The Secret Language of Editors: Anatomy of a Magazine

Abigail GreenFreelancers’ Phrase Book
By Abigail Green

Sometimes it can seem like editors are speaking a foreign language. After college, I worked on staff at a regional magazine. The editors were always talking about “the book.” And I kept thinking, “What book? We publish a magazine.” Come to find out, “book” is editorial lingo for “magazine.” Don’t ask me why.

You may encounter such puzzling terms even as a freelancer. For instance, an editor might say, “The front of the book is a good place to break in.” The front of the book, often abbreviated as FOB, refers to the short, newsy items in the first pages of a magazine, after the TOC (Again with the abbreviations! That means “table of contents.”) Cooking Light calls their FOB section “First Light”; The Writer calls it “Take Note”; and Amtrak’s Arrive magazine calls it “First Class.”

But while short FOB articles – sometimes called “fillers” or “shorts” – are a good way to break into some magazines, that’s not true for all publications. To my knowledge, Working Mother writes their news and trends section in-house. When I was pitching Men’s Health, they did not give bylines in their FOB section. The best way to find out such information is to study the most recent issue of the magazine you’re targeting, or call the editorial offices and ask whether they accept freelance submissions for that section.

After a magazine’s FOB section, you usually find department pieces and columns. These are the regular sections you see in every issue. Often, these are written by staffers or contributing editors. Match up the bylines to the masthead to learn if this is the case with your target publication. In some cases, though, department pieces are ideal for freelancers. They’re usually longer than FOBs but shorter than features, and since they’re in every issue, editors need more of them.

“The well,” also called “the feature well,” refers to the middle part of the magazine where the longest articles are found. These are usually, but not always, reserved for big-name writers with longstanding relationships with the magazine. Even so, it doesn’t hurt to aim high. If an editor rejects your feature pitch, you might reply with an offer to focus on a smaller piece of the subject matter for an FOB or department piece. Or it could happen the other way around. I once pitched a department piece on “girlfriend getaways,” only to have the editor assign it as a feature. Score!

By familiarizing yourself with the anatomy of a magazine, it will become clearer to you which sections are the best bet for freelance submissions.

Abigail Green (www.abigailgreen.com) is a freelance writer in Baltimore. Over the past 10 years, she has written about health, travel, weddings, business, education and more for national, regional and online publications including AOL, AAA World, Bride’s, Baltimore Magazine, Cooking Light and Health. Her latest project is raising her first child, which she chronicles in her blog: http://diaryofanewmom.blogspot.com/.

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