If you have a unique way of looking at things and enjoy expressing your thoughts in writing, you should consider freelance writing for magazines. If other freelancers that you’ve spoken to seem to scare you with visions of starving writers, you mustn’t pay them much attention.
Personally, I made the mistake of believing every alarmist report about the death of print media that I read (here’s one such alarmist report on Forbes), and allowed it all to dampen my enthusiasm. The truth, though, is that print media is alive and well; from columns and analysis to filler most of the content in any magazine, minor or major, is still sourced from freelancers, and not from staff writers. Freelancing is the way the magazine industry works, whether you have your eye on Time, ESPN Magazine, Parents, AARP or Prevention.
Being successful at freelance writing for magazines isn’t easy to get into; nevertheless it tends to be easier than what most people starting out believe. If anything, it’s easier today, now that the Internet offers freelance writers excellent reach to magazines they would never have otherwise heard of. It can still be somewhat intimidating knowing how to get started. Here are the tips that I’ve put together from my experience. They should help you retain faith in your ability to make it.
Start small and keep plugging away
While it would be great to have your writing accepted on Cosmopolitan, Atlantic or New Yorker, it’s likely to be far better for your morale to start on a modest scale, with something that’s approachable. You could get on LinkedIn, pay for the membership, and find freelance magazine work posted, for instance. You could also apply directly to the thousands of print magazines that come out each week.
However small the magazine may be that you’re aiming for, whether it has a print version or not, you can be reasonably sure that they accept freelance articles. All you need to do is to apply. While it can be hard being handed rejection after rejection at first, you’ll pull through it. Look at the tips to follow.
You do need to know how to apply
Knowing how to apply greatly helps your chances of acceptance. Your first thought when you approach a magazine for the possible publication of your article should be to find out where the writers guidelines are. In fact, searching for the guidelines on the website of any magazine that you come across is a great way to know if they accept articles, as well.
If you don’t know where to find these guidelines, all you need to do is to go to the magazine’s homepage, copy the URL on the address bar, paste it into Google, prefix it with Google’s site search operator, and search. For instance, if you are on New Yorker, you should type the following into Google: writerguidelines site:newyorker.com (the site: operator helps you use Google to search within a website).
Once you know which magazines to apply to, it’s time to get started with the actual work of applying. This is the fun part, and you need to keep a few basic rules in mind about how to go about it.
Read those guidelines carefully
In the beginning, I never figured out for the longest time why exactly my applications kept getting rejected. It was only with time that I found out about how important following those guidelines is. Reading those guidelines carefully will ensure that you know exactly what kind of writing each magazine is looking for, how long it should be, what tone and formatting they expect, and the submission method that they want. Ignoring even one of these requirements can mean that your application is never read.
You don’t need to send in entire articles simply to apply
When I first applied, I would write entire articles on spec (short for speculation) in the hope that I would find a magazine that picked it up. It was a while before I realized that this wasn’t what magazines expected. Writing articles and spec involves accepting the risk that you will never see a return on your work. What you can do, instead, is to write to the magazines that you’re aiming at with detailed descriptions of your ideas for an article. If a magazine finds your pitch interesting, they will call you. You’ll be able to apply too far more magazines when you don’t need to write out entire articles simply to apply with.
What you need now is a platform
As with any other writing career, freelance writing for magazines requires experience — the big magazines will always want to see where your work has appeared. In the beginning, then, what you need is a platform, rather than your name in a big magazine, or even decent pay. While you should always only work for publications that will pay them thing, it doesn’t make sense expect it to be generous. Think about what a gig has to offer, instead — does the editor seem like a well-connected person who really appreciates your article? Is the publication read by important people in the field? Getting your name in print at this stage is all you should really care about.
Keep looking for new publications
Going after a new publication or a local magazine is one of the best ways to find a great welcome as a freelance writer. Places like Writers Market and Writers Gazette regularly publish information about new, paying publications, as they come up. You are also likely to see local, small-town publications put out the welcome mat for talented, but untested writers.
Not every idea has to be completely new
You mustn’t ever think of recycling other people’s ideas — any editor will usually recognize a borrowed idea. What you can do, instead, is to recycle your own original ideas in different ways to appeal to different magazines. For instance if one magazine rejects an idea that you pitch to them, you can make a few cosmetic changes to your article or your idea, and send it to another one. Just because one magazine rejects an idea doesn’t have to mean that it isn’t worthwhile.
Before you actually write for a publication, read it
Magazines will usually reject articles that don’t match the tone that they are used to seeing on their pages. The better you manage to nail the tone, the more acceptable you will turn out to be.
For instance, paying attention to the kind of writing style that they use, the kind of statistics and research that they cite on their other articles, the number of sources that each article quotes, the kind of style evident in the opening and closing paragraphs, the specific topics that they cover, and the political stand that they take, can all help greatly.
Be sure that you know what resources to tap
Great articles require great resources. If you aren’t established yet, you won’t have much backing — where do you find people to interview, or find statistics? The answer is to use resources such as Prof Net or Help a Reporter Out. On the services, you’ll find plenty of people who are willing to be interviewed, and who are willing to offer you information.
Finally, it’s important that you understand how important polish can be as you attempt to break into the big time. You need to polish your article well as possible before you send it out. You should do what I did — I ran my first articles by every friend or family member that I could get hold of. A polished product can help like nothing else.