Countless people want to write for magazines. Some never get much farther than sitting back in their easy chair, reading their favorite magazine, and thinking to themselves, “I could write one of these articles.” Yet for every few dreamers out there, there's at least one dedicated writer who will make the real effort it takes to get published. This is your competition, and there's plenty of it.
Networking Is Essential
Becoming a magazine writer means entering into a loose network of writers all over the country and, in many cases, the world. Even if your goal is to publish a single article in a magazine you have read for years, your story idea and writing samples will be compared with those sent in by professional, full-time freelance magazine writers, like the hundreds upon hundreds of writers who are members of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA).
ASJA members earn their livings by researching magazines and pitching story ideas, sending query letter after query letter to editors of all kinds. Your ideas and query letters will fall onto the same magazine editors' desks, which means that even if you don't aspire to be a full-time freelancer, you need to understand just how stiff the competition for magazine-writing assignments can be.
There are 1,100 members of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the leading professional organization for nonfiction writers in the United States. The standards for gaining membership are high, including submitting multiple articles you have published in various magazines within a strict, recent timeframe. Thousands of people who write for magazines never make it into this elite group.
Most professional writers work for the same magazines again and again, getting to know their editors the way you might know a sister or brother. They speak with their editors several times a month; they know what ideas the editors already have versus what they are seeking for upcoming issues; and they know the style and tone the editors prefer when it comes to actually writing articles.
In many cases, these writers and their editors become personal friends, meeting for lunches on weekends and even attending each other's weddings. They exchange quick e-mails during the day about industry gossip, and they trade printed cards and sometimes even gifts during the holidays.
The Value of Research
All of this, of course, gives the professional writers a huge advantage over first-time magazine writers — but the relationships can also work in your favor if you are new to a magazine.
Yes, a magazine's editor is going to give plum assignments to the writers she knows, but she also is going to grow accustomed to the way her regular writers sound in print. Their tone, voice, and word choices will become second nature to her ears, the way comfortable slippers feel ready-made for her feet. Your ideas and words can offer a refreshing change of pace if you've done your homework and suggested a story that's a good fit for the magazine.
Never, ever send a story idea to a magazine without first asking for the magazine's writer's guidelines, also known as submission guidelines. You should research not just the appropriate editor to contact, but also the sections of the magazine that accept freelance queries and the format in which editors want those queries to be sent.
You'll have to do the same kind of pre-query research the pros do, such as going online and researching the magazine's content and target audience. Many magazines post their writer's guidelines on their Web sites, with clear explanations of sections that are open to freelancers and the topics those sections cover.
Many magazines also have online archives of previous issues, which will let you search through stories that have already run — so that you don't duplicate another writer's idea and, in the process, show that you don't read the magazine for which you hope to write.
All of this background work isn't likely to land you a regular columnist's slot, even at the smallest of magazines, but it will offer you a chance of getting hired for that all-important first assignment.
Remember: This is how even the best-known regular writers at any given magazine started out in their careers, and there's no reason that you can't follow the same path. If you can fulfill the editor's demands after you get your first query letter accepted, you will have a chance of becoming one of the magazine's regular writers. The editor will be more likely to look at your future queries, or even to bring story ideas to you. Stay on the editor's good side and continue to do your best work, and you may even get the nod when a coveted columnist's position opens up.
Writers who work regularly for the same magazine are often treated, in some ways, like staff members. They are invited to pitch ideas alongside staff members at meetings or on conference calls, and they are sometimes even invited to annual staff retreats where publishers offer insights into the future direction of the magazine.
So you see, while the competition is definitely tough in the magazine-writing business, there are openings for newcomers who have good ideas, strong writing skills, and the business sense to see where they fit into a magazine's big-picture business plan. If you're a good writer who is willing to look beyond the basics of stringing words into sentences, then you, too, can make a career out of working for magazines.
In every sense, writers who understand that their true role encompasses more than just writing are the most likely to be successful at landing assignments. In fact, you can learn a lot about how to become a successful magazine writer by understanding how the best of the best do their jobs every day.