Frequently writing coaches teach how to break into the magazine market, but not how to build a relationship with an editor well enough to become a regular contributor.
After freelancing for eight years (including regular columns for several publications), I accepted the position of editor for a regional lifestyle magazine. Since joining the magazine staff, I’ve come to wish every freelancer could spend enough time in an editor’s shoes to learn both sides of the business.
Editors generally give new writers a chance with a short, front-of-the-book piece to see what they can do. Some never get a second chance. Others lose their foothold after several stories.
If you struggle to develop a long-term relationship with the publications you wish to work with on a regular basis, see if any of these tips apply to you.
Be punctual — Think this is self-explanatory? You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve had to email a writer to ask for a late assignment. Late assignments clog the flow of everything, from copyediting to layout to printing. If your stories frequently hold up progress, expect your future queries to fall on deaf ears.
Know your reader — Magazines generally have a demographic that encompasses education level, economic means and geographic location. As highly as we like to think of our own writing, remember the average American reads on a seventh grade level. If you are writing for the typical consumer magazine, nix the words nefarious and ubiquitous and speak the language of the people. If you see ads in the magazine for Rolex watches and Saks Fifth Avenue, don’t assume the reader will want to read how to score big at Goodwill. Also, don’t pitch articles to regional publications highlighting attractions outside of their geographic area.
Be a servant — Freelance writers provide a service for the publication. That makes them servants, not celebrities, divas or gods. My first week on the job as editor, I had an irate writer demand a retraction for the edits I made to her story. She never respectfully questioned my changes. She demanded and threatened because, as a self-proclaimed prominent member of the community, she was embarrassed that the end product wasn’t her work. Unfortunately, her work read like a list of facts, lacking life and quotes from real people. That said…
Provide life — Never turn in a story for which you haven’t interviewed a real person, in person. Don’t tell me about those five places to go canoeing, let the man in the canoe tell m — in his words. Avoid emailing interview questions. You miss the opportunity to get random comments and the tone of voice, posture and facial expressions that prompt you to dig deeper. At least use the telephone.
Make technology your friend – Editors do not have the time, nor the desire, to teach you how to download a contract and sign and return it — electronically. If you cannot handle the technology required to become a regular contributor to the publication, the editor will not invite you to become one.
Keep your emails organized – When submitting a query, create a fresh email with your topic in the subject line. Then, when you follow up with questions, your editor won’t have to search for 15 minutes to find the original query.
I could go on. But if you can master just these few tips, and your writing is clean and your ideas are fresh, I guarantee any editor would love to have you on board.
Carol J. Alexander is the editor of Shenandoah Living Magazine. Her work has appeared in over 65 local, regional, and national publications. Visit her blog, “Tips, Rants and Raves” at www.CarolJAlexander.com.