While I was on my crafty book tour, I took a brief detour between Pittsburgh and Cleveland to talk to Jacquie Marino‘s magazine publishing class at Kent State’s journalism school. I love any excuse to visit my alma mater, but I was especially stoked to talk about the current state of magazine publishing and how I went from being an undergrad to having a magazine career. Our discussion focused a lot on pitching, because proposing stories to editors can be really intimidating when you’re just starting out. Here’s a recap of my advice for new magazine freelancers:
What kinds of stories should you pitch?
One of the things Jacquie wanted me to address was the importance of magazine freelance writers having a specialty. Think about prolific magazine writers today—lots of them have a specialty or interest area that they keep revisiting: Rob Walker focuses a lot on marketing and consumer culture, Farhad Manjoo writes about technology, Hanna Rosin focuses on feminism and American culture. I remember being in college and doing lots of profiles and lots of event coverage. That kind of stuff is rarely going to fly when you’re a freelance writer.
Personally, I write a lot about craft, art, design and web culture. I’ve been a participant in those subcultures for years, and when I was in college it first clicked that I could draw story ideas from my experiences. Also, some of the people I met back then are now doing awesome things! (Kate Bingaman Burt and Mikey Burton, I’m looking at you.) Magazines want stories that no one else can tell. When you’re interested in unusual things, you’re much more likely to find them.
And finally, when you’re developing a story for a magazine (no matter whether you picture it as a full-length feature or a tiny front-of-book piece), you need to supply a solid angle. Unless you’ve got a standing relationship with a magazine or editor, you can’t just throw them a general idea (a story about a restaurant, or a profile of a school teacher) and expect them to pick an angle for you. (It’s especially important when pitching major, national magazines that have seen everything—and might be entertaining multiple pitches on the same timely subject.) When you have a great angle with a great idea (Why are there so many new pie restaurants in the area? Or how a school teacher broke bad to get her students the supplies they needed), that’s when an editor will look twice at your pitch.
What magazine should you pitch your idea to?
There are lots of resources for finding magazines and figuring out what kinds of stories they accept and how they want to be pitched:
But before you start sending out the same story pitch to every magazine, you should know this: The more a pitch is tailored to a magazine’s specific audience, voice and needs, the more likely it is to get accepted. So before you even start writing a query letter, you should be able to articulate why that magazine needs your story. And that means not only looking at their writers’ guidelines and Writer’s Market entry, but reading a couple back issues and understanding how they might treat your story.
Sounds like a lot of work? It is!
How do you make contacts at major magazines?
Having a personal relationship with an editor makes all the difference when it comes to getting out of the slush pile. Some writers’ guidelines direct you to email your pitch to a generic editorial email address, where it’s likely screened by an editorial assistant and may never get seen by an assigning editor. One way to get around that issue is to target a specific department in the magazine and figure out who edits it, and find that editor’s email. The other way to get around it is to make some new friends.
Twitter is an amazing resource for freelance writers. Follow editors and writers from the magazines you love, and you can get in on their conversations and see what they’re talking about and interested in. Occasionally editors even post about job openings they have at their publications. I’ve also had great success targeting editors by using LinkedIn. I’m not suggesting that you send connection requests to every editor of every magazine you love. But LinkedIn is a great research tool for finding connections you might have with editors. For example, I discovered that the managing editor of a publication I love actually lives in my city. So I emailed her to introduce myself and invite her to lunch. She works from her home office, so she was stoked at the idea of getting out for once! After a great conversation, she invited me to send her any ideas I had.
That kind of “informational interview” is exactly what you should go for when trying to meet editors in person. They don’t want a hard sell on some pitch, and you don’t want to come off as needy or only interested in them for their job. Editors are people too! :)
How should you pitch your story idea?
In short: However the publication requests freelancers do it. Most magazines have instructions or advice for pitching on their websites under “submission guidelines” or “writers’ guidelines,” most often in the Contact or About section. (Search Google for “submission guidelines” site:URL to find them faster.) The magazine resource links above sometimes include this, but you’ll get the most up-to-date and detailed info by going straight to the source.
When I was in school, paper queries were still de rigueur. (And we even included SASEs for snail mail followups. Ew.) But with rare exceptions, no magazine editor today wants paper pitches. Email is the standard — never call to pitch. The only exception here is if you have an established relationship with an editor, and you know that he or she is cool with phone calls, and you’ve set up a time to chat. Calling to cold-pitch? I’ve been on the other side of the desk here. Magazine editors are usually doing a zillion things at once, and it’s kind of inconsiderate to push your pitch on someone who is not prepared for it. If you need an answer as to whether I want to buy your story right now, or whether you can have the assignment right now, the answer is going to be no.
But you’d never do that, right? Right. So back on the lines of how to pitch your story idea: When you’ve come up with a good match with your story idea and the angle and the magazine, and you’re writing your query letter, it’s best to pitch with a specific department of the magazine in mind. (Need query letter examples? I love the ones Allison Winn Scotch posted here.) It shows the editor you know the magazine and understand how they might treat your story idea. And when you’re a new freelancer (or even if you’re just new to the magazine), pitching smaller pieces is the best way to increase your chances of selling them.
When should you pitch your story idea?
If your story has a time hook (like something Christmas-related, for example), you’ve got to pitch it at least three months in advance for a monthly magazine and six months in advance for a bimonthly magazine. Totally serious — and that might even be cutting it a little short.
Some smaller magazines plan out their editorial calendars entirely each year for the year ahead, so if you have a good relationship with an editor, it’s worth asking when their planning meetings happen so you can get your ideas in before the deadline.
More generally, I wouldn’t send a pitch via email on a Monday or the day after a holiday. Editors are usually crazy busy on Mondays. I also wouldn’t send pitches late on Fridays, because then you’ll be wondering whether they got the email, but the editor likely won’t get back to you until the next week, and who wants to put themselves through that kind of torture?
I hope this FAQ of pitching stories to magazines was helpful. Anything I missed? Post it in the comments!