How to Annoy the Editor: Tips for getting Published in Magazines
April 23, 2015
Annoying the editor is not a good way to get stories and articles published in magazines. And the best way to annoy an editor is to not read the magazine. Like Santa, they know. They can tell by the title or first sentence of your submission if you've read the magazine or just read about it. You don't even have to buy the magazine, but at least open a copy at a newsstand or, better yet, a library, where you can spend a few guilt-free minutes with a few issues. Otherwise, you will likely submit a story that is wildly inappropriate, in topic, tone, and/or length. The editor--or the slush pile reader--will open your submission, take one look, exhale an exasperated breath, and toss it in the recycle bin, cursing you for wasting paper, postage, and their time.This advice applies to literary journals as well as trade and consumer magazines.
So, do everyone a favor and peruse the magazines on the stands, to find the right venue for your story. Look first for those running stories on the topic you are writing about. When I was Senior Editor at a national health magazine called Body+Soul (now Martha Stewart's Whole Living), I'd get submissions on the latest in children's books, or new products for African-American hair. Apparently these writers interpreted the magazine's name any old which way they wanted to, without bothering to see what we actually published or who we published for. Some magazines cater to married women or middle-aged men even if the name doesn't imply it. If you looked at the articles and the ads in Body+Soul/Whole Living, you'd deduce that our audience was primarily female, and you would not, as one hapless writer once did, send me an article on prostrate cancer. Others focus on particular regions; no matter how well you write about Niagara Falls, for instance, Sunset Magazine, with either its old tag line ("the magazine of Western living") or its younger, hipper, new one ("Life in the West") will toss your query in the circular or the compost pile or where ever Westerners toss garbage. And the best way to annoy the editor of a lit mag is to send poetry to journal that publishes only prose, or nonfiction essays to one that only publishes fiction.
Would you wear these to a black-tie gala?
1970s -style platform shoes
Then don't send a 3,000-word story to a 500-word column
Topic is key, but tone, style, and length are also essential to finding a good fit for your story. OK, you've written a story on perfume and you've found a magazine dedicated to scents. Now, does the magazine cover the chemistry of scents or the history of scents or the business of scents? Does it publish first-person personal essays, or does it only run reported, fact-based stories written in the third person and quoting research journals and experts in the field? Does it run 3,000-word articles or do the stories top out at 1,500 words? Each magazine has an established format and your story must fit into it, not vice versa.
Learn the anatomy of the magazine. Publications are divided into departments, sections, and/or columns, and regular features, all with consistent addresses in the mag, so readers can find them easily. The traditional consumer mag layout starts with short, breezy items, several to a page, then a column or two, followed by longer stories in the "feature well," then more columns, and finishing off with some tasty treat on the back page (a light essay; a photo; a cartoon caption contest, if you're the New Yorker). If the short items are unattributed, or if they are attributed to people listed on the masthead, they are all done in-house: don't bother proposing to write these. Same story with a column that's always got the same byline: don't offer to write a Borowitz Report, as Andy Borowitz has got that covered. But columns without regular writers are open for proposals. In fact, these are great places to start, as editors prefer to see how you do on a 1,200 word column or department story before giving you a 6-page feature spread of 3,500 words. Most column and department stories get the same lay-out and the same amount of space in every issue; the Blessings essay on the back page of Good Housekeeping--written by a different writer each month--is always one page, and about 500 words. So don't send in a 1,000-word essay and hope they'll change the whole lay-out of the publication to accommodate you. You'll only annoy the editor, which, as I've said, is not a great strategy for getting your stories and articles published in magazipnes.