If you want to stay on top of your trade, you have to keep-up on trends by reading books, magazines, blogs, etc. As a freelancer, not only do I read trade publications to stay abreast of changes in my industry, but I also read these publications for the following reasons:
- To find better/faster ways to do what I do.
- To find more markets/opportunities.
With these two goals in mind, I came across Jenna Glatzer’s book, Make a Real Living As a Freelance Writer: How to Win Top Writing Assignments. Granted, the publication is about 10 years old, so some of the information is a little outdated. Nevertheless, this book offers some fantastic advice about researching magazines, writing perfect pitch letters, brainstorming story ideas, and several other topics.
Obviously, I can’t cover everything, but I would like to offer a review of Glatzer’s strategies for researching magazines, found in Chapter 4 of her book.
Step 1: Choose an Area of Expertise
Whether you want to write for a general magazine, a trade magazine, or an e-zine, picking a field to focus on may prove beneficial. Perhaps it’s an area that interests you, or maybe it’s a field that you studied during college. Glatzer advises picking a few niches to keep yourself focused.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that a good writer can write about anything, as long as they can research it first. However, if you look at the big picture, your goal as a story-pitching freelancer is to get regular assignments. Actually, your big goal would probably involve being picked-up by a major publication and being paid to write for them on a regular basis. Either way, you might look more professional and more knowledgeable if you focus on one or two key areas versus writing all across the board.
Step 2: Pick A Few Magazines
After you know which areas you want to focus on, Glatzer suggests to pick 2-3 magazines within those fields. Remember that these are magazines you want your work to be published in, so choose wisely.
Glatzer warns about the obstacles in picking larger publications. If you do not have a lot of writing credits, it’s very difficult to get into the larger magazines, since there’s a limited number of slots for freelancers to begin with, and because most editors already have a pool of trusted freelancers. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get your work accepted, but it might be an uphill battle.
Print magazines publish monthly or quarterly, whereas e-zines and online magazines publish daily or weekly. Since online publications post content so frequently, they need more content, which will make it easier for freelancers to get accepted. Online articles are shorter, though, and Glatzer indicates that your writing has to be concise yet powerful to impress editors.
Step 3: Find the Sweet Spots
First of all, you’ll need at least three of the most current issues of any particular magazine. Next, open up to the first few pages where the masthead is listed. If you’re unfamiliar with magazine/journalist terms, the masthead is the listing of the magazine’s main employees. In other words, these are the writers and editors currently on staff. Now, compare the list of names on the masthead to the list of names attached to each article listed in the table of contents. If you don’t see a matching name on the masthead, the article was probably written by a freelancer or guest writer.
After carefully reviewing three of the most recent issues, you should be able to spot which sections use freelancers the most often. Those are the sections you should target with your story pitches. You can try to submit pitches to the other sections, but Glatzer explains that doing so might be a wasted effort, since editors are not going to bump their staff writers for some unknown freelancer.
Step 4: Get to Know the Sweet Spots
Now that you know which sections are freelancer-friendly, you need a better understanding of what editors want. Sure – you could read the submission guidelines, but those tend to be incredibly vague. Instead, Glatzer encourages freelancers to take a closer look at the already published freelancers.
When reading the articles written by freelancers, try to determine the following items:
- Information about the freelancer
- Article format
Most articles written by freelancers include a brief blurb that provides personal details about the writer. You want to know if they are some sort of expert, what credentials they hold, and/or what makes them qualified to write this article.
Do this for all the freelance articles you read to get a clear view of what the section editors prefer when choosing freelancers. If all of the freelance articles are written by industry professionals, for example, and this trend reoccurs in every issue, it would be fairly safe to assume that the section editor prefers freelance writers with industry expertise. If you do not possess the credentials preferred by the section editor, it will count against you, so you may not want to target those particular sections.
Try to see if there is a pattern in general topics covered within each freelancer-friendly section. Glatzer explains how topics that occur in every issue might be the hot topics readers want. These hot topics tend to be broad, so there are plenty of story angle options.
Understanding the hot topics will make it easier for you to pitch stories successfully to editors. After all, if the DIY section of a gardening magazine always covers four main topics, then you know that if you pitch a story idea about one of those four topics that the editor will be more likely to accept your work. If a topic has been covered extensively, however, you will need a fresh perspective, which could mean researching more than just three back-issues.
If you don’t have a background in journalism, you may not know about story structures (e.g., inverted pyramid), story leads, or other terms. The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) offers some very basic information on writing for mass media, but you should check out other sources to understand how to write articles professionally.
If you do have a background in journalism, then there are certain things you want to look for with articles written by freelancers. For example, do the story leads vary a lot, or does the editor seem to have a preference? Do certain topics get treated the same way? For instance, does the editor prefer human interest stories, list-style articles, articles with sidebars, etc.? What about tone of voice? Is it informal? Are the articles jargon heavy? Typical word counts? And so forth.
Glatzer recommends getting a handle on the preferred article formats, because it will help when you pitch your story. Essentially, if you know that the editor prefers certain formats, you can present your story pitch with that format in mind, and even tell the editor about your format plans. Doing so will show that you have done your research about the magazine, which makes you look like a more capable and trustworthy freelancer.
You might be wondering how performing all of the above steps will save you time.
Glatzer’s strategy only suggests that you read the masthead, the table of contents, and the articles written by freelancers. Nothing else. That means you are only reading targeted sections instead of reading the entire magazine. In other words, you are only researching the most pertinent information for your purposes as a freelancer.
Beyond saving time on the research, you will also save time during the pitch-query process.
Consider this scenario: You have skipped the magazine research process completely. You know that you want to write articles for a particular trade, so you just start submitting pitches to editors. Your pitches are strong, your have great article research, but you keep getting rejections.
Why are your pitches being rejected?
Many of the editors you pitched to may not accept freelance work. Likewise, the topics you’ve chosen to pitch may not be topics editors prefer. Since you didn’t do the research upfront, you didn’t know where to submit your pitches or what topics to pitch, so you just wasted all that time by pitching in the dark.
Glatzer’s strategy streamlines the research process immensely, making it time well spent. In addition, the results of the research allow you to pinpoint editors and topics, which increases your chances for successfully selling your work. If your goal as a freelancer is to sell more articles and make more money, why wouldn’t you use the best strategy possible?