Why Super-Short Articles Can Build a Big Writing Career

Short article writing can be a lucrative way to break into magazines.Short article writing can be refreshing — like ice in your underwear.

It’s also a practical way to build a writing career.

Many magazines today, from Smithsonian to Seventeen, have lots of small articles and light pieces in their brightly designed front pages. It speaks to the reading tastes of the Internet age: colorful and chunky.

For writers — especially ones trying to break in to a magazine — these areas (called “front of book” or FOB) can be a quick source of good money and wider opportunities. Here’s how:

Why short pieces work

For example, I had a tiny piece about the Las Vegas Hangover Heaven bus published in Draft magazine. Draft is the highest-circulating craft-beer magazine, with a frothy lineup of stories about breweries, industry personalities, and innovations in the brewing world. My little article is just a whisper of words, but I’m still happy to have it published, for a number of writing reasons.

Many magazine editors don’t have the time or patience to try an unknown writer on a feature piece. But query them on a 200- or 300-word filler article, and they will more often give you a shot. Those appetizer articles are often a way to set the table for a full-meal article later.

In the case of Draft, I’d written a long feature piece on moonshining for them a while back, so I know the editor. I pitched the Hangover Heaven piece as a feature, but was still happy when the editor came back with the offer to make it a short FOB article. FOB articles often pay .50 to $1 a word.

Writing that piece kept me fresh in the mind of the editor, so I may be able to sell a new article idea. Once you’ve caught an editor’s ear, your subsequent queries don’t have to be as loud — they know you can deliver the goods.

Short article writing can be long term

Short is also sweet in terms of demonstrating that you can consistently carry a certain kind of article to completion. I recently wrote my 10th FOB piece for The American Scholar, for a section called Works in Progress. These articles have all been 250-word pieces, which again pay well, word-wise.

Better, after having written a few of these, the editor now inquires if I have any ideas for the next quarterly issue. I’m in good stead with that editor for stories to come — possibly longer ones — and potentially with editors of other good magazines, because the Scholar is a national magazine of high caliber, focusing on public affairs, literature, culture, and more.

Make FOBs do double duty

One other consideration on short pieces: you can often use the research done for a longer piece as the basis for another short article. I wrote an article for Airstream Life magazine on Edward Tufte, the professor famous for his work in rendering complex information into a comprehensible whole. He also is a designer of very fanciful sculptures, among them one that uses an Airstream as a spacecraft.

After I wrote the Airstream Life piece, I realized that some unused info and quotes from the interview could be shaped into a short piece for The American Scholar. Bingo, a twofer! (And I’m grateful that the editor of Airstream Life now brings potential stories to my attention as well, since I’ve written for him for years.)

Don’t think writing small pieces for magazines diminishes their stature. If they are big enough for a byline, they are big enough to stand on their own. And they can lead to bigger things down the road.

Have you used FOBs to break into bigger writing opportunities? Tell us in the comments below.

Tom Bentley is a business writer and editor, fiction writer, and essayist. His new book, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See is now available at Amazon.

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