How To Write for a Magazine

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Want to write for a magazine? 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. Read your local newspaper every day (if your local newspaper is The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune, check Newspaper Links to find small papers with local color profiles and features that might play to a national audience).

My first big byline? A story for Ladies Home Journal’s “How We Met” column about a single, 20-something schoolteacher who took in a foster child and then ended up marrying his caseworker and having triplets. Foster care, multiple births, and love in unlikely places—a women’s magazine’s dream. And I originally heard about my subject in a small-town paper.

Know the Magazine

Read at least three back issues (often available at the library if you can’t wait three months to pitch). I know you’ve heard it before, I know it’s common sense. But what I’m saying is, really know the magazine. Know the name of the section your idea fits into, know the general word count of items in that section, know the tone of voice the magazine uses, know how to spell the editor’s name. It’s right on the masthead; there’s no excuse.

Pitch the Sweet Spot

Associate editors are the lower-middle level of the magazine staff. They are recently promoted assistants, and they are assigning stories for the first time in their magazine careers. That means they’re on the lookout for new writers, writers who can send them ideas that work (and make them look good to their bosses). If you’re not sure who edits the section you want to pitch—and as we’ve already established, you do know the section you’re pitching—shoot the idea to an associate editor. They’re not quite as busy as senior editors, generally, and they’re hungry to build their own stable of writers.

Flatter, Flatter, Flatter ​

Google your editor’s name. Does he/she have a book out? Read it! Or mention how you’re looking forward to picking it up. Did he/she 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.

Pitch via Email

99% of the time, electronic is the best way to go. It’s not as invasive as a phone call; it’s not as likely to end up in an intern mail pile as a hard copy query. Plus, it’s free.

Follow Up, but Don’t Be Annoying

I know that sending ideas to editors can sometimes feel like shouting into a black hole. Here’s my 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.

This may be a lot of info to take in, but here’s my advice on Step One: Think of a story idea with a specific angle and tone, and then hit a bookstore to look at a lot of magazines (many you haven’t heard of, but that still pay $1/word and more!) and find the right niche for your idea. Study a few back issues of the magazine at the library to make sure you’ve got their content and personality down, get the editors' names off the masthead, review this list of tips and email away!

Bonus: Two secret weapons (both require a subscription; both are worth it, in my opinion):

  • MediaBistro’s “How to Pitch” series is detailed, service-filled and incredibly informative.
  • posts up-to-date staff lists, as well as email addresses.