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John's Article's on Writing:

"How to Submit Freelance Magazine Articles"

By John Moir

The Greek mathematician Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough, and I can move the world.” After more than 15 years of freelancing, I have learned that Archimedes’ dictum also applies to building a career writing magazine articles. Astute freelancers use leverage to progress toward ever-better assignments.

Here’s how it can work.

Seven years ago, an article I wrote received a first-place award for nonfiction from a writing conference at the National Steinbeck Center. Several magazines had already rejected the article, but suddenly—with the award in hand—the piece had leverage. Within two weeks, an editor at a national magazine snapped it up. The prize also drew the attention of an agent and eventually led to a book deal. That award served as a fulcrum that moved my writing world, propelling my work to heights I once only dreamed about.

Leverage takes many forms: it can be your professional background, a unique experience, publication in a major magazine, or perhaps a writing award. In the competitive world of freelancing, having something extra to help capture the attention of busy editors is a powerful asset.

These days, leverage is more important than ever as digital publishing roils traditional print journalism. But despite the industry’s turmoil, freelancing opportunities still abound. While some print publications are cutting back, new opportunities can be found on the Internet. Here is a checklist of essentials for submitting magazine articles that will enable you to leverage your way toward better assignments at major publications.

Editors almost always buy nonfiction magazine articles based on a query letter. With a query, you don’t have to write the article until you have a contract, and the editor can have input on the article’s direction before it is written. But in order to write a compelling query, you need a thorough grasp of your material. The trick is to conduct just enough research to craft a persuasive pitch. That said, my preference is to err on the side of additional research. In the long run, it usually saves time—and helps avoid awkward surprises.

Once you’re confident you understand the article’s content, begin a second round of research to determine the best publishing opportunities. Writer’s Digest and the annual Writer’s Market are excellent resources.Start by making a list of publications where you have a realistic chance of acceptance. You’ll also want to search the online archives of your listed magazines for articles on your topic. If you discover that a magazine has published something similar to your proposed piece in the past year or two, it’s best to try elsewhere.

One more research tip: On many magazine websites, sometimes waaaaaay down deep in the site, you’ll find a link called “submissions” or “writer’s guidelines” or “contributor guidelines.” This information can be invaluable in tailoring your pitch to a specific publication. (You can also try writing or phoning a magazine to inquire about guidelines.)

It sounds straightforward: write a one-page, three- or four-paragraph query letter that opens with an intriguing hook to pique an editor’s interest followed by a succinct description of the article’s key points. Conclude the query with a summary of your writing credentials and pertinent previous publications or honors. One page doesn’t sound like much, but query letters take time. To impress an editor: polish, polish, polish.

These days, send your query via email unless the magazine requests otherwise. Direct the query to a specific editor. If you are not sure which editor to send it to—or if you can’t find an editor’s email on the magazine’s website—I have found it helpful to phone the magazine and ask the receptionist for this information.

If the editor doesn’t respond in a reasonable amount of time, send a follow-up email to check in. Make it easy for the editor by including your original query with your check-in note.
For an excellent reference on query letters (and manuscripts) that features plenty of examples, check out Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript by Chuck Sambuchino (Writers Digest Books, 2009).


You are going to get rejected. It’s not personal, it’s just the way things work. When an editor says no, immediately take two steps: 1) Email the editor a short thank you for considering your piece. 2) Maintain your momentum by immediately sending the article to the next editor on your list.

Wohooooo! This is the payoff for all the work you did researching and pitching the piece. On acceptance, be sure you are clear with the editor on the article’s deadline, word count, and pay rate. Use the query letter plus any suggestions from the editor as your template for writing the manuscript. If you diverge from this in any significant way, it’s best to let the editor know. Similarly, when you’re writing the article, if you have questions about style or content (e.g., is writing in first person acceptable; or, can you use white spaces for narrative breaks?), check with your editor. When in doubt, ask.

Finally, send the editor a professionally formatted manuscript (once again, Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript can be helpful). Another tip: To raise your profile, see if the editor will allow you to include a sentence or two at the article’s conclusion about who you are and mentioning your website.

Upon the article’s publication, reward yourself for your accomplishment. Despite the inevitable twists and turns, writers with perseverance and professionalism have an excellent chance of leveraging their way toward increasing success in marketing magazine articles. That’s good news because magazine freelancing is still the best way I know of to write on topics about which you are curious or passionate—and to do it on your own terms.

First published in Writers Digest, February 2012.

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