During this month, we will explore a variety of nonfiction forms. For the next few days, however, we will take a closer look at journalistic endeavors. Many nonfiction writers have aspirations of writing for newspapers or magazines. Plus, many authors of nonfiction books find it necessary at times to write journalistic pieces to establish themselves as experts in their field or to publicize their books.
If you enjoy reporting on events, writing personal essays, exploring issues in-depth, interviewing people for personality profiles, or creating works of creative nonfiction, you will want to explore writing for publications. To develop a career as a free-lance journalist, though, you first have to land a writing assignment. Then you have to do such a good job with that assignment that the editor wants you to write for the publication again. A great place to begin developing this type of writer/editor relationship is with a regional publication.
I have a soft spot in my heart for regional publications. Not only did I get my first “clips” or by-lines (published articles) writing for regional newspapers and magazines while I was still in high school and college, upon college graduation I went to work as a writer and editor for a regional magazine. I continued to work full-time for regional publications for a few years before moving on to other jobs in publishing, but I’ve never stopped writing for regional publications. In fact, regional publications have remained the mainstay of my freelance writing work everywhere I’ve lived.
For the beginning journalist, regional publications provide a wonderful way to start getting the clips you need to prove to national publications that you can write and produce professionally crafted and researched articles. For the seasoned journalist, they provide numerous article markets and a continuous source of revenue.
Since I moved to California eight years ago, I have often written for Bay Area Parent magazine’s Silicon Valley Edition. My editor there, Jill Wolfson, has welcomed my queries, and, in the last few years, also come to me with ideas she knew fell within my realm of interest. I enjoy working with her, and I think she has been happy with my work. So, I asked her to write a blog post for WNFiN on how nonfiction writers who would like to write for a regional magazine (or any magazine) should approach magazine editors, and what they need to do to develop a good, long-lasting relationship with those editors. Having read her post, I can tell you that I do all of the things she recommends…and I have never had a problem getting repeat work from a magazine.
How to Land a Nonfiction Magazine Assignment…
And Get Asked to Write a Second Article When You’re Done
By Jill Wolfson
As the editor of a monthly regional parenting magazine, I get some jaw-dropping queries from people who want to write for us. I think I can speak for most editors when I say: Here are some ways NOT to approach an editor. I’ve taken these verbatim from my inbox:
I’m a real journalist, so I could probably whip out something for your rag real fast.
I have no writing experience, but I think my child is really funny and I could write about that.
I want to write for you. Give me some ideas and I’ll do them.
And my all-time favorite:
I have no journalism experience and I’m not a parent, but I’m a real brat magnet. My nephew likes to jump on the bed when he comes to visit.
Now that you know how not to approach a magazine editor, here’s some advice on what will get her or his attention—and, importantly, what will keep that attention for future assignments. Just because a publication is regional or a give-away doesn’t mean that it doesn’t adhere to high journalistic standards.
1. Before you approach an editor, know the publication. Study at least six back issues. Nothing turns off an editor more than a query on a topic that recently ran or a topic that clearly isn’t right for the magazine. Almost weekly, I get an email from someone who tells me how much Bay Area Parent needs a humor column from a mom’s point of view. Hello! We’ve been running the same mom humor column for six years.
2. Contact the editor and ask for the Writer’s Guidelines. Take them to heart. If the guidelines say that most stories are written in a light tone and are between 500-1,500 words, don’t think you are going to sell a 10,000-word investigative article. Try another magazine for that one.
Follow procedures for submitting. If the editor asks for a query, send that before submitting a full article.
Be patient about getting a response. If you haven’t heard anything in two weeks, it’s okay to send a polite follow-up. Remember, be persistent but not obnoxious.
3. Come up with your own ideas, and present one or two at a time. My head starts spinning if I get a list of 15 story ideas from a writer with whom I never worked. It also tells me that the writer isn’t particularly passionate about any of the ideas.
4. Do your research before you present the query. Be very clear about the idea. You should be able to give the gist of the story in one or two clear paragraphs. If you can’t, it’s probably a sign that you aren’t clear about the idea in your own mind. I also like to get a brief list of people who will be interviewed for the article.
5. Take special note of departments in the magazine, and tailor your pitch to one of them. When I’m working with a new writer, I frequently like to assign a shorter story (such as a Q&A or news brief) before letting a writer tackle a full-fledged article requiring multiple sources and a complex structure. You’ll find it easier to break into a magazine if you take this approach.
Hurray! You got an assignment. Now you need to know how to develop a successful editor-writer relationship. Here are a few tips and issues to keep in mind:
6. Let the editor know if the story is taking a different shape as soon as possible. Things change during reporting; an editor understands that. If major shifts occur—a change in the agreed-upon angle or a major source who will no longer be quoted—alert the editor immediately. No one likes a big surprise at deadline.
7. Make the editor’s job easy, and you are likely to become one of the go-to writers. Turn in copy on time or even before deadline. If possible, ask someone to proof your article for spelling and grammatical errors. I don’t mind a few errors, but I get really concerned about a writer when an article comes in full of typos and bad grammar. What does that say about his/her fact-checking?
8. Be amenable to making changes in your story. That doesn’t mean being a push-over, but be flexible when working with the editor to make your story the best it can be. Typically, the editor knows his or her particular publication’s audience and might need a story “tweaked” to emphasize certain angles. If asked, make the extra call for additional research or rewrite the lead. Try to do so with enthusiasm (or at least pretend enthusiasm).
9. If you have certain extra skills, flaunt them. Can you provide quality photos with your articles? Great! Can you interview parents in Chinese? Wonderful! Do you have skills specific to the magazine or the article? For example, are you an expert knitter writing an article about crafting with children? Be sure to mention this.
Regional publications frequently use less-experienced writers than national publications do. We may pay less, but writing for regional publications provides a great way to break into nonfiction writing. By writing for this market, in a short time you can build an impressive portfolio of clips.
About the Author
Jill Wolfson is the editor of Bay Area Parent—Silicon Valley edition. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She also recommends potential writers join the Facebook fan page (Bay Area Parent Silicon Valley) or the online community at siliconvalley.parenthood.com.