The Super-Quick Guide to Breaking into Magazine Writing


8ba632cb-533f-42bd-8719-0151bffac34aby Linda Formichelli

You want to write for your favorite magazine…but you don’t know how to start, so your writing dreams go unfulfilled.

Or maybe you’ve written for a few mags already, but could use tips to polish your queries and get more gigs.

A LOT goes into pitching an idea to a magazine—so much that it can be overwhelming, even for an experienced writer. So I boiled the process down to a concise (701 words, in fact) guide on exactly what you need to do.

If you need more information on any of these points, you can find it pretty easily online, in books, or in classes.

Here goes!

Step 1: Find a Market

I like to come up with ideas and THEN find markets for them, but this can be overwhelming. Finding the market first helps you narrow your ideas.

The wrong way: Scan the newsstand and pick a handful of your favorite magazines.

Why it’s wrong: Most of the pubs on the newsstand are crazy-difficult to break into. (Which is fine! Just don’t rely on them 100%.) Also, the newsstand offers only a small fraction of the paying markets out there.

How to fix it: Also look at Writer’s Market, use Google, scan through online directories, and keep your eyes open in your doctor’s waiting room, the hair salon, and even your own mailbox for potential markets.

Step 2: Develop Your Idea

You need to come up with an article idea that will make an editor jump out of his seat with joy!

The wrong way: Do a quick brain scan, say “I want to write about how to improve your relationship with your spouse!”—and start pitching.

Why it’s wrong: Magazine ideas need to be timely, narrow, and unique…not broad book topics, and not something the editor could wait five years to run.

How to fix it: The first idea that pops into your head is probably not salable. (It happens to all of us!) Brainstorm a list of ideas, set it aside, then come back to it with fresh eyes. Consider ways to tweak your ideas to make them as interesting and exciting as possible. Check out the online archives of the markets you chose to make sure they haven’t done your idea in the last few years.

Step 3: Research the Query

Wait…did I just say “research”? Why yes, I did.

The wrong way: Write up all the information, tips, advice, and facts out of your head. Hey, you know all this stuff already!

Why it’s wrong: You’re a journalist—a reporter. Information and advice doesn’t come from you, but from expert interviewees, primary sources, studies, and “people on the street” anecdotes. Later, when you turn in your completed article, your editor will expect a list of the primary sources you used for every single fact.

How to fix it: Do some quick research online to find the most recent and compelling statistics, studies, and experts to include in your pitch. Contact a couple of experts for quick phone “pre-interviews” to gather info and quotes for your query.

Step 4: Write the Query

Here’s the fun part: you need to write your pitch in a way that grabs the editor by the eyeballs and says, “Buy me!”

The wrong way: Write up a quick couple of paragraphs in a businesslike style. After all, this IS a business letter!

Why it’s wrong: The query is a writing audition, and you want to show you can write in the style of the magazine you’re pitching. Depending on the publication, a friendly, conversational style often works best. Also, you need to show, not tell, the editor what you’ll be offering so she can be assured you have the goods.

How to fix it: Look around online for examples of magazine queries that sold.

In general, you want to write:

  • An opening that reflects how you would start the actual article. (Compelling anecdote, surprising statistic, etc.)
  • A quick paragraph that explains what you’re selling. (Such as, “In my article X I’ll tell readers Y. For example:”)
  • A few examples of what you plan to write, complete with quotes from the people you pre-interviewed.
  • A credentials paragraph that explains why you’re the best writer for this piece. (If you don’t have publishing credits, this could be your expertise in the topic, access to a key source, etc.)
  • A closing that asks for the sale.

Have a friend read your query, or put it aside for a couple of days, and then read it forward…and backward (no joke!) to catch errors.

Once you’re satisfied with your pitch, send it to the editor who handles the department you want to write for. (You may need to make a couple calls to figure that out.) Follow up in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime…write more queries!

Want to learn more about how to write a killer query or letter of introduction that gets gigs? Linda and Carol Tice are teaching their popular Pitch Clinic class again in October. Linda and Carol also hire real, live magazine editors to critique your homework—this time they have the executive editor of Redbook, a former Writer’s Digest/current Print Magazine editor, and one editor to be determined.


Leave a Reply