A couple of weeks ago I put in a plug for the writers’ podcast, Launch. Host and author John August walks listeners through his process of producing a middle-grade novel from start to finish and answers all sorts of logistical details about contracts, cover art, agents, editors, and even fonts.
This week I promised to share some of the lessons I’ve learned publishing articles and essays. I am by no means an expert, though I’ve had some success, publishing in places like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, and The Christian Science Monitor. Probably my most important credential is that I’ve gotten quite comfortable with rejection–a necessary part of the process.
So, let’s say you’re interested in selling some short-form writing. I can suggest these steps:
- Read and seek out publications that highlight topics close to your heart. If you’re a yogi, check out Yoga Journal. A champion of the environment with a literary bent? Look into Orion. Also think about more generalist publications that might be keen to offer reporting on your specific interests. For example, after after participating in a gun control march with my kids, I wrote an essay for the progressive Yes! Magazine. While on a year-long family sabbatical, I reached out to a travel editor at The Los Angeles Times and published a couple of articles with her.
- Once you’ve identified a few publications you’d like to write for, do a search for their “writers’ guidelines” or “submission guidelines.” This information is gold. Here you’ll learn whether the publication accepts work from freelancers, what they’re looking for, and how to submit. Curious to see some examples? Here are the submission guidelines for Slate and for The Christian Science Monitor‘s Home Forum column. Other publications may not offer explicit submission guidelines (I didn’t find any for The New York Times “Ties” column), but you may be able to find clues on helpful sites like Beyond Your Blog where host Susan Maccarelli generously shares her interviews with editors.
- Once you’ve read submission guidelines and confirmed that the column or publication you have in mind is open to freelance work, line up several issues of that publication and pick it apart. What kind of voice do they look for? Subject matter? Structure and length? This step is critical. For example, when I wrote travel stories for The Los Angeles Times, they had very specific style guidelines, which at the time prescribed the number of sections an article should be broken into, the word count for each, and formatting for the “If You Go” section, all of which was reflected in features they had already published.
- Once you’ve completed this preparatory work, it’s time to come up with story ideas and to start pitching editors. There are whole blog posts out there about how to write a good pitch. It’s worth reading a couple. My few bits of advice: catch the editor’s attention (write a great subject line), tell her what your story angle is, why you’re the person to write it, and why this story is a good match for her specific column, then conclude with a couple-sentence bio, which includes links to your former publications or clips. Depending on the editor’s guidelines, you may include a draft of the piece you’re proposing pasted into the bottom of the pitch email. That bit aside, keep your pitch short! Editors are busy people.
- Don’t have clips? Start by pitching smaller, lesser-known publications and build from there. And, most of all, get ready for rejection. I’ve sent out many a pitch that was never even acknowledged–most of the time you can assume this isn’t personal. As I said, editors are busy. After a week, if it feels appropriate, you might send out a one-sentence-email nudge, letting the editor know that you’ll be moving on if you don’t hear back from her in the next two days.
- Finally, I recommend keeping a spreadsheet or two, documenting potential editors, columns and publications, their style guidelines, as well as where you’ve sent a pitch, when, and what kind of response (or lack thereof) you got. Persistence and organization pay off in this domain. As I grew my list of clips, I found that editors were increasingly likely to respond to me.
Good luck and leave comments below if you have any questions or links to successful publications for us to celebrate.