a story on Delaware City, a forgotten town that was trying to entice tourists so it could regain some of its former grandeur.” Bell-Rehwoldt and her husband had been gallivanting around town and were smart enough to stop by the visitor’s center for research material.
3. WRITE YOUR OWN STORY
Your personal experiences are potential gold mines. Think about the important life lessons you’ve learned, the challenges you’ve overcome, the stories that have captivated your friends and inspired other people. A story that’s uniquely yours can’t be assigned to another writer, so your bio and clips aren’t quite as important in this area as your compelling tale.
While working at a public radio station, Andrea Cooper sold a first-person story about the station’s Celtic music program to The Christian Science Monitor. My first major credit was from Woman’s World, where I told the story of how my fiancé helped me overcome agoraphobia.
4. MEET EDITORS
If you have a chance to meet editors at conferences or networking events, do it! Sometimes you’ll have an opportunity to pitch a magazine idea on the spot; other times, it’s considered poor form to do business at an event, but you can listen to the editor talk and then pitch by e-mail later. Some freelancers also got their starts by landing internships or entry-level positions at magazines and using the time, in part, to make contacts.
At a writing conference many years ago, Veda Eddy listened to a Sports Illustrated editor speak about her need for quirky pieces on sports-related subjects. Although Eddy had never read the magazine, she pitched the editor an article about the ways race-horses are named. “She said it sounded promising and asked me to follow up with a written query,” Veda says. “That was the first of about six articles I wrote for Sports Illustrated, and it would never have happened if I hadn’t had that personal contact with the editor.”
5. WRITE ON SPEC
Writing on speculation (“on spec”) is a controversial issue among writers, but there’s no denying that it can pay off. If you have no clips, or nothing you feel would impress the editor enough to assign you a particular piece, it may be worth it for you to write the article first and hope it’ll sell. Study the magazine’s format to get an idea of the right word count and style, then give it your best shot.
That’s what Lisa Marie Beamer and Janine Adams did. Beamer won a writing contest sponsored by an online writing group, and entrants were encouraged to submit their work to paying markets after the contest ended. She edited her entry until she thought it was marketable, then sent it to FamilyFun. “I was shocked beyond belief when, two months later, a senior editor called to tell me they were interested in using my essay for the My Good Idea column.” Adams queried Good Housekeeping about a profile of an animal-rescue activist, and an editor there asked for the story on spec. It was published in 1997 and, since then, Adams has written for many other national magazines.
6. WORK HARDER THAN EVERYONE ELSE
If you’re trying to break in, be willing to do extra work up front to give the editor confidence in your ability to handle the assignment. Conduct exhaustive research, nail down experts, perfect your lead, find anecdotes and suggest sidebars and visuals where appropriate.
“I’d been writing for trade publications and smaller magazinesand unsuccessfully pitching the big women’s pubsfor a few years when I learned that editors like to see a lot of research in your queries,” says Linda Formichelli, a freelancer who’s written for Family Circle, Woman’s Day and Redbook.
No Magic Key
Many writers believe that if they can land just one article in a well-known magazine, they’ll be set and will never lack assignments again. The truth is, most freelancers find that getting a byline in a major magazine helps, but it doesn’t guarantee future sales. Jane Louise Boursaw’s first major sale was to Woman’s Day, and she says, “I felt like the queen of the world after getting that byline. That story helped me get my foot in the door and gave me the confidence to keep going, but I still had to keep chugging forward with queries.”
Ditch the idea of a “magic key” market that’s going to unlock the magazine industry’s door and, instead, plan to knock on many doors before you make it to the V.I.P. suite.
It may help if you give yourself a weekly “query quota.” Boursaw suggests two or three well-crafted queries per week, whereas Bell-Rehwoldt aims for five.
Rather than shooting the same query letter to dozens of magazines at once, though, challenge yourself to make your pitch a perfect fit. Think of a magazine as a puzzle: Your article must have all the right grooves, be the right size and match the overall picture. If you can tell an editor just where your article belongs in the magazine and why her readers will be interested, your odds greatly improve.
And if you don’t hear back from an editor, Adams says you should always follow up by e-mail or phone: “Don’t take silence as a no.”
There are many avenues that can lead you to your first big sale, but you have to be willing to take a risk. Beamer says she didn’t have any confidence her first essay would sell. “I could’ve easily talked myself out of sending it, but I didn’t. It sounds cliché, but you have to take what might seem like unrealistic chances if you’re going to succeed. You never know which one might pay off.”
When the odds seem insurmountable, remember that every successful freelancer once had a blank list of credits. Keep learning, keep building those clips and don’t be afraid to shoot for the top. Today might just be your day.