Introduction to How Freelance Magazine Writing Works

Most magazines you see on newsstands every day rely on freelance writers for their content. From fillers to features, most parts of a publication are fair game for writers hoping to break in. No, you don't have to have a cousin in the publishing world to see your name in print. You just have to follow the rules like every other journalist until, one day, the editors start calling you.

In this edition of HowStuffWorks, you'll get a step-by-step tour of how a new writer can get his or her work published in a national magazine.

Get Clips

Magazine editors want to see examples of your work when you approach them with a story idea, so start writing for local publications, student newspapers, or Web sites to get some experience before contacting the big names.

Any time you manage to get your name in print, whether it's for a company newsletter or a specialty magazine, make lots of copies and keep a file of your work. You'll want to organize the file according to the type of writing it contains. For example, business or marketing content is quite a different thing from a human-interest story. When it comes time to send clips to an editor, you must be able to match your clips to the article ideas you are proposing.

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Web publishing is a great way for new writers to get their name out -- and all it takes is a little HTML.

Check out How Web Pages Work to learn, step by step, how to set up your own Web site. It can be a place dedicated solely to displaying your own work!

Read Up

Read as many copies of the magazine you want to write for as possible. This is called learning your market. You'll have to prove to the editor that you can write for his or her target audience and the best way to learn how to do this is through research. Take note of the publication's different departments, columns, and fillers. You will be more likely to get an editor's attention if you pitch an idea that perfectly fits an existing page. New freelancers often break in with a small blurb in the front of a magazine rather than a 5,000 word cover feature.

If you are part of the demographic the magazine targets, you may have an easier time getting your story sold. For example, the first feature I wrote was for College Bound magazine. I had just finished a three-year tenure writing for that age group at my student paper, and I was twenty-one years old myself. It would have been quite a feat to get published in Modern Maturity, so I didn't even consider it. Selling this feature was quite straight-forward. I wrote the advice piece, included a sidebar, and sent it to the editor via e-mail. It was a full three months later before I heard anything. I received a letter in the mail informing me that my feature would be accepted. I signed a rights contract and four months later received a check and two copies of the magazine…with my feature as the cover story! Most of my writing endeavors have not been this simple, however. Read on…...

Brainstorm

Come up with loads of ideas for articles you would enjoy researching and writing. The name of the game is perseverance, and you'll need to be armed with lots of enthusiasm and ideas if you are serious about getting published. After all, your first 10 ideas might be rejected. Don't despair, just keep coming up with new angles.

Try to keep your pitches timely. Link them to recent books or hot issues. Offer to write about things you are uniquely suited to research. For example, if you are a former guidance counselor, you'd be a good author for a parenting article about helping your teen get into college. Keep an idea logbook and add to it each time something piques your interest.

Here's an example of the process -- in this case, an unsuccessful attempt, as so many of them will be. I recently sent out an idea to Cosmopolitan magazine about how young women can sneak more savings into their lives without feeling like they're on a budget. I carefully put together a query package (see the next section), and sent it off last week. Yesterday, I received an impersonal form letter wishing me luck placing my work elsewhere. This is not the first time I've been rejected by a magazine of this size…and it won't be the last. What to do? I promptly sent a thank you note to the editor for looking at my query and will send out another idea to her this week. Meanwhile, I will turn around and pitch the original idea to a competing publication. My philosophy is one of careful inundation, you could say. If I experience complete rejection from national magazines, I may rework the idea or start pitching to smaller, regional publications. The whole process could literally take over a year.

 

Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Keep track of what you send where. Use a notebook to record the fleet of proposals making their way to and from New York or regional publishers.
  • Don't let rejections bring you down. They are simply a call to action -- to send out another idea and to send the first idea somewhere else.
  • Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope with your proposals. This way, you will hear something back, even if it's only a form letter. Just be patient and think of more ideas!

Query

Write a query letter. This is the most important part of the process -- actually contacting the editor you'd like to work for. The query letter should have four parts:

  • Start off the letter by grabbing the reader's attention. All magazine articles begin with a compelling sentence or paragraph, and your query should do the same thing. Do not say, "My name is ______ and I want to write for your magazine."
  • Show the editor why your article idea is important for readers. This paragraph can discuss current issues surrounding your subject, give a quote from an expert, and mention other significant reasons the magazine must publish your story ASAP.
  • Give the editor the nuts and bolts of how you will write the story. How many words? What will it include? What experts will you be contacting for their input? Will you provide sidebars, photos, etc.? Reveal exactly how you will approach the piece.
  • Finally, list your qualifications as a writer. This is where you'll want to mention previous work and experiences that make you uniquely suited to write the piece. Don't hold back, you must brag! Tell the editor everything you think will help your case. If your previous (or current) career is linked to the pitch, mention it.

Put these four paragraphs on a one-page letter with your letterhead containing contact information. Enclose three or four appropriate clips and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Mail the whole package, and then be patient. Editors often take up to three months to respond to query letters.

Know Your Contact

Send it to the right person. An essential part of getting published is getting your query letter into the right hands at the magazine you want to write for. Many magazines publish writer's guidelines in books like The Writers Market 2002. Guidelines tell you what the magazine wants and who to get in touch with. The Writers Market is the freelancer's bible. It is a nice resource, containing contact information and other good stuff like pay rates for thousands of magazines.

However, don't be afraid to look elsewhere for guidelines. You can request them right from a publication itself and they can also be found on many Web sites -- but make sure the information is up-to-date. It never hurts to call a magazine just to ensure that so-and-so is still the senior articles editor, for example. Just don't try to pitch your idea over the phone.

If you don't have the patience to look for guidelines, simply get a copy of the magazine and address your proposal to the editor whose department you'd like to write for. This information can be found in the masthead, usually about 10 pages from the front of the magazine.

Rights and Payment

Once you get an assignment, finish it on time and use your momentum to get other work. If you did not have to sell all the rights, try to reprint the piece in a non-competing market after about six months. This way, you can get paid two, three, or four times for the same work. Always sell as few rights as possible, but don't worry about it too much when you're just starting out.

Some important terms for freelancers about rights:

  • One-time or first North American serial rights - This is the right to publish your story once or the right to publish your story for the first time in North America. If this is all you agree to, you're gold for selling the reprint.
  • All rights - This is just what it says: You cannot resell an article if you've signed these away.
  • Electronic rights - This is the right to publish your work on the Internet or on CD-ROM. See if you can get more money to sell these rights.
  • Reprint or second rights - This is the right to publish your article a second time.

If you have questions, ask your editor at the time of contract signing. Or, consult a writer's resource like The Writer's Market.

Payment varies greatly among different publications. National magazines usually pay between $0.75 and $2.00 per word. Local publications are more in the $0.10 per word range. This information can usually be found in a magazine's guidelines. The larger a magazine's readership, the bigger your paycheck.

If you choose to seek freelance writing work listed on job sites throughout the Web, look out for anyone who wants you to pay them for the chance to write. That's crazy!

Getting published in a magazine is not an easy task, but it's not impossible either. Successful writers have all been rejected many times, but they refused to give up. The key is good queries, and lots of them. Good luck!

For lots more information, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksAbout the Author

Laura Schaefer received her B.A. in Communication Arts from the University of Wisconsin and has held various editorial and writing positions. She has published articles in numerous magazines, including Northwest Baby & Child and College Bound, and on Web sites including Match.com and FrenchCove.com.