A Jaunt Down the Magazine-Writing Path
by Leslie Albrecht Huber
I have a confession to make. I never intended to write for magazines. I wanted to write books. The only reason I ever sent that first query to a magazine was because I read somewhere that it would help me write a book—or at least help convince a literary agent that I could write a book. But within a few months of sending that first query, my perspective changed. I was hooked. Magazine writing, it turns out, has a lot more to offer than I realized.
Writing for magazines provides great experience and exposure, as well as opportunities to improve your writing skills. It’s something you can do at home on your own schedule and provides a nice income with little risk—after all, you get a contract before you write a single word of an article. (Sure beats writing an entire novel and THEN looking for someone who wants to publish it.) Best of all, writing for magazines is fun.
With all those benefits, you just might want to take your own jaunt down the magazine-writing path.
How It Works
The first thing to understand is this: Magazine articles are sold from query letters, not completed articles. In other words, you first approach a magazine editor with an idea—almost always by email. If the editor likes your idea, she’ll give you an assignment. Only then do you start writing.
Obviously, the query is critically important. So what should it include? Just like a query for a book agent, start with a hook—something to grab the editor’s attention, whether it’s a colorful quote or a jaw-dropping statistic. Include a couple of paragraphs describing the topic and your vision of the article, as well as a paragraph giving your credentials and background. If you have samples of articles you’ve already had published, offer to send them along. Generally, it’s a good idea to keep the query to one page and to pitch only one idea at a time. I’ve included an example query just below (for a magazine interested in history topics):
Nearly all magazines have guidelines for writers that describe what they are looking for and how to contact them (usually available online). Make sure you check these out before you submit your query.
Dream Big but Start Small
Do you dream of seeing your name on the cover of a magazine with circulation in the millions? Keep dreaming! It’s always great to dream big—but it’s also important to start with small, realistic steps.
Magazines prefer writers with whom they’ve worked with in the past. At the very least, they like to work with published writers. Surprised? I didn’t think so. And if you don’t fall into that category (yet—it’s just a matter of time, right?), then you might find yourself in a dilemma. Your best chance is to start with smaller publications.
You’d be amazed at how many magazines are out there and how many topics they cover. Choose a topic you know about or with which you have some experience. You don’t need to be a professional on the topic—in fact, just having enough background to know how to research or reach a professional for an interview will get you a long way. Then find a magazine that covers your topic. For example, since I have a degree in history and have worked as a professional genealogist, I often write for genealogy and history magazines.
Another tip: Consider pitching an idea for one of the magazine’s departments instead of pitching an idea for a feature. Editors are more willing to take a risk on a new person if it’s for a shorter article. Use these successes to build your credentials and work toward longer articles and magazines with larger circulations.
As for that book I wanted to write? I’m working on it—in between writing magazine articles, that is!
Do This Now
1. Explore your options. Start with magazines you already read or with which you’re familiar. Find others by searching online for magazines that cover topics of interest to you or by checking out the resources in number 5 below. Don’t overlook local publications. Study each of the magazines from a writing perspective, paying attention to types of feature articles or departments, typical topics, tone, length, and so on.
2. Get a copy of the magazine’s submission guidelines. These guidelines can usually be found online; if not, contact the editor through the contact information found online. The submission guidelines will tell you what types of articles the editor assigns to freelancers and how to query. Keep in mind that some magazines use mostly staff writers and won’t be open to queries.
3. Choose a target and craft a query. Start small to improve your chances of success. Be sure to start your query with a hook. It doesn’t need to be dramatic or shocking, but it does need to pique the editor’s interest.
4. Build on your successes—and failures. Revise and resend rejected queries to other publications, remembering that rejection is part of the business. Use successes to help you break into larger magazines.
5. Read these books:
Writer’s Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing edited by Michelle Ruberg. This covers everything from coming up with ideas to crafting the perfect query letter to researching and writing your article.
2014 Writer’s Market edited by Robert Lee Brewer. Every writer needs a copy of this book, and a new edition is published every year! For those wanting to break into magazines, you’ll find more magazines listed than you ever knew existed; you’ll also find information about how to contact those magazines and how to break into them.
6. Bonus challenge: Since magazine writing will help you practice writing that book, and vice versa, you’ll want to become adept at understanding craft and industry—particularly if you discover that you enjoy writing nonfiction. So check out the following resources if you want to start gaining expertise in nonfiction writing:
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser. This is considered by many to be the companion to Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style—and just as useful.
Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write by Elizabeth Lyon. If you intend to sell a nonfiction book (other than perhaps a memoir), you’ll need to first master the art of the nonfiction book proposal. There are many books out there that can help, but I’ve found this one is easy to understand and follow.
Your turn: In what unexpected ways have you—or writers you know—earned writing income beyond selling books?
Leslie Albrecht Huber has written more than a hundred articles for a variety of magazines, including The History Channel Magazine, FamilyFun, Family Tree Magazine, Family Chronicle, and others. She currently lives in Middleton, Wisconsin.