Monday, July 24, 2006

I Want To Write for Vanity Fair! Tell Me How.

I have a Ph.D. in education and before I quit working to be home with kids and pursue fiction writing, I taught at a major university, was part of research projects, and worked in countless classrooms all over the country...but my work being class-room based, I don't have publishing credits. Now I'm looking to parlay my experience into writing--Parents, Brain Child, etc. I'm just starting to think about querying and wonder how hard is it to break into major magazines, even with credentials?

I've gotten several variations of this question, so I'm basically going to address the overall question that was asked: how hard is it to break into the majors, and how can I go about doing it?

Well, listen, here's the bad news: it's not easy. I can't really sugar-coat that. I think of freelance writing a lot like acting: there are thousands upon thousands of writers who probably ooze talent and are entirely competent, but only a few crack the upper tier. And cracking it just isn't that simple, even though the job might seem like anyone can do it. (Trust me, I get those emails from friends of friends of friends: "Hiya! I want to do what you do - it seems so easy and perfect! Can you get me an assignment!?!?" Ha! If only. (**ETA: I don't mean to imply that I mind getting asked for help from friends of friends! This happens all the time, and I'm always happy to help. It's the ones that have the assumption that they can just slide into my position that give me pause...and a chuckle...and annoyance.**) But a lot of people can't do it. Freelance writing isn't a snap: it requires constant hustling, more social skills than you'd imagine, dealing with the ebbs and flows of the marketplace, meeting deadlines (often rigid ones), managing demands of editors, delivering revisions per an editor's (often times multiple editors') requests, developing unique story ideas (yes, I know, you often feel like these stories aren't that different than one another, but sending an editor an idea called, "The Ten Healthiest Foods for Your Body," won't cut me), finding the right experts and research to back up your writing, knowing the tone of each distinctive magazine (i.e., I write for both Women's Health and Woman's Day...not exactly the same voice or readership), etc, etc, etc.

So with those illusions out of the way, let me offer a glimmer of hope! The first thing that you'll need to start freelancing is some clips. Now, how the hell do you gather clips when you've never been published, and yet you need the clips to GET published? Well, yes, that's a little tricky. The catch-22 my friend. Here's the honest answer: you're probably not going to land your first clip at Glamour, Parents or Men's Health (or wherever). These editors get dozens of dozens of queries each week, and they're not going to take a chance and pay an unknown commodity $2 a word. They simply don't have to: they have a pool of writers whom they know can deliver what they need. (Not to say that they don't use writers outside of the pool - they do - but even those writers have similar credits. Or they get referrals from other editors...and yep, these editors are at other major mags, so the problem for a newbie remains.)

What I suggest instead (and I teach an annual workshop on this for Woman's Day, and I know that some attendees have had success with this route) is gathering clips in regional, local or online publications. The web is a fantastic way to get your start. Sites constantly need fresh content, and because the turnover rate is so high (and the pay rates a little lower), they work with a diverse pool of writers. Ditto newspapers (your local paper is a gold mine) or regional magazines. Start there. Build your portfolio of clips. Then, when you develop a perfect query for InStyle, you have something to prove to the editor that you can deliver.

Another smart route is to pitch the FOB section of the magazine. FOB stands for front-of-book, and it's a literal term: this is the first 1/3-1/2 of the magazine that contains those quick little articles that you read while on the treadmill. When you pitch an editor an FOB, you can often pitch him or her multiple ideas, and he'll pick and choose what might work for him. (Good places to find FOB ideas are in recently released research, studies or newly released books.) Assigning you a 200 word FOB involves much less risk for a new-to-you editor...Essentially, if you suck, he can rewrite it (or reassign it), and he isn't out a lot of time or money. But if you come through, you can build a relationship with him, which might eventually lead to bigger and more lucrative assignments. I got my start at Cooking Light and Men's Health, among others, in the FOB depts, and have since graduated to features.

I wish I could say that your background - whether it's a Ph.D or as a top chef - gives you an automatic in. While it might help you hone your pitches and sway an editor if she's unsure about assigning to you, it won't really open doors. Why? Because editors at the major magazines need someone who can write. And until you've shown them that you can, the rest of it is irrelevant.


xxxx said...

A comment from the other side: I am a magazine editor who works with freelancers all the time.

-DO know the magazine you're pitching to well (and its audience!). Don't pitch a variation of a story we did two months ago. Do look at the magazine and be able to tell me exactly where it would fit in, and why our audience would like it.

-DO send several ideas (at least for the FOB--which, yes, is an excellent place to start, in addition to the even-better website). You'll have a better chance at getting a yes.

-DO follow up, but DON'T be a whiny pain in the ass. I have one freelancer who follows up--and maybe sends an idea or two more--if he hasn't heard back from me in a few days, which I totally appreciate because I get a ton of email and sometimes things slip through the cracks. HOWEVER, I also had a freelancer send one or two shitty ideas and then, weeks later, send a petulant email about how I must not like his stuff, because he's been waiting around forever and hasn't heard back. YOU'RE RIGHT. I DON'T. And even if I DID, I sure don't now, because you're a baby, and I don't work with babies. Drives me crazy! If you don't hear back after a week, drop me an email and ask if I've had a chance to look over your ideas (ONCE, not 100 times), or send a new batch of ideas and/or remind me of your old ones.

-DO be professional. You wouldn't believe how many things I get written in all lower-case letters or full of fragmented sentences. It's amazing how many people think email doesn't count. You can be creative and casual, but hello, you're being judged on your writing! Even in something as dumb as an email!

OK, off my soapbox now :)

Anonymous said...

What an elightening point-counterpoint exchange. Did you plan it that way, Allison? *g*

However it happened, this was a great reality check from both you and swishy.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Great points. I actually had an entire paragraph about acting professionally, but deleted it because I didn't want it to come off as condescening. But I think you can't say enough about that: I'm constantly shocked at how lax freelancers are in presenting themselves to editors. As if it doesn't even occur to them that they need to be MARKETING themselves and that carelessness matters!

I think that's another post for another day, but thanks for bringing this up!

Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks so much for the advice! As I head into fall and put together a plan for moving forward, I'll be revisiting your site over and over!!!
You're doing such a great job--very clear info, etc. Great site.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Kathie-Glad that I could be of help!