Tips on How to Write for a Magazine

various magazines fanned out

Moment Open/Getty Images

Breaking into national magazines is tough, but it’s not absolutely impossible. You just need a plan. Here are a few tips that continue to work for guest columnist Melissa Walker.

Pitch Them an Idea They Can’t Refuse 

Especially if you haven’t broken into the national market yet, you’ll need a strong story to get that first big byline. But that doesn’t mean you have to land an interview with Kanye West or track down the scientist who’s about to cure cancer.

Look around. Pay attention to what your friends are talking about. Think of a story idea with a specific angle and tone and find the right niche for your idea. Read a newspaper every day, whether it's a major publication like The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune, or a smaller paper with local color profiles and features that might play to a national audience.

And read a lot of magazines as you try to find the right niche. Once you've pinpointed that, study a few back issues to make sure you’ve got their content and personality down. Equally important, make sure you know the name of the section your idea fits into and the general word count.

Consider paying for a premium subscription to MediaBistro and taking advantage of its “How to Pitch” series, which is detailed and incredibly informative. The articles in the series focus on magazines like AARP The Magazine, The Advocate, Playboy, Psychology Today, Wired, and Women's Health, and offer insight on how to best go about pitching these particular publications.

Otherwise, you can also get the editors' names off the magazine masthead and begin sending emails. (About 99% of the time, electronic is the best way to go—it’s not as invasive as a phone call, and it’s not as likely to end up in an intern mail pile as a hard copy query.)

Pitch the Right Person

If you’re not sure who edits the section you want to pitch, shoot the idea to an associate editor. Associate editors are the lower-middle level of the magazine staff. Generally, they’re not quite as busy as senior editors, and they’re hungry to build their own stable of writers. Sometimes these folks are assistants who have recently been promoted, assigning stories for the first time in their magazine careers, and so they are eager to find fresh talent.

Flatter, Flatter, Flatter ​

Google your editor’s name. Does she have a book out? Read it! Or mention how you’re looking forward to picking it up. Did he write a fantastic feature in last month’s issue? Know that. Comment on it. If you have a knowledgeable compliment in your introduction (“I love the redesign of your section,” “Your story in the August issue about friendship breakups was so insightful!”), you’ve got the editor’s attention.

Follow Up, but Don’t Be Annoying

Sending ideas to editors can sometimes feel like shouting into a black hole. Here’s a good method of nudging: After two weeks with no response, remind them of your pitch. After three weeks, remind them of the pitch, and mention that if you don’t hear from them in a week, you’ll assume they’re not interested, and you’ll be moving the pitch along to other venues. Say this all very nicely and professionally, of course.