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How to be a successful freelance writer: Part One

I have been a freelance magazine writer for 20 years and was the managing editor at a Victoria BC magazine for five. I am offering this insider information about how to be a successful freelance writer to help struggling writers everywhere.  And I am doing it to help beleaguered editors receive higher quality pitches from writers with more skill and less ego.

Part One: Before you pitch

Study the magazine

  • Get as many back copies as you can. Read the departments, note how many features they have, see which ones have regular designated writers, which ones seem open to freelancers. What is the tone, the timing, the balance of articles?
  • Check out the magazine's website. Writers’ guidelines or back copies are often posted on their site. Books like The Writers Market also detail the magazine's requirements and pitch processes. The Writer's Market  is also online now for a subscription fee. See writersmarket.com
  • Check the masthead and find out which person is the assigning editor, but these days it may just be the editor in chief or managing editor. If you have not found pitch information on the magazine's website or in The Writer's Market...email that editor for writers’ guidelines and pitch cycles – but keep email short and to the point and don’t send your resume yet. The editors only want to know about you if you have a story to pitch.  Just ask about how to pitch to the magazine and what sort of pitches the editor is looking for, how and when the editor would like to get them. (After you have made sure that info is NOT on the website.) Some editors take pitches monthly, some quarterly, some just annually. Ask if they will consider spec submissions. Find out how far in advance you need to pitch for seasonal stories. It could be six months to a year ahead.
  • Try to go back at least two to three years. Libraries will often have back copies. You do not want to pitch an idea they have already done. You will be forgiven if it was more than 18 months ago, but if it was within the last year, we know you have not looked at our magazine. We will frown and be disappointed with you. If it is an idea that we already have in the hopper but not yet published we will think you are prescient and in tune with our needs.
  • Who is the magazine's audience, the demographic? Then think about all the ways to interest them that fall within that audience. Magazines differ from newspapers: this kind of writing must not only be newsy, it must also be a pleasant experience for the reader to take the time to read it. Magazines are also a visual medium. What will your story look like illustrated, or with photos and/or graphics?

Come up with a great idea

Do your research to know that there really is a good story there that you can bring to life for that magazine's audience. Some don’ts:

  • Don’t pitch a profile of some big celebrity if you have no idea whether the celebrity will consent. Don’t pitch an insider scoop on some industry, if you have not yet established insider status.
  • Don’t pitch a topic. Pitch a theme and an angle. Be FOCUSED. Zero in on some new aspect of a story.
  • Don’t pitch a story geared for parents of young children when your research shows the magazine demographic is 35+; or don’t pitch how to find deals at Value Village or stretch the food dollar when the magazine is aimed at the affluent reader. Don’t pitch a 3,000 word feature when the magazine’s longest feature is 1,500 words.
  • Don’t pitch a whole new section of the magazine, or a series of articles (when the mag doesn’t do series) or that you write a new column. The magazine is not going to remake itself for you no matter how great the idea!! Mags have templates and structures. Pitch within the structure — different enough that we haven’t yet done it, but not so different that we can’t imagine doing it. Once we know and love you and we will do anything for you, then you can pitch the column, series or new section…
  • Don’t pitch a story with a short time line. If you have done your research in point one, you will know how far in advance the magazine plans stories. Most national magazines work six to eight months ahead at least.  Local or city magazines work four to five months in advance.
  •  But if you have a seasonal story that can be done now, that will stand up for publication a year from now do pitch it. Say: we can get colour, details and pictures right now and let us know why the story will stand up for a year. That is thinking ahead! We love that.
  •  Don’t pitch the predictable. See things that others don’t see. Take a new angle. Find the hidden story. Tell us something about the region we cover that we have never heard before, something that is sitting there under our noses that we have never thought about.
  • Don’t forget to talk about what kind of art might work, and let us know if you can take pictures. Most magazines will assign photographers, but some want research photos to help plan layout or to get photos in a pinch.

For new writers wanting to break in, the best “starter” articles are short briefs or quirky "evergreen” stories that can run anytime. Editors always need a few flex stories – stories that we can drop in if we suddenly get more pages or if another assigned story falls apart. If it is an evergreen we can take time to work with a new writer to polish it to get it right rather than assign a story with a strict time frame or seasonality that makes it unusable if it doesn’t run in that month.

Next up: The Art of the Pitch.


Posted on Tuesday, October 21, 2014 at 11:44AM by Registered CommenterAnne | CommentsPost a Comment | References8 References

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