Tips and Tricks for Magazine Writing

Writing for magazines can be a great way to increase your name recognition as well as put a few extra bucks in your pocket. But, it isn’t for the faint of heart nor for those with thin skin. It can be a lot of work and rejections are very common, even for articles that are very well written. The good news is that once you gain a reputation for quality writing and you get to know the editors at some of your target markets, those rejections typically diminish.

I’m not any sort of expert in selling material to magazines. I have successfully written for a number of magazines, though, such as Survivor’s Edge, Countryside, Self Reliance Illustrated (sadly, now defunct), American Survival Guide, and OFFGRID. What follows are my suggestions and advice for those seeking to expand their writing beyond blogs. The information provided here is what has worked for me, your mileage may vary.

Market Research
The process starts with determining where you should look to sell articles. Many of us have at least a couple of magazines we read regularly so put those at the top of your list, assuming your article ideas would mesh with the content of those publications. Then, head down to your local bookstore or newsstand and look for magazines that appear to have content similar to that which you hope to write.

Next, stop at your library and check out the most recent edition you can find of Writer’s Market. This is a book that comes out every year and lists thousands of magazines, trade publications, and other markets. The commercial magazine section is grouped into categories. If you’re struggling to figure out which categories would best apply to your topics, check the index and try to find a few of the magazines you’ve already put on your list. Then, look at the other magazines listed in those same categories.

Bear in mind, though, that the information in Writer’s Market is already old by the time the book hits the shelves. Don’t look at it as the “end all, be all” but rather as just a way to find more magazines to which to submit. The other thing Writer’s Market is good for is determining whether the magazine even accepts freelance articles as there are many out there that are mostly if not entirely staff written.

Once you have a good list of potential markets, go online and search [magazine name] + submission guidelines. That’s where you’re going to find the most up to date information available as to where to send your pitch. If you’re at a complete loss and cannot find the submission guidelines anywhere, it is perfectly acceptable to send an email to the editor asking for a copy of the guidelines or a link to where you can find them online.

Most magazines have what is called a masthead located within the first few pages. It is usually a single column and it will list all of the business information about the publication – the publisher, editors, contributors, office mailing address, etc.. More often than not, there will be an email address listed for submissions. It might not list a person’s name but at least you’ll know where to send your pitch.

One thing that is vitally important when doing this market research is to read at least a few issues of every magazine to which you want to submit. You’ll need to be able to write your article in such a way that the “voice” matches the magazine’s overall content. Some magazines like to see a bit of humor in the articles, others want nothing but the facts. You’ll have far more success in selling articles if you do your homework ahead of time and craft your submissions accordingly.

Reading several issues of the magazine will also tell you if the topic you have in mind has been covered recently. If it has, pitch that idea elsewhere. Unless, of course, you are able to come up with a unique slant on the idea, one that makes your article differ considerably from what was already published.

Pitch
Also known as the query, this is what you’ll initially send to the magazine editor to try and sell your article. In this day and age, almost all queries or pitches are sent via email, of course. Once upon a time, when such things were still hammered out on a typewriter or word processor and sent via snail mail, the rule of thumb was no more than a single page. Keep that in mind when you write your query and keep it short and sweet.

There are roughly a gazillion websites out there that list all sorts of different sample queries or pitches. Just do a search for “query letter template” and you’ll find a ton of them. For whatever it is worth, here’s the basic format I use.

First paragraph is a brief summary of the article’s topic and focus, as well as why it would appeal to that magazine’s fan base. No more than maybe four sentences total.

Second paragraph is a summary of why you are qualified to write this article. If you’ve been published before, mention where. Again, just a few sentences.

Third paragraph gives just a little more information about the proposed article, such as expected word count, whether you have photos to accompany the article, and when you could have the article ready to submit.

Close the email with something like, “Thank you for your time and I hope to hear from you soon.” In your signature line at the very end, be careful about including links to your blogs or sites. Reason being, I’ve had emails automatically rejected because of suspected spam.

If at all possible, address the editor by name in your email. If their name is listed in the submission guidelines, or you can easily suss it out via the email address, use it. If you cannot come up with the person’s name, just start your email with, “Greetings,” or something generic like that. NEVER start your email with, “Dear Editor” or something similar. That just looks bad.

Remember what I said earlier about having your article match the “voice” or style of the magazine. Try to do the same with your query. If the magazine is written in a generally conversational tone, write your pitch accordingly.

It can take as little as a day or as long as several weeks to hear back from an editor. What I suggest is a “send and forget it” approach. Click Send and move on to the next submission or project. Hitting refresh twice a minute isn’t going to get their response to you any faster.

Simultaneous Submissions
You might be tempted to send a query for the same article to several different magazines, figuring you’ll sell it to whomever bites first. I advise you to avoid doing this. Come up with one solid but unique article idea for each magazine to which you want to submit. If they pass on your query, then you can submit it elsewhere. What you want to avoid is sending a query to a magazine, then having to email them again a few days later to pull the query because you sold it elsewhere. That can tend to irritate an editor.

Also, keep each pitch or query limited to one article idea. Once you’ve built a bit of a relationship with an editor, the door will be opened to where you can submit a few ideas at a time.

Even if you don’t plan on submitting a ton of articles to various magazines, do yourself a favor and keep things well organized right from the beginning. You want to keep track of what articles you’ve submitted where. If nothing else, keep a draft email or a document where you list the articles or topics you’ve submitted to each magazine, the date you submitted it to them, and the final result (published, passed, whatever).

It is becoming increasingly common for editors to ask if you’ve published anything on a topic similar to the one you propose to them. Some writers seem to think it is okay to sell the same or a very similar article to multiple magazines. Getting caught doing so will not end well for you. It is one thing to sell an article on raising backyard chickens to Magazine A and sell an article on building a chicken coop to Magazine B. That’s perfectly fine. However, it is another thing entirely to sell an article on 5 Ways to Sidestep HOA Rules to three different publications.

Word Count
As I mentioned earlier, you’ll need to know an approximate word count when you pitch an article. It sounds like you’re putting the cart before the horse, doesn’t it? How do you know how long the article will be if you haven’t written it yet? Simply put, you can’t. Sure, once you’ve been doing it a while, you can get pretty good at estimating how long the article will be in order to cover the information you have in mind. But, until you reach that point, you might have to write the damn thing first.

Again thinking back to the typewriter days, the rule of thumb back then was 250 words per double spaced page. Today, you can’t go by that rule because it depends upon font, font size, and all that good stuff. However, with just a click in any word processing software out there you’ll know exactly how many words you have, so there’s that at least. Most markets are happy with a single spaced document, with a blank line between paragraphs. The submission guidelines you researched will tell you if they have special requests as to formatting.

Keep in mind that word count is absolutely crucial. The average, at least in the survival/homestead niche, seems to be around 1,500 words or so. Sometimes they’ll mention this in the submission guidelines but not always. Either way, the editor will tell you, if they want to pursue with the article, the expected word count. Do not deviate from that number more than perhaps 5% in either direction. Magazines have very limited space constraints and an article that comes in considerably longer than anticipated will not only be rejected, the editor will hesitate to agree to any further articles from you.

One of the very first articles I sold to a major publication I had pitched to be around 2,000 words. I had already written the article and had it ready to go. The editor said she loved the topic but wanted to pare it down to a sidebar for another piece. She asked me to cut it down to 400 words. Yeah, that wasn’t a whole lot of fun. But, I pulled it off, the editor was happy, and I’ve since sold several more articles (all considerably longer) to that publication.

Some outlets will also request one or more sidebars to accompany the article. Sidebars are the boxes you sometimes see within articles, where there are a few hundred words on a specific subtopic. Usually, the word count for the article does NOT include the sidebar material and the editor will give you a separate word count for the sidebars if they request them. More and more often, magazines like to see these sidebars as they’ll also run them on their websites as short blurbs or blog posts.

Deadlines

Most magazines work far ahead. Meaning, in January they might be working on the April or May issue. The submission guidelines will usually specify when seasonal articles need to be submitted. The editor will give you a deadline for your article and if you want to keep them happy, beat that deadline by at least a few days if not a week or two. Writers who consistently meet deadlines are always remembered by editors. So are writers who are late, keep that in mind.

Photos
Editors typically love writers who can also provide photos for their articles. However, if photography really isn’t in your wheelhouse, be honest about it. Most magazines, the larger ones at least, have subscriptions to various stock photo places and can probably find images that will work for your article. I know of one magazine that encourages the writers to search through those databases and suggest appropriate images.

If you have photos you can provide, tell the editor that in the pitch. If you don’t have photos, don’t mention it in the pitch at all and wait for the editor ask you about them. When he or she does, just tell them you don’t have any appropriate photos and leave it at that. While there are editors out there who will pass on an article that doesn’t have photography to accompany it, there’s not much you can do about that. Either you can provide photos or you can’t.

Any photos you do submit will need to be of the highest resolution possible, 1 mg or larger in size. Personally, I don’t monkey with my photos a whole lot, other than perhaps a bit of cropping. I just send the raw images, naming them appropriately, and let their art department play with them as needed.

Rejections
These are no fun but are part of the business. Keep in mind that the editor is merely rejecting the article or topic. It isn’t (usually) an attack against you as a person. Also, it isn’t uncommon for an editor to decline an article but then to suggest a different topic or slant, if he or she is impressed with your writing ability or expertise. Always do your absolute best work with every article and pitch you send out so the editors can see your talent and ability.

Payment
A magazine will either pay upon acceptance or upon publication, with the former far more preferable than the latter from the writer’s standpoint. Paying upon acceptance isn’t all that common today but it means the magazine will cut you a check when they decide to buy the article. Paying upon publication means you’ll be waiting until the issue with your material is published, then they send you the check. As I noted earlier, many publications work months ahead so an article they approve in February might not see the light of day until July.

The actual payment amount varies wildly among magazines. Just in the survival/homestead niche, I know of one very popular magazine that pays about $25.00 for an average article and another that pays $400 for the same length submission. The proposed payment is something the editor should tell you ahead of time. If he or she doesn’t disclose that information, ask. It doesn’t mean they’re trying to hide anything from you. They may have just forgotten to mention it.

There are a few publications out there that still pay by the word, rather than just a flat rate for the entire article. The average for this seems to be around $0.10/word or thereabouts, though there are some that pay considerably higher, up to $1.00/word or more.

Most publications will also provide you with at least one free copy of the issue containing your article. While this is a matter of course most of the time, you should ask the editor if they don’t mention it. Don’t get greedy, one or two copies will suffice. If you want more than that, buy ‘em at the newsstand.

The magazine will likely have you fill out a couple of forms, such as a release as well as tax forms. Get those in right away as failing to do so will slow up the payment process.

Some magazines pay extra for photos, many do not. Again, if you have photos you can submit, tell the editor. If you don’t have photos, just keep your mouth shut until or unless you’re asked.

One more word about payment. There are publications out there that don’t pay anything at all, or perhaps merely provide you with one copy of the issue in which your article appears. Beginning writers often fall prey to these sorts of deals, where they are promised “exposure” and nothing more. I cannot emphasize enough to stay away from any magazine that doesn’t pay the writers. If you’re like most writers, a single article could take you at least a few hours if not more to write and edit, not to mention photos and such. Your time is valuable and you should be paid for your work, simple as that. If a magazine isn’t earning enough to afford to pay the writers, then there is something wrong going on behind the scenes and you don’t want to get involved with them.

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