20 Tips for Breaking into Print Publications Today

Even for writers who’re doing well online, print publications retain their allure. There’s something about seeing your byline in print that remains uniquely validating for many writers.

There’s also a popular belief that print publications pay more, which can be true, though there are also great-paying online markets and print publishers who pay squat. Certainly, if you’re writing for $20 an article online, many print publications will pay more. Most of my print articles in recent years have paid $300-$1,500 and up.

In case you think physical magazines are a dying breed, here are some statistics from the Magazine Publishers of America’s 2010/11 Magazine Handbook: Despite the downturn, magazine readership grew in every age category including 18 year-olds from 2005-2009. More than 90 percent of American adults report they read magazines, and the figure is slightly higher for adults under 35. Yes, circulation is currently down a bit — to only 347 million magazine copies sold in 2009. To sum up, print publications are still very viable markets for freelance writers.

Several writers asked for more information on cracking print publications in our recent get-acquainted post. So here is a primer on making the leap from writing online blogs, articles, and Web content to being published in print publications:

  1. Conquer your insecurity. A lot of online writers seem to have serious insecurity issues about tackling print. Intimidated? Get over it. I am a college dropout, and I’ve even written a couple of articles for the Wall Street Journal. You can learn this. If you think your insecurity stems from lack of knowledge of magazine- or print-article writing, then take a class, read a book, find a mentor…and learn more about it.
  2. Discover the wide world of print. When many writers think of print publications, visions of Vogue, Vanity Fair and other super-popular newsstand favorites tend to dance in their heads. But consumer magazines are just one part of the enormous world of print. Know that big-circulation, national magazines are not your likely starting point in print, and find other print opportunities. There are regional magazines, local newspapers, trade magazines, company magazines, college alumni magazines, charity and professional association magazines…right on down to the newsletter published by a local condominium complex. Many of these less-well-known print niches pay surprisingly well, too. New magazines also keep being born that have no established writer pool. Somewhere in there is a publication where you could get an assignment.
  3. Identify likely targets. To start, concentrate on a subject you know well, where you can make a strong case that you bring unique skills to the assignment. That really ups your chances. Then, find relevant regional or local publications that need that expertise. Your initial goal is simply to get some print clips — anywhere — so you can use them to pitch bigger, better-paying print markets. You can start discovering publications that use freelance writers by looking at The Writer’s Market, at Media Bistro’s guides, at Wooden Horse’s database, or at the markets in Writer’s Weekly.
  4. Get the best online clips you can. While you’re trolling for print markets that might hire you, try to write the strongest material you can online. There are opportunities to write reported stories on some of the major Web sites, and these could also serve as good clips for transitioning to print.
  5. Realize print and online are merging. While you’re dreaming about breaking into print publications, know that many print publications are dreaming about migrating to the Web in order to monetize their content with ads, seminars, books and more. The line between print and online magazines is increasingly blurry. The business-to-business magazine auditing firm BPA Worldwide recently reported 480 titles in this genre alone now sell online subscriptions. If you have strong online experience, you may be able to get started with a print publication’s online site. Many print pubs also commission online exclusive articles or are looking for experienced bloggers, so don’t be shy about plugging your expertise in these areas. Once you’re in that door, you can just ask your online editor to introduce you to the folks on the print side — or they may be one and the same.
  6. Have lots of ideas. You’re likely going to need to send many query letters before you get a “yes,” so you need to develop a long list of potential story ideas. Often, you’ll get a response to a query from an editor that essentially says (either straight-out or between the lines), “You seem professional, but I don’t like this idea. You could pitch me again.” So be ready to follow up with more story ideas. If you’re short of ideas, visit this Copyblogger post or this post on WM Freelance Writers Connection.
  7. Write reported articles on your blog. If you can’t find anywhere else to do it, pretend you are a print publication. Create a fully reported feature article of 1,000-1,200 words or so, and simply post it as one of your blog entries. If you’re new to interviewing, learn how to do it — it’s an essential skill you will need to succeed in print.
  8. Study the publication – hard. This is the step so many writers skip — and then they can’t understand why they’re not getting assignments. The most important thing an editor wants to learn in your query is that you understand their publication, tone and audience. Get your hands on multiple copies of this publication, either physical or online. Read their writer’s guidelines and treat them as gospel. Read their editorial calendar to see what special sections might be coming up. Note bylines to identify freelance-written sections of the pub. Many publications have guidelines and calendars online now, so there’s no excuse. Build this knowledge into your query, as in, “I saw you have a special issue on home design coming up and thought this idea might be a fit,” or “I have an idea for your ‘Passages’ column.”
  9. Strengthen your query skills. If you haven’t sent query letters in the past, know that this is a special little art form all its own. Learn how to avoid common query mistakes here. If you need more, see that handy Amazon sidebar on the right for a couple of good books on the topic.
  10. Reach out in social media. Increasingly, I find editors are accessible through social media, whether print or online. A quick tweet about whether you could pitch them a topic is the right approach for some. Give it a try if you see an editor you want is active on Twitter, for instance.
  11. Do in-person networking. I have many editors at in-person networking events over the past several years. Get to know other writers at events, too — the cool ones will introduce you to their editors if they think you’re right for one of their pubs.
  12. Join writer groups. Don’t soldier on alone in your quest to break into print, when there are many organizations that could help you. I’ve done great with both MediaBistro and Society of Professional Journalists events personally, and also known many people who swear by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE) and the Journalism and Women Symposium. These groups hold teleclasses, in-person events, and offer online courses, and often editors are speakers.
  13. Use the job ads. One of my favorite techniques for connecting with editors is to scan the job ads on LinkedIn for interesting publications looking for staff writers. An open position means articles aren’t getting written, and they might need freelancers to fill in. Their job ad usually gives you an editor name and contact, too.
  14. Find the right editor. A tour of the masthead: Executive editors or editors-in-chief are too high up. Managing editor, articles editor or just plain editor is about right. Associate or assistant editor might also work. Get the right person’s name — it’s not hard with the Internet. Hopefully you have some online writer networks you can tap to help you, too. Try to avoid sending a pitch to “editor.”
  15. Pitch and repitch. Once you’ve developed a story idea and taken the time to craft a query, keep it circulating. You can pitch simultaneously to any market that doesn’t share an audience with the others you’ve queried.
  16. Multipitch. I personally have had a lot of success pitching two or three story ideas in a single query. Each idea is presented in a tight, single paragraph. While some editors don’t go for this, I’ve found overall it ups your odds that you’re putting an idea in front of an editor that they want.
  17. Kill on your assignment. When you get an assignment, hammer out all the details before you begin, including article length, due date, payment amount and terms. Ask how many sources they expect in the story, and of what type. Find out if the publication covers expenses such as long-distance calls or travel (though increasingly few do anymore). If your story idea evolves as you interview sources, let your editor know immediately, so you can agree on a new direction. Finally, study the publication again for style and tone and then write, rewrite, polish, and proofread the daylights out of your story. If the publication requests it, provide complete contact information for all your sources.
  18. Handle edits professionally. This part will be new to some who’ve been writing mostly their own blog, but publications will often want changes to your story. Sometimes, lots of changes, or even additional interviews. Smile and make those changes, especially when you’re new. They’ll usually make your story a better fit for that market’s audience. Remember, you’re here to learn so you can move up to bigger and better-paying print pubs.
  19. Pitch when you turn in. The whole point of pitching queries and connecting with editors is to establish an ongoing relationship with them, not to write one, single article. This is where you leverage your query time and make it all worthwhile. Once a publication likes you, you might get multiple assignments from them monthly. The best time to hit an editor with more ideas is right after you turn in a story — on time, of course. Ride the wave of goodwill straight to your next assignment.
  20. Persist. Breaking into print can take a while. Have a variety of entry- to mid-level print publications you’re targeting. If it’s not working, seek feedback from more experienced print writers. If an editor doesn’t flat-out say, “Don’t pitch us anymore,” keep sending more ideas if you think you’re a fit for that publication. If necessary, go back to #9. Keep going until you’ve achieved your goal: A byline you can cut out and paste in your scrapbook.

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Photo via Flickr user goddess of chocolate

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4 comments on “20 Tips for Breaking into Print Publications Today
  1. Megan Hill says:

    Carol,
    How far in advance should you pitch a story for a topic you see on an editorial calendar?

    Great article!

    -Megan

  2. Carol Tice says:

    Great question, Megan. For a print magazine, thinking 5-6 months ahead is not too far. 3 months is probably too late.

  3. I love your passion to help. You are a gem in a gold mine. Many of these tips have worked for me. My advice is to stay with the momentum. Once lost, it’s difficult to retread.

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