Archive for the 'Learn the Secret Language of Editors' Category

The Secret Language of Editors: “On Spec”

Abigail GreenBy Abigail Green

Back in my March column, I discussed submitting queries versus complete articles. If you recall, I gave a few examples of when a freelancer might submit a piece to a publication “on speculation” or “on spec” for short. Basically, that means the writer has no contract and no guarantee of payment or publication. Essays will usually only be considered on spec; and for timely travel stories and short pieces, it’s often in a writer’s best interest to write them first and then submit them.

Even though it’s always preferable to have a contract in hand before writing an article, there are perfectly legitimate reasons to write on spec. Let’s say you’ve nabbed an interview with an elusive subject—the Dalai Lama, maybe, or Brad Pitt. Chances are good that you’re going to be able to sell your piece somewhere, so it’s not a huge gamble to go ahead and write up the interview. This scenario brings up another point: always have backup markets in mind when writing on spec.

I currently have an essay under consideration at a national parenting magazine I’ve been dying to break into. I floated my idea past the editor before I wrote it, which is always a good idea if you can do it. She liked the concept, but said I’d need to submit the piece on spec. My essay is now making its way up the chain of editors. Of course I’m hoping it’s accepted, but if not I have at least three alternate markets in mind that might buy my essay.

When is it not a good idea to write on spec? If your piece is so specific to your intended market that you can’t think of another angle or publication that may buy it, it’s probably not worth it. If your op-ed is on a topic that’s going to be old news by the weekend, it may not be worth your time.

Sometimes, though, submitting a piece on spec can actually help you get your foot in the door. I pitched Self magazine a half dozen ideas that were shot down for various reasons. Then I submitted a first-person essay on female friendships. They bought it. Alas, it never ran. But I did get a big fat check for more than $1/word—and at the time, that was worth more to me than the clip. I firmly believe that Self purchased my essay because I submitted it on spec. After all, the piece was already written, so even as a new-to-them writer, I wasn’t much of a risk. Next time, maybe they’ll even publish my work!

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/.

The Secret Language of Editors: All About the Hook

Abigail GreenEvery published article has to have a hook—something that draws the reader in and keeps their attention. Sometimes, your hook will be obvious. Say, new research has just been published, or a new book or movie has just come out on your topic.

Other times, you may have to invent a hook. This may strike you as silly. If it’s a good story, it should stand on its own, no gimmick necessary, right? Sure, if you’re writing about an injured hiker whose life was saved by a courageous dog, that may be enough to pique the interest of an editor and a reader. But in most cases, editors will want to know, “Why will our readers care about this story now?” Let’s repeat the key words in that statement: “why,” “our readers,” and “now.”

Anniversaries and observances are common hooks. Every year when May rolls around, headlines trumpet Mother’s Day-related stories. In July, it’s Independence Day. October is breast cancer awareness month. In September 2006, it was the fifth anniversary of 9/11. If your story is related to a bicentennial, you’ve struck gold.

That answers the “why now” question. Another way to hook readers is to spell out in your query letter or your story’s lead what’s in it for them. For example, I recently wrote an article for a doctors’ magazine on places like MinuteClinic that are popping up in supermarkets and pharmacies to treat people with common minor ailments without an appointment. Doctors are busy people, so I had to make clear immediately why they needed to read my article: “Quick-access clinics are becoming a reality. Better learn to compete.” Why should the magazine’s readers care about my story? Because they may be losing patients to these types of clinics.

Now, we’ve all seen published stories that have no apparent hook. These are often the evergreen articles I discussed in the May column. So why would an editor purchase an article that’s not pegged to a specific time of year or to any new information? Packaging. Just like a beautifully wrapped package can entice us to open it even if we know it’s only socks from Aunt Millie, an attractively packaged article can sell a tired topic.

Bridal magazines are masters of packaging. They cover the same topics over and over and over again. I once pitched an article on bad bridesmaid behavior. A topic as old as time, right? Except I packaged it as “The Five Most Common Bridesmaid Personality Types.” Suddenly, an old topic became fresh again. Thanks to a clever hook, a potentially dull article became interesting again.

Get creative when trying to come up with hooks for your articles. Repeat to yourself, “Why should readers care about this story now?” What would make someone in a supermarket checkout line read your article instead of the six next to it? What would make an editor buy your story immediately instead of filing it for later? The answer is your hook.

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/.

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/.

The Secret Language of Editors: Evergreen = More Green in your Wallet

Abigail GreenFreelancers’ Phrase Book

By Abigail Green

Last month I talked about lead time, and timing your pitches to coincide with a certain season or event. But what about those story ideas that could run almost anytime? Editors have a term for the types of articles they can always use: evergreen. How many times have you seen stories like, “Walk Off the Weight” or “Tips to Improve Your Memory” or “Top 10 Super Foods” or “Secrets for Better Sex”? Hundreds, I’d bet.

Some subjects, like these, are perennial favorites. On the one hand, that beats trying to come up with the latest, greatest trend that an editor has never heard of. On the other hand, neither editors nor readers want to see the same old tired topics recycled again and again. “Fresh” is a favorite editor catchphrase. The publications that have the hardest time staying fresh are the ones that run the same stories year after year, like wedding, pregnancy, and home décor magazines, to name a few.

So how do you make an evergreen idea fresh again? Find out what’s new about it. Has a recent study come out on the topic? A new book? Can you tie it to current events or pop culture? I once sold an article on a several-thousand-year-old Indian interior design practice called vastu. What’s fresh about that? I pegged it as “the new feng shui” and interviewed an expert with a new book coming out. Bingo!

Other topics I’ve written about again and again include wedding planning and staying fit while traveling. Not much changes from year to year, but I can always include a fresh anecdote or a new book or product. Do a Google News search on your subject. Better yet, set up Google Alerts to e-mail you news on specific search terms. (On Google.com click on “more” and then “even more” to find the Alerts page.) Go through your Rolodex and call your contacts to ask what’s new in their industry. Consider major milestones that may renew interest in a topic – say, the tenth anniversary of an event or the bicentennial of a town. Dust off some of your old stories and see if there’s anything happening in the world that makes them fresh again.

With a little bit of research and creativity, evergreen stories can put a lot of green in your wallet.

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/.

The Secret Language of Editors: “Lead Time”

Abigail GreenFreelancers’ Phrase Book

By Abigail Green

Who, besides Santa and seriously organized people, starts thinking about Christmas in July? Freelance writers. That’s because they know if they have any hope of selling a holiday-themed article, they’d better keep the magazine’s editorial calendar in mind.

Most magazines decide on their editorial line-up months or even a year or more in advance. How far ahead they work is called “lead time.” A magazine’s lead time is usually spelled out in the writers’ guidelines, and it varies greatly from publication to publication. For instance, Yankee magazine requests that seasonal topics be pitched one year in advance so photos can be arranged. The Christian Science Monitor, on the other hand, will sometimes publish a timely article the week it’s submitted.

This means that for most publications, you can’t send out a timely piece a month or even two months beforehand and hope the editor will find a slot for it. By then it’s too late–unless you’re submitting to newspapers or you’re pitching a magazine for next year. But even then, it helps to consider a publication’s lead time.

Some magazines make their editorial calendars available to writers. Hint: On a magazine’s Web site, if you can’t find the editorial calendar in the writers’ guidelines, look in the “For Advertisers” section. You might learn, for example, that a special vacation issue is planned for June and that the deadline for editorial copy is in March. Then you can fire off your “Teen Travel Tips” article at the end of February and have plenty of time to follow up with the editor. Sending the right idea–at the right time– just might make the difference between selling your story or not.

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/.

The Secret Language of Editors: Submit or Query?

Abigail Green

Freelancers’ Phrase Book

By Abigail Green

 

 

Seasoned freelancers don’t write entire articles and then send them to editors, hoping they’ll buy. And for good reason: If no editor buys their submission, the writer has spent a significant amount of time and effort for nothing. Plus, you need only check the writers’ guidelines of most any magazine to find that few accept unsolicited submissions (e.g. completed articles); most accept only queries.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and the “no unsolicited submissions” rule is no different. Some types of articles, including essays and humor, will only be considered in their entirety. If you’re submitting an essay, you should still go ahead and draft a compelling cover letter, rather than simply stating, “Here’s my essay for your consideration,” and hoping the editor reads it all the way through. The point is, you want to entice the editor to actually read your submission since, after all, she didn’t commission it.

It often makes sense to submit other types of articles in their entirety, as well. Let’s say you’re pitching a short article (under 300 words) or a tip. In that case, your query is likely to be longer than the piece itself, so you may as well send the whole thing. The key is to avoid a “take it or leave it” attitude in your cover letter. I usually write something like, “Interested in the following piece on pet pedicures for your Beauty & the Beast section? Right now it’s 175 words. Of course, I’m happy to tailor it to your needs.” That shows the editor that you’re open to revisions, even though you’ve already written the article. (FYI, only once in all my years of doing this did I have an editor respond, “This is great, I’ll take it. Send me an invoice.”)

With travel stories, it also makes sense to submit a completed article instead of a query. When my husband and I went on a “babymoon” last year before our first child was born, I decided the trip would make a good travel article. So I wrote up the piece and sent it out to a few dozen travel editors when I got home. One bought it, cut it down by a few hundred words, made some minor edits, and my babymoon story ran in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune soon after. Had I sent a query, I could be on my third child by the time I got an assignment!

If you are just starting out and looking to earn those all-important first clips to accompany future queries, be sure to check out your local/ regional parenting publications. They will often purchase a well-timed, well-tailored article submitted four-six months in advance. You can find a database of member publications at Parenting Publications of America (http://www.parentingpublications.org).

 

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/.

Learn the Secret Language of Editors: What “Send me your clips” means to you

Abigail GreenFreelancers’ Phrase Book
By Abigail Green

“Send me your clips.”

It’s a good sign when an editor asks for samples of your writing. It usually means he’s interested and wants proof of your skills before offering you an assignment. In the publishing world, “clips” are short for “clippings.” Of course, these days clips are more likely to be PDFs than snippets of newsprint, but we’ll get to that. Here are some common questions about clips.

Q: Which clips should I send?

A: The general rule is to send three to five clips no more than five years old. I say, send a couple of your best, most relevant clips and don’t worry about how old they are. Of course, if your best clip is from 1995, include some more recent ones as well. It really doesn’t matter how many clips you send, but keep in mind that most editors won’t comb through a huge pile of paper.

Q: How should I send them?

A: Defer to the editor. Don’t email her PDF files unless she invites you to. If you can send her a link to your Web site where she can download them herself, that’s ideal. If you only have hard copies of your clips, mail them. (Faxes may smear or be illegible.) Spring for overnight mail if the editor’s in a hurry. And while color copies are nice—especially if there are photos or art accompanying your article—clean, black-and-white photocopies are fine. Never send the originals, since you may not get them back.

Q: Do I need to wait for an invitation to send clips?

A: No. If you’re sending an unsolicited query by mail, by all means include some clips. However, photocopies (and postage) aren’t cheap, so I usually mention some publications I’ve written for and offer to provide clips upon request. In email queries, links to online clips are fine, but again—don’t send unsolicited attachments.

Q: What if I don’t have any clips?

A: Have you written an article for your church newsletter? Had an op-ed run in your local paper? Published an essay in your alumni magazine? Those count as clips. If you really don’t have anything that qualifies as a published writing sample, offer to write a few things for free so you can get some clips.

One last tip: I make regular trips to Staples to photocopy my latest clips before they get lost in the recycling bin. Then I file them so they’re easily accessible when an editor says those magic words.

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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