How I Got My First National Magazine Article Gig: Step-By-Step

Step upBy Tracy Hume

I’m celebrating the publication of my first national magazine article.

Writing has always played a role in the day jobs I’ve held (community relations assistant at a hospital, academic report writer and grant writer at a community college).

But most of the writing I’ve done for work has been written for a very specialized audience. And except for a short stint as a temporary guest columnist for The Denver Post in 2002, it was mostly behind-the-scenes and did not carry a byline.

In 2006 I began freelancing full-time, focusing on the areas I knew best — researching and writing specialized academic reports and grants. These are worthwhile writing niches.

However, it’s helpful to be able to show a breadth of writing abilities on your writer’s website, and bylined pieces are an essential part of a writer’s portfolio.

I wanted to get a byline in a national magazine to show potential clients I can also write shorter, consumer-oriented pieces.

Here’s how I made that happen.

Write what you know

Step 1. I’m a regular reader of Weight Watchers magazine.

I noticed each issue had a one-page article featuring different types of exercise. I love square dancing and thought to myself, “why haven’t they published an article on square dancing? They should!”

Lesson: Pitch a magazine you already read with a topic you are passionate about.

Step 2. I found an editor’s name in the masthead and Googled “editor name” “@weightwatchers.com” to find her e-mail address. Bingo!

Lesson:  Use whatever tips and tricks you can to find editor contact info. I learned the Google search tip in one of the weekly webinars offered by the Freelance Writers Den.

Step 3. I sent a query to the editor. In the query, I described my connections with both Weight Watchers and with square dancing to establish my authority on the topic.

But I didn’t have any relevant clips, so I broke one of the rules of query writing: I wrote the 400-word article and sent it in with my query.

Before I wrote it, I carefully studied the feature in the magazine for style, length, tone, subheads, etc. and then I tried to mimic it as precisely as possible.

Dear [editor’s name]:

I am a professional freelance writer, a Weight Watchers member (55 lbs lost so far, still moving toward goal), a regular reader of Weight Watchers Magazine and a square dancer. I think square dancing would be a great topic for the Magazine’s “I tried it!” feature.

I wouldn’t normally send a pre-written article (see below: ‘Square Dancing: When her partner walked out, she stepped up by committing to eating right and dancing to a new tune’), but most of my recent writing has been B2B, so I thought it would be best if I sent you an example of what I can do. I can also provide additional copy for online content, including links to national square dance sites, etc.

Thanks for your consideration!

Tracy Hume

[I attached the article draft here.]

Lesson: Sometimes the only way to show an editor you can write what they need is to go ahead and write it.

Step 4. Four weeks after my e-mail query the editor asked me to send clips. The only relevant clips I had were two essays published eleven years ago in the newspaper. I sent them. She gave me the assignment.

Lesson: If you have ever had anything published, it counts as a clip.

Write – and revise

Step 5. On May 8 the editor assigned me a 400-word piece with a due date of May 17. She gave me multiple suggestions for revising the piece I had submitted with the query. I turned it in before the deadline.

Lesson: Be prepared to write quickly and deliver on time.

Step 6. After I turned in the story it went through six weeks of revisions. For a 400-word story!

Different editors had different questions, and each editor wanted to emphasize a different aspect of the story.

After revisions were finished a fact-checker confirmed every detail. I responded quickly to each request.

Because it was a personal essay, I wanted it to be true, but if they needed to modify the voice to fit the magazine, I was cool with that.

In the end, not a single sentence I had submitted in the original query survived the rounds of revisions intact!

Lesson: Don’t be married to your words. The magazine’s editors know best what fits with the voice/tone of their publication.

Paid and published

Step 7. I submitted my invoice on July 8, after the last round of revisions was accepted. I received a check on July 15.

Lesson: Weight Watchers magazine pays on time! (Probably can’t generalize to all consumer magazines here … I’m sure each one is different.)

Step 8. My piece, “Dance Therapy,” appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Weight Watchers magazine. (Now I’m a local celebrity — within my local Weight Watchers group, anyway. Ha!)

How do you use your passions to get great gigs? Tell us in the comments below.

Tracy Hume is a Colorado-based freelance writer who loves learning new things and writing about them. She learned to square dance last year, and this year she’s completing a certificate program in health information technology.

 

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33 comments on “How I Got My First National Magazine Article Gig: Step-By-Step
  1. Brenda Joyce says:

    This was such a useful amount of information! I am new to this site and have not only read the original post but all of the comments as they each gave an original viewpoint.

    Not too far off the topic, I hope – I would like to recommend “On Writing” by Stephen King. I am not a fan of his genre but this book is a great way to look at all aspects of writing.

  2. Judith says:

    Tracy, Hi.
    Erika Dreifuss, in her Friday Finds for Writers linked to your piece. I liked it for its clarity and focus and the forward impetus of the writing. It was personal but not in the least self absorbed. Suggestion: How about writing a mystery series around a square dancing, weight watching grant writer? I think your writing voice would work really well in a cozy but very smart mystery series. Best of luck and thanks again for a very readable piece. J.Mesch

  3. Kostas says:

    Well done on your national byline Tracy! This is a great example of getting your pitch right and also of how you do sometimes need to bend the rules!
    Kostas recently posted…Guest Blogging: How To Write The Perfect BylineMy Profile

  4. Melissa Weir says:

    I like your chutzpah, Tracy! You wanted to prove you could write short pieces so you went for a byline in a NATIONAL magazine, skipping right over any regional or local pubs.

    Then you didn’t have a short article clip to share so you wrote an entire article and sent it with the query! Guts!

    Congratulations to you. You’ve inspired me to submit an adoption article I’ve been noodling over for, I don’t know, months and months!

    Good luck with all your future work. Now I need to go find my December WW to check out your story!
    Melissa Weir recently posted…What Is A Content Marketing Strategist — And Why Are We So Angry?My Profile

  5. Ooo good post. Completely forgot about Googling editor’s name with .com. Congrats on the magazine publication and thank you for sharing your tips!
    Williesha Morris recently posted…How to Make Affiliate Marketing Less IckyMy Profile

  6. Great post! The step-by-step was very helpful, and gives me confidence to make a similar effort. I tend to do things the hard way, but I’ll pursue this idea. The simplicity of writing about what I know best. What a novel idea!

  7. Stacy says:

    That’s fantastic, Tracy!

    Good move to choose a magazine you enjoy reading and are familiar with. Editors respect that.

    My passion for all things real estate led me to pursue this niche–and I’m getting good gigs from it. Although I’ve written about travel for years, it’s exciting to find another writing passion to pursue. Who thought of all those hours watching HGTV for years would turn into well-paying client work!

    • Tracy Hume says:

      *Who thought of all those hours watching HGTV for years would turn into well-paying client work!*

      Love that! Sometimes we are so close to the things we enjoy, our own expertise is invisible to us. I love that you are making this work!

      • Carol Tice says:

        I’ve had quite a few TV-related gigs myself, including about a year of weekly posts I got to do off “Shark Tank” and other business-related reality TV shows. They’re really fun!

  8. the googling [ed’s name]@[publication] came as a revelation to me. Trying to find editor’s direct email addresses drives me nuts sometimes. I’ll give it a try.
    Rob Schneider recently posted…Slapped by Google for Unnatural Links!My Profile

  9. Thanks Tracy. You make some excellent points and I love your idea of including a custom sample with the query, along with the explanation that your current work is in a different area. I’m in a similar situation, attempting to query magazines when the bulk of my work is in copywriting.
    Mindful Copywriting recently posted…How to Choose a Great Freelance Copywriter (Most People Miss Tip #3)My Profile

  10. Tracy,

    Awesome tips and lessons!

    Before reading this blog post, I always believed that a freelance writer needed fresh clips in order to even get in the door, so to speak, with an editor at a magazine. However, after reading your post here and seeing that some old clippings that you had (probably stored away in some file collecting dust, no doubt) helped you in locking in this amazing opportunity to write for such a prestigious magazine is mind blowing to me.

    Reading that very paragraph inspired me to not worry about how old my clippings may be, but instead, to become a warrior and use the weapons (old clippings) that I have to win the battle against being rejected from a magazine that I really want to write for.

    To answer the question: How do you use your passions to get great gigs?

    Because my passion is writing and ministry, I blog about those topics everyday. Moreover, I am constantly doing blog series that end up becoming books, which become clippings that I can use to my advantage when querying a magazines that publishes on those topics that I am most passionate about.

    Thank you for sharing this post, it really ignited a fire within me!

    Sincerely,

    William Ballard

  11. Margo Dill says:

    I love this article. One–I’m a Weight Watchers lifetimer–so this article was very relevant to me. Two, it showed me that I’m not paying enough attention to the magazines I read all the time to think of ideas for freelancing. Three–I LOVED the tip on finding the editor’s email. THANK YOU! Congrats on the article and on the weight loss. I know it’s not easy!
    Margo Dill recently posted…Sleep Tight, Anna Banana! by Dominique Roques; Illustrated by Alexis DormalMy Profile

  12. Leela says:

    Hi Tracy,

    Your article was a much-needed wake-up call for me, a writer who has written scores and reams of internal communication messages, mails, reports while in a job and for friends (for professional and personal objectives) in an unofficial capacity, and has recently ventured into the world of professional writing for a living, among other things.
    I woke up to the reality that I must let go of the proprietorial attitude to my writing and understand that the Editor is the final authority.
    I have yet to submit my writing to a magazine so I have not yet had the kind of review you encountered, but I do recall being quite irritated when an article was published in a leading paper (as part of a contest) with a couple of edits :-)!
    So far, since I am still in the realm of content for websites, brochures, press releases and blogs (and baby steps at that), I have been responsible for my own edits, based on the feedback of stakeholders. In other words, I have been in control. But obviously that doesn’t work in the larger domain, and thank you for plainly stating that by describing your experience.
    I am delighted I came upon this site and hope to learn from everyone’s experiences.
    Cheers!

  13. Holly Bowne says:

    I too loved your step-by-step format here, Tracy. Good stuff!

    I’m usually super appreciative of good editing. But I’m curious, were you discouraged that your piece went through SO many revisions when you tried so hard to match the voice and style with your initial submission?
    Holly Bowne recently posted…Quote of the MonthMy Profile

    • Tracy Hume says:

      Hi Holly! I actually was not discouraged at all about the revisions. My goal was to get that byline in a national magazine, and so I was really excited about the fact that that was happening. It was a personal story, so it was important to me that the facts be correct — and they were. Mostly what they changed was the voice, and that did not surprise me! I am a middle-aged, bookish, introverted woman from a small town in the rural West … and I write like a middle-aged, bookish, introverted woman, etc. etc. I have read so many women’s magazines and thought that the content was good but the tone was so … young? sassy? urban? nonchalant? I was actually quite fascinated by the way the editors were able to shape my story to fit with the tone and style of the rest of the magazine! It was a learning experience. 🙂

  14. Taheerah says:

    Hi Tracy,

    First off, Congratulations on your assignment and on your weight loss! Your story (and victory) are tale of inspiration. People outside of the entrepreneurial realm don’t realize how many hats you have to wear in order to get the job done. You’re not just a writer, you’re a strategist, marketer, and sometimes, as you evidenced, a part-time sleuth, lol.

    I love what you said about not being married to your words, I believe this is one of the most important rules of writing, as well as mastering the art of writing tight. I also use the marriage analogy, but I say it a little differently, “I’m never married to my words, only the results.”

    • Carol Tice says:

      I had the good fortune of cutting my teeth as a songwriter going to workshops to have my lyrics shredded. You need to be a little egoless when editors start ripping into your work and trust that they know their readers and are there to make your work better. And if you find you can’t trust them…it’s time to find new clients. 😉

  15. I like what you said about editors, Tracy. They know what they want. Six weeks of revisions and every sentence changed? What ever it takes, right?

    So far my biggest shot is an essay in Caregiver Magazine about the important of sports training while looking after my father in law with Parkinson’s. I wrote it, sent it, and they published it. No pay there, but maybe that’s how they do on no pay essays.

    It seemed anti-climactic. Looking for a better story.
    David Gillaspie recently posted…THE HAPPY WAY OF AGING RIGHT ON TIMEMy Profile

  16. Sylvia says:

    Breaking the query rules does work! Several years ago I had a traumatic personal experience. To get it “off my chest” I put it on paper. Even though I had never written anything professionally it sounded like a magazine article to me. On a whim I picked up a major glossy and found an editor’s name and snail mailed a cleaned up version of the story with a strong cover letter (I’d never heard of query letters). Never mind about clips. I was clueless.

    Four days later (!) the editor called me to say she loved it and was pitching it to the rest of the group. The magazine went bust after a much publicized court battle between the publisher and the owner: Rosie O’Donnell. (The magazine was Rosie which had been revamped from the old McCalls.) It was never published but it was great to learn that my writing had potential.

    Don’t be afraid to break the rules if you have a great story to tell and can write a kick a** cover letter…I mean query letter.
    Sylvia recently posted…CROWDFUNDING-Should You Drink the Kool Aid?My Profile

  17. I love the lessons you included after each step. Congrats on becoming a local celebrity! 🙂
    Bethanny Parker recently posted…SEO for Small Business: It’s as Easy as 1-2-3My Profile

  18. *Pitch a magazine you already read with a topic you are passionate about.*

    This is how I got one of my first full length articles published a few years ago.

    When I was going through the process of applying to university, I ended up writing a step-by-step guide for myself (pretty much a ‘to-do list’ for uni applicants).

    This guide then morphed into a 2400 word article that was accepted and published by my local newspaper.
    Katherine James recently posted…Get Paid To Write Articles by Checking These 5 Job Boards DailyMy Profile

    • Tracy Hume says:

      I really like how you used the research you did for your own life (‘to-do list’ for uni applicants) and turned it into an article. I think sometimes we take for granted all of the problem-solving research each of us does for ourselves every day. Your story shows how your research did double-duty — answering your own questions, and also answering the questions of others on your same path. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  19. Elke Feuer says:

    Thanks for the great advice, Tracy! I loved how you set it out step-by-step. I’m going to try this with a couple local (Grand Cayman) magazines I’ve had my eyes on.
    Elke Feuer recently posted…CayWriters On The MoveMy Profile

    • Tracy Hume says:

      I am glad you liked the step-by-step article format 🙂 I myself really like to read articles with specific instructions about mastering this freelance writing business. That’s one reason why I am such a big fan of Carol Tice & The Freelance Writer’s Den. Carol always gives concrete, practical, ready-to-apply advice for moving your writing goals forward. Good luck on your Grand Cayman magazine pitches!

    • Nadia McDonald says:

      I love your insights Tracy! You represented what action and determination is all about. You are an inspiration!

  20. That’s awesome, Tracy! Especially the part about 11-year-old clips helping you land the assignment. My best clips are about that old. I’m hoping to go dive into the morgue at the newspaper I used to intern for next time I go visit my parents to see if I can find them! 🙂

    • Tracy Hume says:

      That sounds like a great plan, Lindsay! I forgot to mention that since my clips were so old, I had no live links for them, so I just scanned them and turned them into .pdfs so I could send them out. Have fun looking through the newspaper morgue! Who knows, it might even spark some more article ideas for you 🙂

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m always telling people, there’s no such thing as too-old clips. I routinely send out decade-old clips if they demonstrate a particular expertise I need to show.

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