The following is a talk I prepared for a writers’ group panel discussion I participated in a few years ago. It’s the story of how I got my first cover story for a magazine, as well as a little back story on how my freelance writing career began. Enjoy!
Hi there, my name is Renee Roberson, and I’m so excited to be here with you all this evening. It will probably come as no surprise to you, but I always wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I didn’t really care what I wrote when I was a child, and let me tell you, I wrote a little bit of everything. Song lyrics, poems, essays, “pretend” news stories, book reviews, short stories. You name it—I probably wrote some pretty embarrassing versions of it.
While I’ve always loved reading magazines, I didn’t really believe I could actually write for one until after I had my daughter back in 2003. At the time I was working at a public relations firm, but really wanted to figure out a way to work from home. I started by reading a few books on the topic. Then I visited writer’s forums that discussed freelance writing. I didn’t know much about how it worked, but I knew I wanted to learn more, especially if it meant I could work from home. I started out gradually by sending some story ideas (otherwise known as query letters) to local magazines, and was surprised to make a few sales pretty quickly.
I then pitched a website called iParenting, and they also hired me as a contract writer. The Walt Disney Internet Media Group eventually purchased iParenting, which resulted in an increase in my per article rate and looked great on my resume. Those clips helped me get job as a freelance correspondent for the Lake Norman bureau of The Charlotte Observer, and eventually a few regular columns.
I’ve been a freelance writer since 2004. I’ve written for newspapers, websites, magazines and blogs. Sometimes I still can’t believe people pay me to write. I’ve also spent time in the editor’s chair for two local parenting magazines, so I’ve seen my fair share of what types of query letters work and which ones don’t. But if you have ideas and you know how to execute them, magazine editors will notice you, and they are always happy to find reliable and creative freelance writers. I highly recommend giving it a try if you haven’t yet. If you dedicate the time to regularly pitching your story ideas, you can make a living as a freelance writer. It may take a few years for you to earn the income you want, but it can happen.
I have short blog post I wrote a few years I ago I would like to share with you. It gives you an idea of what kind of legwork you might do before pitching a magazine feature. Granted, not all article queries will require this much work beforehand, but you should always be willing to put a little research into whatever story it is you are pitching.
The Hunt for a Human Interest Story (WOW! Women on Writing)
A few years ago, I was working out my frustrations at the gym, trying to figure out where my writing career was going and brainstorming a few new magazine article ideas. As I was leaving through the front lobby, I noticed a flyer about an upcoming swimming fundraiser. For some reason, even though I’m not a big swimmer, I picked it up and skimmed it on my way out to the parking lot. The flyer mentioned that a local woman named Lizi was competing in a series of races in honor of her upcoming 40th birthday. The flyer had her blog address printed on it so I investigated further once I got home.
There, I discovered Lizi had Type 1 diabetes and learned more about her birthday challenge. She was signed up to compete in a variety of races, involving swimming, sprint triathlons, cycling and running, by her 40th birthday, which she called “Forty 4 Forty.” I knew I had to somehow get in touch with this woman, because I thought her story would be perfect for one of the regional magazines I had been trying to break into.
But her blog didn’t have any contact information. I figured she was local but still needed more details for a query. On a whim, I e-mailed a personal trainer I had been working with at the time and asked if she knew who the woman was. I was in luck, she did! She quickly e-mailed me back with the woman’s e-mail address. I e-mailed Lizi, who also turned out to be a nurse, to let her know I was interested in pitching a story about her, and she responded happily and graciously. We chatted on the phone so I could get some pertinent details to include in my pitch, and I let her know I’d be in touch.
Not only did the editor I contacted respond to me quickly, but she also complimented me on my story pitch. In the end, I got to meet an inspirational member of the community by contacting Lizi, and as a bonus, my article ended up as the cover story of the magazine a few months later. Lizi called me and laughed about the fact that she had become a local celebrity and all the nurses at her doctor’s office were telling her that the magazine with her cover shot was sitting in the waiting room.
These days, I work with several local magazines regularly and have tackled some tough human-interest stories, but I still get a thrill watching the story come alive and to fruition. If you come across a story that intrigues you, I say to always go for it!
Here are a few do’s and don’ts for pitching magazines:
Don’t send out scattershot query letters. Meaning, don’t write up one query letter and send out to multiple magazine editors at once. Editors are much more likely to consider you for an assignment if you are familiar with the magazine you’re pitching and make your query personalized. Spend a little time skimming through some recent issues of the publication, and get a feel for how it is laid out. Mention recent published articles that you connected with to show your familiarity.
Do have an interesting lede (or hook) pertaining to your article topic that illustrates why it would make a good piece for a magazine. You only have a few seconds to catch an editor’s eye. Make them count.
Do pitch different types of magazines, both big and small. It’s a great experience, and over time, you’ll become more comfortable crafting your ideas and hitting the send button.
Don’t send your ideas to the wrong person. Study the masthead of the magazine you are hoping to query. Publishers typically focus on the sales side of a magazine and aren’t really connected to the editorial side. Your best bet is to address your query to a specific editor.
Do pick up a copy of the latest version of The Writer’s Market. You will find listings of magazines you never even knew existed, including editorial contact names, pay rates, and what types of articles specific markets are seeking.
Below is an example of a query letter that resulted in the sale of the article to The Writer.
Dear Ms. (Name of Editor),
As a freelance writer, I do not hide the fact that I am a magazine junkie, and I particularly enjoy reading magazines like The Writer that offer helpful, informative tips for my career in a straightforward format. In recent issues, I enjoyed Julia Tagliere’s article on how to write about friends and families without alienating them in the process (October), as well as Debbie Geiger’s advice on how to use social-networking sites more efficiently in freelance writing (August).
After I had my first child six years ago, I began reading every book I could get my hands on about freelance writing so I could learn how to develop a career that would allow me to set my own hours. Like many aspiring parent writers, I sent off a few article ideas via snail mail to the big parenting publications like Babytalk, Parents and Parenting. For the most part, I never got any responses back, except for one horribly photocopied stock rejection letter that almost crushed my dreams of writing about parenting forever.
However, I took some of those same queries and sent them out to a few local regional parenting publications, and within a few months, had made several sales. For the next few years, I wrote locally and even got a job as a stringer for the daily newspaper. Eventually, I took a job as an associate editor at the regional parenting publication that had given me my first break, where I made a startling discovery — there was a lot more opportunity for publication in regional parenting publications than I had originally thought.
I always take a special interest in the “Market Focus” of your publication, and I’ve noticed there is one market in particular that hasn’t been profiled in the past two years — regional parenting magazines. Like me, many writers think if they don’t live in a city like Atlanta, they really don’t have any business writing for Atlanta Parent. Not so, I realized. Regional parenting publications may have a much lower pay scale than the nationals, but most writers have a better shot of getting published in these magazines, and if they market themselves properly, they can generate a steady reprint income. I’d like to propose a 1,200-word article titled “Writing for the Other Parenting Magazines” for your “Market Focus” section. In the article, I will discuss the types of articles and essays regional parenting publications seek, the importance of checking editorial calendars, lead times, reprint possibilities and evergreen topics many of these publications seek each month. “Writing for the Other Parenting Magazines” will also include a sidebar titled “Five Ways to Sell a Parenting Article in a Regional Publication.”
I am a freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous regional parenting publications. I am a former associate editor of Charlotte Parent and also a contributing writer at www.iParenting.com.
My article, “Alternative Treatments for Autism,” recently took first place honors in the magazine feature article category of the 2009 Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition. I am including the clip in the body of this e-mail.
I look forward to hearing from you regarding this article idea.