This column is excerpted from Create Your Writer Platform, from Writer’s Digest Books.
Article writing can be great for your career as a writer: nothing bad can come from writers trying to sell content to magazines, newspapers and websites. Think about it. Selling articles ups your credentials and credibility; it gives you something awesome to talk about in the Bio section of your query letters; it generates nice paychecks; it puts you in touch with media members who can help you later; it builds your writer platform and visibility, and more.
If you want to make more money writing and expand your writing horizons, think about penning short nonfiction pieces for outlets seeking good work. It’s a simple way to do some good for your writing career. Here are 8 tips to help you get started writing for magazines.
1. Seek out the publication’s writers’ guidelines
All publications have guidelines, which, simply put, are an explanation of how writers should contact the publication in consideration of writing for them. Writers’ guidelines usually address three key things: 1) what kind of pieces the publication is looking for (including length, tone, and subject matter), 2) how to submit your work for consideration (details on formatting and whether they accept email or snail mail submissions), and 3) when and how they will respond to your request.
2. You do not have to write full articles before you sell them
Selling a nonfiction article is exactly like selling a nonfiction book — you sell the item based on the concept and a “business plan” for it. Here’s how it works: You compose a one-page query letter (typically submitted via email) that details what the article/column will be about, as well as your credentials as an article writer. From that point, the publication, if interested, will contract you to write the article — and only at that point will you write it.
Writing an article when no one has agreed to buy it is called writing on speculation (“on spec”). You can do this if you feel you need to, but you risk losing time on a project that may never see a financial return.
3. Consider what the gig has to offer
Remember that in your case, the goal is platform. The goal is getting your name and work and bio in front of people who will buy your book and become followers. If an editor asks you to write a long piece for little money, that’s not good.
But are there benefits? Will you get more assignments in the future — and therefore more platform? Are you doing the editor a favor he will remember? Will writing the article put you in touch with key people you’d like to know?
4. Keep an eye out for new publications
New publications are actively seeking content to fill pages and are willing to work with newer and untested writers. I would suggest signing up to the Writer Gazette and Writer’s Market newsletters (both free) to get notices of any new publications or paying websites that pop up.
5. Write for local publications
Besides the fact that you’re befriending local media pros who can help you later, you should know that local publications have a natural affinity for local writers. People always say “write what you know” — and you know your hometown and community better than anyone else. (Click to tweet this idea).
6. Feel free to aim high, but expect to start small
You’ll have an easier time getting things published if you pitch shorter pieces and aim for small to mid-sized outlets. The goal is to break in, and then use your success and accomplishments to get bigger, better assignments. That’s not to say you can’t at least aim for Real Simple or The Huffington Post — just don’t be surprised if they say no because you lack the experience. (But hey, it never hurts to ask.)
7. You can recycle ideas and get multiple paying jobs
One of the best parts about being a freelancer is your ability to recycle and reuse ideas. For example, I pitched Ohio Magazine a series that would profile historic theaters around the state that were still in operation today. After the magazine said no, I made a few changes to my query and sent it off to Pennsylvania Magazine. This time, I got a yes, and I received fourteen articles and paychecks out of it.
8. Read the publications you’re pitching
Get familiar with several target markets and read back content, either online, with a subscription, or through issues at your local library. Note the tone of the articles, the sections of the magazines, and the general feel of the magazine and its advertisers. From there, you will be better off pitching the best article ideas — and you will also find out if the idea you want to share has been used recently.
You never know where a writing opportunity or assignment will lead you, so challenge yourself and stick your toe in different waters. In my case, writing that series for Pennsylvania Magazine was what drew a literary agent to sign me. From there, we’ve been able to sell 6 books together. If I hadn’t dived into article writing and kept querying until I found some success, who knows if my writing journey would resemble what it does today.
Other TWL Guest Posts by Chuck Sambuchino: