Eager to see your byline in magazines like Smithsonian, National Geographic, Parade or Outside? Here are 10 tips on getting past the threshold of "Maybe" to "Yes" at top magazines.
1. Put timing on your side. You can change a perennial story, where there's no special reason to do it now rather than next year, to one that prompts an immediate assignment by adding a connection to some upcoming season or event. For instance, "the disposable versus cloth diaper debate" lacks any time element. But you can peg it to Earth Day, coming up in April, or specific future environmental powwows. You can get the same effect by tying a perennial topic to recent front-page news. If devastating floods are lingering in North Carolina, use that to make a piece on adequately insuring a business sound timely.
2. Freshen up perennial topics. Some magazines revisit the same topics again and again because relationships, or toilet training, or camping in national parks lie at the core of the magazine's mission. Hunt back about four or five years in the magazine's archives for these central topics and update them.
3. Create cover-worthy article titles. Editors sweat over the blurbs that go on the magazine cover. If you study the kinds of blurbs they favor, and give a similar title to your proposed article, you may score an assignment from a title that is exactly on target.
4. Be brief and detailed. This combination of skills has great value in the magazine world, and a query offers a perfect setting to demonstrate your mastery of rich compression. Let every sentence sparkle with detail, but say just enough to get the idea across.
5. Stay ahead of the pack. I once heard someone say that if you've read about an issue in Time or Newsweek, you're too late to query other top magazines on it. Spend energy pursuing stories that seem both trendy and unexplored.
6. Get your details right. Nothing kills confidence faster than factual errors! Recheck all information in your query before sending it.
7. Be truthful. Don't exaggerate the facts of a story, don't present fiction as real and don't inflate your credentials. This should go without saying, but not long ago a freelance writer sold an article in which she had presented a story she heard from a fellow airline passenger as something that had happened to her. She claimed she didn't realize that that was unethical.
8. Don't have a hidden agenda. Forget about any kind of revenge story, or about hyping a company in which you have some sort of covert financial interest.
9. Show enthusiasm. Make sure your writing feels alive and flavorful, not parched and pinched. I've heard a number of editors say they like to work with writers who show enthusiasm for their work.
10. Flatter an editor. A good number of editors write on the side for other publications, and if you happen to spot his or her freelance work and mention it in your query, you win points. Mentioning that you liked a particular issue of the magazine, or a certain cover story, helps build rapport, too. Make sure that any praise is specific and sincerely enthusiastic.