So, You Wanna Write for Magazines…

Here it is….Everything you wanted to know about magazine writing. Okay, well, not really, just my advice and thoughts.

If you’re going to write for a living, it’s probably going to be a bit before your books start cranking out enough cash to sustain the lavish lifestyle of a writer (continual coffee infusions add up). So you’re going to have to find a way to make money (preferably legally, but I won’t judge). If you don’t have a day job, you’ll probably look toward article writing as a source of income. This is either going to take the form of magazines or Interwebs (or both) since we all know newspapers are on a fast downward spiral.

Let’s start with a few pros and cons of the magazine world.

Pros

  • Your name in print! How cool is that? I publish at least 10 articles online each week, but no one really gives a rat’s ass about them. Friends and family always want to see my magazine articles. At least I think they want to see them, perhaps I shouldn’t force my contributor copies on them saying “LOOK! IT’S ME!!!”
  • HUGE checks. Yes, I have thrown out an article or two for $50, but for the most part magazines pay really, really, really well. My web articles throw about $30 each into my Paypal account and this is considered one of the higher paying online jobs. So getting a $700 check for a single magazine article, hells yeah!
  • Writing what interests you. If you query a magazine, it’s (I hope) with an idea that struck you as something you wanted to share or look further into. Yes, there are websites like Yahoo Voices where you can write what you want, but they don’t pay squat unless you’ve truly impressed someone. The website I write for, you pick from a list of articles. They may or may not interest me (this is what I refer to as being a writing whore).

And the cons…

  • It takes A LOT of time to get paid. From query letter to actually receiving a check can take anywhere from 3 (if you are very lucky) to 12 months. I’ve actually had articles accepted that weren’t published for over 18 months and then I still had to wait for the check. Web articles, I get paid within days of their publication.
  • It’s a time-sucking crap shoot. You can have what you think is a fabulous idea and a well-written query, but magazine space is super tiny compared to the monstrous amounts of writers wanting to fill it. This means you are going to spend (or waste, depending on how you look at it) a lot of time sending out a lot of queries that aren’t going to earn you any money. With web writing I select an article, do it within an hour or so, submit and within 72 hours it’s accepted (99.99% of the time). No time wasted (99.99% of the time).

Still want to write for magazines? Yeah, you probably do. As with writing in general, there are some rules that are made to be broken in the world of magazines…

RULE: Don’t write the article first.

MY TAKE: No, you don’t want to do interviews, take photos and polish your article to perfection, but it’s okay to write out a rough draft of an article before you query. This gives you an idea of word count, you can submit an outline of the article (editor’s LOVE that) and you’re ahead of the game if the article gets accepted (trust me, from the time of querying to the time of acceptance you may forget what it was you wanted to write).

RULE: No simultaneous submissions.

MY TAKE: Really? Are you Stephen Hawking who could write the alphabet and it would be published (well, it probably would be published because that would be quite a feat for him)? No? Then the chances of your query being accepted are about 1 in 10,000 (or less). The only way you’re going to increase those odds is by sending the query to more than one magazine. The caveat here is to NOT send it to magazines under the same publisher. For example, Mother Earth News is under Ogden, so don’t send the same query to another Odgen publication like Herb Companion. That’s just good sense.

RULE: Never send anything on spec.

MY TAKE: “On spec” means you send a completed article (not a rough draft) to a magazine for them to give the yea or nay to. Many, many, many writing advisors say not to do this. I say, why not? No, I’m not going to invest a butt load of time on interviews or specialty research for an on spec piece, but if it’s a topic I’m familiar with (such as gardening) and I can write the article in under a couple hours, what am I losing if the magazine wants to see it on spec? Nothing (I can market the article elsewhere if they say no), but I would be losing a nice chunk of cash if I don’t send it at all.

The key here is to not send out unwanted articles and not to send them to magazines that specifically state they don’t take articles on spec (they mean it). Before sending your article, send a quick query first to see if the editor wants to see the piece, then write the article and send it in (preferably within a few days of the editor saying “hell, yes, I want to see your work.”). I’ve made quite a lot of money on articles that were sent on spec and only had one article that ended up not being a fit for the magazine.

RULE: Proofread the query and use the editor’s name.

MY TAKE: YES, a million times YES. With the magic of the internet it’s not hard to do a quick search for “Magazine name” + editor to find out who you should be sending the query to. Granted, the main editor may not be the one reading your query, but it looks more professional than heading your query with “Dear Sir or Madam” or something like that. And DO NOT rely on the Writer’s Market for who to send queries to. That thing is outdated by the time it’s published and magazines get new editors more often than Taylor Swift gets new boyfriends. Can’t find the editor’s name, just leave the salutation blank, it looks better than a generic “To Whom It May Concern” line.

Of course you’re going to proofread your query (yes you are!), but this is especially important if you’re going to be a rule breaker and send simultaneous queries. You do not want to send a letter to Mr. Smith at XYZ Magazine and realize you forgot to change the salutation from the previous query you just sent to Mrs. Jones at ABC Magazine. It’s embarrassing (oh, so embarrassing) and will get your query rejected faster than Taylor Swift’s new boyfriend gets dumped. This is especially important when sending email queries where mistakes can be harder to catch.

RULE: Research several issues of the magazine to get a feel for what they want.

MY TAKE: I’ve actually had more queries accepted for magazines I’ve never even heard of or seen on the shelf than for the magazines I actually bothered to research. That may sound unprofessional and cocky, but it’s true. I do always give the magazine’s website a quick scan, but this isn’t a deep questioning into who writes for the magazine, what is the tone, etc. Most writer’s guidelines will give you a strong indication of the magazine’s style and what departments are open to freelancers.

RULE: Send clips and a SASE along with your query.

MY TAKE: No. Unless the guidelines specifically ask you to, do not send anything more than the query. Waste an editor’s time or fill up her Inbox with unwanted attachments and you might as well have not sent the query at all. Instead, mention at the end of your query a few magazines (or websites) you’ve written for and say “clips can be provided if you’d like to see my work.”

If you’re forced to send a snail mail query (some editors like this because it cuts down on the riff raff), don’t bother with the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). First, it adds bulk and makes your letter cost more to send. Second, I have had editors who never responded despite sending them a SASE so I not only wasted the query postage, but also the SASE postage (this was one of those magazines I bothered to research, teach me my own lesson!). Third, if a magazine wants your article, they will send you a letter (or contract), email you or perhaps phone you; I doubt any query has been rejected based on the lack of a SASE (if it has you probably don’t want to write for that magazine because they will be a pain in the ass to work for).

If you can’t pull away from the idea of a SASE, use a self-addressed stamped postcard. On it you can put a message something like: “Thank you, we ACCEPT/REJECT your article.” The editor can simply circle the REJECT (because if he accepts, you’ll get a real letter back) and send it back for about 12 cents less than a SASE.

I’m sure there’s more, but the weather is too nice to sit inside typing so I’ll stop there.

Do you have any additional Magazine Writing Rules that you break? If so, send them in a comment below!

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