Tricks of the Trade
One trick of the trade is getting hold of a magazine's editorial calendar, a list typically sent to advertisers describing the topics that will be covered in each issue. A monthly dog magazine's editorial calendar, for instance, may start out something like this:
January: Training Tricks
February: Leashes and Harnesses
March: Best National Parks for Dog Walking
May: Toys and Treats
And so on, filling out a year's worth of issues with general topics that advertisers can count on. A company that makes leashes, for instance, would probably be most interested in advertising in the February and March issues, where leashes are likely to be discussed. A company that makes dog treats, by contrast, will probably want to advertise in the January and May issues.
How can you get a copy of a magazine's editorial calendar?
Sometimes, magazines post their editorial calendars online. If not, you can call the magazine's main number and ask for a copy. If the assistant can't help you, ask for someone in the marketing or sales department. They rely on editorial calendars to sell ads daily and always have them at hand.
The editor's job then becomes finding actual articles that fit within these topics, and the best magazine writers are ready to answer the call for queries. In fact, many top-notch magazine writers pitch story ideas with these specific topical guidelines in mind, sometimes sending their queries more than a year in advance.
Their note to the editor may read something like this: “Hi Diane. I know you just finished shipping the March issue to the printer, but I recently found out about this great park for dog walking, and I'd be happy to keep the idea for you until next year's issue on the same topic. Please let me know if you think it might be worth a feature.”
If the idea is good, the editor will make a note in her files — and when it comes time to assign stories a year later, that writer will be first to get the call.
The best freelancers also pay attention to which magazines their chosen editors are competing with, and they look to submit story ideas that will help those editors look good in meetings about beating competing titles. For instance, if you were submitting a query about a new four-wheel-drive vehicle to a car magazine, it would help your chances greatly to know that the magazine's main competitor just ran a 20-page spread about four-wheel-drive vehicles — and left out the important model that your story would discuss.
Your note to the editor could read something like this: “Dear John. In reading the most recent issue of Horrible Car Magazine, I couldn't help but notice that the recent spread on four-wheel-drive vehicles overlooked a major new model. I propose writing about that new model for your Awesome Car Magazine, so your readers will have the information first.”
In those first two sentences of your query letter, then, you will have established not just that you can put sentences together, but also that you have expert knowledge of the topic, that you understand the magazine's market, and that you are eager to help the magazine editor defeat his competition on the newsstand.
These are the kinds of things the best of the best magazine writers do: They go beyond the craft of actually writing the story to ensure their pitches get noticed. Of course, being able to report accurately and write well are key parts of the job, too, and you'll learn more about those things later in this book. You can know everything there is to know about the business of writing, but if you fill your copy with clichés and rely on weak verbs surrounded by flowery adjectives, you're not likely to land any assignments at all.
Spend as much time as possible researching a magazine's competition before sending a query letter. You can often learn exactly how a magazine tries to differentiate itself simply by leafing through similar titles at your local newsstand.
Still, the most important thing to remember when you consider becoming a magazine writer is that the ability to write is just the beginning of the job. Knowing that your role is part of a bigger enterprise can only add to your chances of landing assignments. You need not be afraid of being called a content provider instead of a writer. Simply be aware that the probability of this happening exists, and know what you need to do to keep yourself worry-free and well paid as you get the job done.
You can start by making sure you have the right skills, personality, and financial standing to do the job in the first place. Magazine writers come in all shapes and sizes, of course, but in general they have a few similar traits that help them to succeed. Chapter 2 will help you figure out whether you share these common traits of successful writers and then allow you to answer the all-important question, “Is magazine writing for you?”