Freelance writing isn’t an easy game to get into. In the current economic climate, when publishers are struggling and retail outlets are reluctant to take on any new titles, finding an editor to accept an article can be challenging. But getting work published is possible, it just takes focus – and a little luck.
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Researching the Market
The first step is to research the market. Writers should identify magazines to write for, based on their interests and expertise. This can be done using a variety of sources:
- The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook: this gives valuable information such as the magazine’s content, article requirements and web addresses
- Browsing library and retail shelves, getting a feel for what’s available
- Some magazines will supply a sample back issue (hopefully free), upon request
- Magazines’ websites: these can provide information on content, the magazine’s readership, the house style required and contact details
Study the magazines chosen carefully, getting a feel for the subjects covered, and also for the style. Some magazines provide style guidelines (either via their website, or on request) which outline requirements such as the number of words. But style is also about approach – who are the readers, what length are the paragraphs, is the discussion formal or informal? These are the factors the writer needs to gauge, before approaching a title’s editor.
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Choosing a Topic
The secret here is creativity. It’s not just about having the expertise, but applying it appropriately, to fit the magazine. So, for example, an article on job loss could work in a woman’s magazine (when your son can’t find his first job), a retirement magazine (how redundancy led to a whole new career) or a history magazine (unemployment in the 1930s – was it any different back then?).
Writers don’t have to be experts in a subject: what they do need is a basic understanding, which can then be topped up with appropriate research. Interviews with specialists or other relevant people can also further enhance the piece.
Winning a Commission
Magazines vary and some accept unsolicited articles, but this is not an advisable method. Researching and writing takes time and effort, and time is money. There’s no certainty of publication with an unsolicited piece so the time and effort could easily be wasted. For beginners who want practice, it’s a justifiable method, but experienced writers who are serious about their work should pitch for a commission. Be guided by the magazine’s requirements, but what’s usually involved is sending a (short) query email. For example:
- A short paragraph (maybe two lines) outlining the proposed article or feature
- Followed by another two lines saying what the piece would contain and why it’s relevant
- Finishing up with a further two lines outlining the writer’s relevant expertise
Writers using the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK), should note that when a magazine’s entry says ‘no unsolicited material’ or similar, this means a query is essential.
Other Key Points about Pitching
- Send the email to a named editor (as shown on the website, or ring up and ask for the person’s name. Do not attempt to pitch by phone)
- Pitch well in advance (around four months for weekly magazines and six months for monthly magazines)
- Only send one suggestion at a time to an individual editor (if the editor doesn’t want that particular proposal they may ask the writer to suggest alternatives)
- If photographs are available, inform the editor, as this is a plus point, but don’t send them with the pitch. The writer should also be sure in advance that permission has been granted to use the photos
In most cases, writers are only likely to hear from the magazine if the editor wants to commission the piece, or is interested in commissioning something else. Writers who don’t hear after two weeks can chase by email but shouldn’t phone unless they already have a working relationship with the editor in question.
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How to Be Successful
The chances are that a lot of pitches will disappear into a black hole.
A successful proposal is one that fits with the material the magazine produces. However, a pitch might be excellent and a good fit but not be accepted because:
- The magazine has just published something on a similar topic (this is one of the reasons why researching the magazine and its back issues is so important)
- The editor has just commissioned a similar piece
- A competing magazine has just published/is about to publish something similar
Increasing the Chances of Success
Writers who are serious about making an income out of magazine writing need to:
- Be focused: send out a lot of queries (pitches) every week, one or two isn’t enough
- Maintain a list of possible markets (magazines) and keep up to date with their content and style
- Keep adding to the above list of magazines
- Be constantly thinking of new ideas/topics for their chosen field/magazines of choice
Undertaking the above, as well as increasing chances of success, will help maintain morale through the inevitable rejections and lack of response.
Writers Should Also:
- Only approach magazines they want to have on their CV. Be open to possibilities but do be discriminating
- Take note of any specific feedback received by editors, while remembering it may only apply to that magazine
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Other Key Points
- If a pitch is successful, writers should ensure they agree payment, article requirements, timescale and which rights they are selling, in advance of producing the article
- Writers should decide how much time to spend working on the article before they write it. Remember, time is money
- Writers should do the appropriate research, but don’t do too much
- Writers should always ensure both content and style of the article fit the magazine
An Editor’s Perspective
- Articles should be well-written, with good grammar (this includes the pitch as well)
- Writers should study the magazine’s guidelines
- ‘If it fits in with what we do I’m interested’ Alistair Brewin, director, Brewin Books
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Finally, once a writer has written a few articles, they should get a website so they can showcase details of all their work in one place. A WordPress or Blogger blog can be acceptable as a website but writers should remember to keep their site current and professional at all times.
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