Getting your first byline


A friend just asked me how she can start publishing her articles in newspapers and magazines. Since many people have come to me for advice about this, I’ve decided to answer her via a blog post so that it can help others as well. Below are the questions I’m most commonly asked.

How does the process work? In most cases, proposing an article for publication goes something like this. You have an idea for an article. You identify the publication you want to write for. You write a pitch letter (also called a query letter), trying to get the editor interested in your idea. You find the email address for an appropriate editor. (For magazines, Mastheads.org, is a terrific site for locating editorial email addresses. For newspapers, you can usually find email addresses on the company website or by calling the switchboard.) And then you email your pitch letter and pray for a response. Note what is missing from this description; you do not send the whole article. How you write the article will vary based on what the editor asks for after reading your pitch.

Does it always work like that? Pretty much, except when you’ve written a personal essay or an Op-Ed. In those instances, you should write the whole piece and send it in, following the publication’s writers’ guidelines. Writers’ guidelines are exactly what they sound like, guidelines for how the publication wants freelancers to behave. Often, the guidelines are available on a publication’s home page, or by contacting the publication and asking for a copy. These days, the best information on what publications are looking for is on Mediabistro.com’s “How to Pitch” series. You can also read writers’ guidelines for a lot of publications at Writersmarket.com. Both Writersmarket.com and Mediabistro charge an annual subscription fee. I use Mediabistro ($49 per year.)

How much work should I do when writing my pitch letter?
In the beginning, writing that pitch letter will feel as challenging as writing the article itself. This is normal. A good pitch letter should grab the reader from the start and it should answer these three questions — why this idea? why this writer? why now? Click here to read the pitch letter I used for the first story I wrote for The New York Times. And click here to read the finished article (note that they begin exactly the same way; that is not an accident.) I got the assignment even though I had no prior clips, probably because I answered those three questions.

What do I do after emailing the pitch? How should I follow up and how many times?
One of the hardest things about freelance writing is that many of your pitches won’t be answered. That doesn’t mean the pitches are bad. It mostly means that the editor hasn’t even read your email. Editors are drowning in email, much of it from colleagues and writers they already know. So it is hard to get their attention. Which is why your pitch should have an intriguing subject header (and mention that it’s a pitch.) Often, it takes a little nudging — an email or a phone call — to get an answer. And often, even with a little nudging you might not get an answer. I usually give it three tries in some combination of email and phone calls before I give up and send the pitch somewhere else.

Some of the books I have tell me to use regular mail. Should I ever pitch by regular mail?
If you have any books that say that, they are out of date. Never pitch by regular mail. (One exception might be for obscure literary journals, but the overwhelming majority newspapers and magazines conduct all business by email today.)

What should I expect when/if the editor replies?
You’ll probably have a conversation or email exchange about how long the piece should be, when it will be due, and how much you’ll be paid. The editor will then likely send you a contract. If she remembers. (I’ve written many articles where the contract only shows up after the article has been published.)

What are some ways to break into a publication if you’re unknown?
At the beginning, you’ll do better pitching ideas in your areas of expertise. If you don’t have any published articles (a.k.a. “clips”), but you are the go-to person for pet-training tips, vegan restaurants, or nudist colonies, then start pitching articles about pet-training, vegan restaurants, and nudist colonies. Your expertise will help. Trade publications (publications that serve a professional community) are easier to break into than consumer publications (the glossies you see on the newsstand). Online versions of consumer publications are often easier to break into than the print version of glossies. Community newspapers and publications distributed for free are always looking for content. As are many web sites. Alumni magazines are also a great place to get started. Of course, with any of these outlets, if you know someone and can get an introduction, use the connection!

How much do publications pay for articles?
Pay rates for freelance submissions haven’t gone up in decades. The “standard” for years has been a dollar a word, but many publications (especially newspapers) don’t pay more than .50 a word. Glossy mags can pay more than $2.00 a word, but I know very few veteran freelancers who are earning more than $1 a word on a regular basis. Many publications don’t pay at all. At the beginning, don’t write for the money. Write for the experience. Eventually, if you’re good, you’ll start to get paid. Meantime, you’ll hone your skills.

Note to any publicists reading this:

Now that I’m on the receiving end of lots of pitches for my “Shifting Careers” column, I’m noticing that the same principles of successful pitching apply for publicists as for freelance journalists. I’m not sure if all media folks would agree, but I am partial to pitches that show someone has read my prior columns and has customized the pitch letter to appeal to my interests. It helps if it is an idea I haven’t heard before or a new take on an old idea. Following up once or twice is nice. Any more than that starts to feel stalky. I seldom write an article based on a press release, though I do read them.

Keep in mind that this is a pretty basic overview. Once you start writing and publishing articles, you’ll hit a whole new set of issues. I’ll tackle some more advanced questions in another blog post.

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Filed under careers, HeyMarci Blog, The Heymarci Blog, Writing

4 Responses to “Getting your first byline”

  1. David Gorenberg, Esq., CES Says:

    Excellent! Everything that I am about to teach in a 3-hour class is right here in a one-page blgo entry. Clear, concise and absolutely right on (or is that “write on”?).

  2. julia ward Says:

    I’m currently having to reinvent myself as a writer. The challenges are overwhelming but exciting. Each book, blog, writer I encounter on my journey makes me take one more step towards becoming a published writer.

    Thank you for posting such a fabulous article that should keep me focused on the right stuff. Or should I say write stuff.

    blessings,
    julia
    http://juliaward.typepad.com/a_blinding_heart/

  3. Star Lawrence Says:

    Pretty good advice here, except for one thing. You don’t have to write for free or love of writing to hone your skills. If you do, you are letting people exploit you. (This does not count your church or some charity you may wish to write for.) Spend your time taking courses, learning to write, doing a blog for yourself, having friends critique you, but don’t give yourself away to people who make money while you don’t. The whole fee structure of this professional is in a slow-mo collapse due to people who post to directories or write for free. When you do decide you are worth of your hire, you may get offered five bucks.

    Come visit our humor site:
    http://writerscatablog.com

    Cheers,

    Star

  4. Rosie Says:

    Thanks for spelling it out clearly and concisely – and also for including your pitch letter as an illustration! This makes a lot more sense now. Much appreciated.

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