Formerly an advertising copy writer, a newspaper journalist, and a PR person, Jesse Mullins, editor of Permian Basin Oil and Gas for the last two years and previously founding editor of American Cowboy, gave his own tips and pointers for writers wanting to have an editor hire them to write for magazines.
If you want to break in, be a little sacrificial on the front end. To make money in this business, you have to build relationships with editors. If you can do something to get in with the editor, then do it. Sometimes it takes doing a lot at the front end.
If they offer you something quick, then get it done and then you’ll be in their list for hiring when they need something written–whether they need it on a short deadline or not.
Be familiar with the content of the magazine and the name of the editor. He said he found that “Dear Editor” queries are often the equivalent of spam. He specifically mentioned calling folks who had sent a query he was interested in and they didn’t even know what the magazine did when he called them, told them his name, and mentioned which magazine he edited.
More specific to early (and later) pitches:
Pitch the small stuff first. He said he will take a chance with the small stuff. Editors are working against a deadline and they do all the little bitty stuff, because that stuff is hard to assign… At the end, the editor wishes someone would write the little stuff. Most magazines don’t advertise that they will buy the little stuff. Try pitching and writing that. (Remember that a step in the door is the most important thing. This may be small, with low pay, but it will get you on the editor’s radar.)
Find the superlative and sell it. If you have an idea, and marry it to an extreme, it’s got a news value. People like to know the extremes of life. If you are ready to go tackle something ambitious, that they aren’t hearing from others, you are likely to be able to sell it.
The editors are trying to get the story that the PR departments are not giving them for free. They want the more “Everyman” story. Hollywood and Nashville send them all the PR stuff they wanted (and more) on the big names.
Specific things that might get your article published:
If you can figure out where the article is going to run in the magazine (based on content and style) and you choose a headline that will fit (in the size and the font), an editor is more likely to accept and run your article. You have given the editor one less thing to do.
A good cover line could put you at the front of the line. If you either pitch your story or send a speculative article with a good cover line for the front of the magazine, the editor is more likely to accept or purchase your article.
Advice for the working writer:
Don’t be preoccupied with price. I’ll offer you some price, probably not a high one at the beginning. Once you’ve done one article I can use, then I’ll just move you up in the pay scale, after you’ve built the trust.
Don’t worry about documenting past experience when you pitch. If you pitch something I am interested in, I don’t care if you have great credentials–or at least it is not a deal killer.
Some editors don’t like simultaneous submissions, but if you shop a story you’ve already written around one place at a time, the story will erode (because it is timely, right?). So shop it around. Editors will check with you before they publish it.
You don’t have to pitch the merits of the piece. If it has merit, I will see it.
He had a lot of other good things to say.