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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40 comments on “Why Super-Short Articles Can Build a Big Writing Career
  1. Claus Martin says:

    I look at it from the point of a reader.

    When I read, to get information, I like, if the text is as short as possible, just giving the needed information. I have to read a lot every day and it is a waste of time, if the text is too redundant.

    It is different with arts, because then I can enjoy, if a poet masters the language. But even then I prefer shorter texts like short stories or novels.

  2. WK says:

    Tom, if you’re pitching a short article from an idea used in a longer article, do you use the longer article on the same subject as a clip? I’m unclear if it’s good or bad to use articles of the same or similar subject as the one being pitched.

  3. Tom Bentley says:

    Those of you who subscribed to the comments might get something good from this: a overview of what FOB pitches work for Popular Science, from Contently’s newsletter:

    http://www.contently.net/2015/07/27/qa/get-byline-popular-science/

    (I’m going to try that one myself.)
    Tom Bentley recently posted…Guest Posting? Wipe Your Feet at Your Host’s Door Before EnteringMy Profile

  4. Lynn says:

    So,what’s the best way to get an FOB assignment?
    Make a pitch for a story? Or write a general LOI to the editor saying that I would be interested in writing FOBs?
    Thanks for any suggestions you can provide.

    • Tom Bentley says:

      Hi Lynn. If you read through the comments you’ll see some thoughts on getting assignments. As I said, Googling something like “Publications that publish short articles” (or variants on that wording) will supply you with some thoughts. So will going to a store that has a broad range of magazines, where you can flip through their FOB sections.

      A LOI might be overkill for an FOB, but of course it’s a great way to introduce yourself to an editor, so I wouldn’t discount it (and you could break in for a range of assignments that way as well, or at least get clarification on guidelines or what they are looking for). As discussed by several commenters, the story pitch could be the bulk of the story itself, if we are talking about pieces in the 200- to 400-word range. Good luck!
      Tom Bentley recently posted…Guest Posting? Wipe Your Feet at Your Host’s Door Before EnteringMy Profile

  5. One other question: When sending the query/entire FOB article, what subject line would I use in the email subject line? Do I want to somehow signal the editor that this is a FOB piece.

    Subject: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (hint hint FOB wink wink know what I mean)?

    • Tom Bentley says:

      Andrew, my subject lines for queries are often what I conceive to be the headline for the piece, often preceded by “Query: …” I haven’t put FOB in the subject line, because I often suggest where a piece could go in the magazine by section (that telling you it’s good policy to know the magazine’s section headings), and by default, the editor would know it’s a short piece.

      Magazine guidelines (always try to see if there are some) sometimes suggest that the writer include the section for which the article was intended, which helps you narrow your focus. However, I don’t think it could hurt to put “FOB” in parentheses at the end of the subject line.

      I’m going the opposite direction today: I was waiting to hear back from an in-flight mag editor I know a bit about an article I queried a short while ago that he was only vaguely interested in, and I’m going to suggest it might make a good FOB too. Better than nothing, for sure.
      Tom Bentley recently posted…Guest Posting? Wipe Your Feet at Your Host’s Door Before EnteringMy Profile

  6. Laurie Stone says:

    Great idea. That FOB story is a great way to get the editor’s ear and win their trust, especially for a big publication. I’ll put that on my writing to-do list. Thanks for the advice.
    Laurie Stone recently posted…Saying Goodbye to Dad: 6 Unexpected Thoughts On HospiceMy Profile

    • Tom Bentley says:

      Laurie, and one of those unsung benefits is that you can then put a big-name publication on your site’s publication list (or your “as seen on” list). Even if it’s a 200-word piece on the rising popularity of scented cat collars, if the Wall Street Journal printed it, you are a Wall Street Journal writer. (Well, maybe not a *regular* WSJ writer, but it could be a stepping-stone to that.)
      Tom Bentley recently posted…Guest Posting? Wipe Your Feet at Your Host’s Door Before EnteringMy Profile

  7. Mark Lilly says:

    This is great info, Tom. The idea of knocking these types of articles out is often less daunting than full-length feature pieces. The culture has definitely shifted to preferring more bite-sized bits of information overall, and I can’t help but notice I lean more toward writing that way now, too.

    • Tom Bentley says:

      Mark, it seems to me as well that there’s never been more of an appetite for quickly digested articles. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be meaty or helpful or interesting.

      I go both ways in my reading though: I enjoy those sections of magazines that have the range of FOB materials: quick info bits, diversions, impressionistic pieces (and of course I enjoy writing them too). But I also like to write long, essay-style pieces as well—and read them too.
      Tom Bentley recently posted…Guest Posting? Wipe Your Feet at Your Host’s Door Before EnteringMy Profile

      • Carol Tice says:

        Totally agree — our attention spans seem to be so bite-sized these days!

        And I’ve written quite a few roundup stories that I crammed into 300 words. People shouldn’t think FOBs can be light on useful info, they should still be packed!

  8. I have also found that the query for FOB pieces also takes care of most of the writing and research. If you have a fleshed-out query, the article is practically written.
    Charlene Oldham recently posted…Wednesday Words of Wisdom from Langston HughesMy Profile

  9. Rob says:

    I recently pitched an idea for a 1200 word article and got a 200 word assignment. It took about half an hour to write, so I made more per hour on it than on a longer article. It was fun and a refreshing change, too. May write the longer one later. They just happened to need a filler piece in their ezine.
    Rob recently posted…Expats and DepressionMy Profile

  10. Interesting. Good and objective approach. I’ll try this for sure.
    Thanks Tom, great post!

  11. Thank you for telling me that

  12. Tom Bentley says:

    Lauren, I not only spelled your name wrong on my first comment, I messed up the trade-pub URLs. Try these:

    http://www.customcontentcouncil.com
    http://www.tradepub.com
    Tom Bentley recently posted…Guest Posting? Wipe Your Feet at Your Host’s Door Before EnteringMy Profile

  13. Deena says:

    Hi, Tom, and thank you for a really informative article about an almost forgotten source of writing gigs. I was really happy to learn about it.

    I also really liked how you were able to use related topics for your FOBs, as you explained in the Hangover Heaven bus to a beer magazine. I’m excited to try my hand at this.

    Deena

  14. Great article, thank you very much. Do you do interviews for these pieces, get short quotes, or write the story without them?

    • Tom Bentley says:

      Hi Andrew. For almost all of the American Scholar articles, I interviewed and quoted someone. But the interviews were all under 30 minutes (and sometimes 20 minutes) long, so the effort wasn’t extensive, nor was secondary research.

      I’ve done a number of “weekender” 400-word travel pieces for the LA Times that have a very specific format, but they are for places I was traveling to and staying in anyway, so getting paid for an article about them was gravy.
      Tom Bentley recently posted…Guest Posting? Wipe Your Feet at Your Host’s Door Before EnteringMy Profile

  15. Love this article!
    Just curious how you all freelancers become familiar with trade magazines? Do you research/read them online? Do you go through Writer’s Market books for ideas then request hard copies? I feel like there is this huge, untapped market out there and I’m not quite sure how to find all of the potential magazines.

  16. David Throop says:

    Tom,
    Thanks for the info. I’d heard about the FOB before, but wasn’t sure what they were exactly.

    In the comments section you mention checking out the guidelines ahead of the pitch, but my question is, would you pitch an editor the same for a short piece as a regular article?
    David Throop recently posted…What Does Joe Strummer, My Short Stories And Kindle Publishing Have In Common?My Profile

    • Tom Bentley says:

      Scott and David, one of your questions overlapped, so I’ll answer it here: No, for short pieces, I don’t put the same amount of information (or time) in as I would for a longer-piece query. The short-piece pitch would’t include an extensive list of supporting bullet points like I often put in a query, or (of course) any suggestion of a sidebar or supplementary info. FOB pitches for me are just an essential summary, with the suggestion I could flesh it out more if needed.

      Of course, some editors, as I suggested in the article, will take your long-pitch idea and say, “No, 1200 words on that won’t work—how ’bout 400?”

      And Scott, I don’t know the circumstances for the bulk of individual magazines for the blurb-type pieces you’re referring too, but I’d hazard a guess that they are staff written. (However, I was paid $100 to write a long caption for a photograph once, so you never know.)

      Something I should have mentioned in the article is that many magazines have a theme, such as general and specific travel for in-flight magazines, but they almost always have FOB sections that might have articles on the hottest hot pepper in the world, a fountain pen that’s Internet-enabled, how businesses now have office windows that actually open and close—those general interest pieces go well in places like in-flight mags, which still pay good rates. So if you come across an interesting or quirky thing in your reading, think about whether it might make a good FOB piece.
      Tom Bentley recently posted…Guest Posting? Wipe Your Feet at Your Host’s Door Before EnteringMy Profile

  17. Scott says:

    Tom,

    To ask a dumb question, would you pitch a short piece the same way as a longer piece… LOI, etc.

    Also, many magazines have even shorter pieces for themed fob sections – more like news and notes type shorts. Are these done by freelancers, or do interns and other staffers handle them?

  18. Kathy Marshall says:

    Great post on short pieces. Many of the guidelines I have seen explain the fact that editors are willing to try out a new writer in this fashion.

    • Tom Bentley says:

      I’m glad you brought up guidelines, Kathy. When you’re working on your first pitch for a short piece, be sure to ground yourself well in the guidelines, if there are any. Check out their online presence in their About or Contact pages—or writer’s guidelines page, if there is one. Some editors are real sticklers—the specified 300-word piece can’t come in at 425 words, or they’ll dismiss it out of hand.

      You later might be able to fudge on story specs, but at the beginning, it’s probably best to adhere to the letter, particularly for a short piece.
      Tom Bentley recently posted…Guest Posting? Wipe Your Feet at Your Host’s Door Before EnteringMy Profile

      • Tom, I’d be surprised if I got less than an 80 percent “do this over” reprimand rate on attempts to get away with 425-for-300-word pieces. Allowance is generally made for up to 10 percent overage (330 words), but not 40 percent!

        I’ve interviewed and networked with many major-publishing-house editors, and their #1 pet peeve is, without question, “people who can’t follow clear directions.” To editors, that’s the sure sign of an egoist who considers his/her writing so superior it entitles the writer to avoid doing a fair share of the editing, if not dictate to the magazine when it’s time to change focus.
        Katherine Swarts recently posted…List FatigueMy Profile

  19. Hi Tom,

    Great article. Thank you!

    I haven’t thought about short magazine pieces for a long time…and their power to build editor relationships.

    I learned about writing short pieces many years ago in a college writing course. The theme was “Write and Sell the Short Stuff.”

    In addition to writing FOB pieces, we looked at writing letters to the editor as a segue to Op-ed pieces – a different approach but certainly a way to gain recognition.

    New goal: FOBs for magazines in my niche.

    Thanks again,
    Sharyn

    • Tom Bentley says:

      You’re most welcome, Sharyn. Things become so much easier with editors and future opportunities once you’re a known entity. You can write more concise (and more casual) queries, and with a few FOBs under the belt, you’re much more readily considered for longer and more lucrative pieces.

      And working with editors on that level makes it much easier to approach new editors, because you’ll understand the structural process and give and take better. (And it’s more fun!)
      Tom Bentley recently posted…Guest Posting? Wipe Your Feet at Your Host’s Door Before EnteringMy Profile

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