It's a Race to Win Work
Every spring, in the middle of downtown Manhattan (the magazine publishing center of the world), the American Society of Journalists and Authors holds its annual three-day writers' conference. The main event of the long weekend is a keynote luncheon speaker — usually a bestselling author or award-winning writer — who steps up to a podium in the ballroom at the Grand Hyatt New York and addresses a literal sea of professional and would-be magazine writers.
While the speaker's words are often interesting, it's the audience that usually makes more of an impact on beginning magazine writers. The simple act of seeing hundreds upon hundreds of writers packed into a banquet hall, all of them looking for ideas about becoming better at their craft and garnering more work, makes a powerful statement about the high level of competition that exists in the magazine-writing business.
There are more than 100 college-level schools and departments of journalism and mass communications in the United States. The sheer number of graduation ceremonies means that there are literally thousands of aspiring magazine writers entering the workforce — and becoming your competition for assignments — every single year.
For every story out there that has a chance of being published, there are countless professionals looking for the chance to do the actual writing. You may be surprised to learn that many editors receive query letters regularly for the exact same story ideas from multiple writers. Especially in magazines that deal with topics such as dieting, fashion, and beauty, queries for similar stories come in from different writers almost every day.
Lots and lots and lots of people want to land magazine-writing jobs. The competition is downright brutal.
You Are One in a Million
You may believe that you are special, with one-in-a-million writing talent. In the harsh reality of the magazine-writing business, however, you really are one among — well, if not a million, then certainly one of thousands of writers seeking to land assignments.
This can be awfully hard to accept, because writing is such a creative enterprise. When you concoct a sentence or craft a paragraph, you will often feel that your thoughts and your way of expressing them are unique. The sad truth is that more often than not, your work will be just the latest in a long line of similar prose to cross magazine editors' desks. Many aspiring writers have likely come before you, offering similar ideas written in similar styles.
Many people with a gift for writing are “creative types” who feel that their talent is all they need to win work in the magazine-writing business. You would be wise to disabuse yourself of this notion immediately. To succeed, you have to be a great writer and a great marketer of your ideas and skills.
You need to accept the fact that there is serious competition out there for magazine-writing jobs. It's the classic conundrum of art versus commerce. You need to make sure you don't skew your attitude too far toward the artistic end of the spectrum, which is where most writers naturally start out.
Art Coexisting with Commerce
The art-versus-commerce debate has gone on for centuries, with artists from Claude Monet to Eminem trying to balance what they wanted to create against what they could sell to the world. Magazine writing is no different. Crafting beautiful articles is most definitely an art — but one that exists in the greater realm of commerce. Magazines are, after all, products intended to be sold. That makes you, the writer, a producer of commerce as much as a creator of art.
The phrase “starving artist” is based in fact. Many a writer has held to her ideas in the face of criticism from assigning editors. This usually does not result in the romantic Hollywood ending of the writer being discovered as a triumphant genius. Most often, it results in the writer having no assignments, and thus no money to buy food.
The point of understanding your competition is accepting that you have lots of it. Period. You need to get over yourself and get on with the business of marketing yourself — in a way that will land you assignments and chances to prove your abilities to editors and readers alike.