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What Magazine Editors Value From Freelance Writers

Dec 3, 2007
Ask a bunch of aspiring magazine writers what editors are looking for when they read article queries and I'll bet most of them answer, "good article ideas."

Well, sort of. What editors most want to find in queries are good article ideas from writers who have an appealing edge over other writers. Contrary to what most beginning freelancers think, that edge need not be writing talent. A good many other qualities, some of which don't show up in a query, make a writer valuable to an editor.

Ever hopeful yet skeptical, editors read queries for evidence that a writer not only has a relevant article idea but also one or more of the following qualities:

1. Research ability. Writers who can turn up little-known, highly interesting truths, track down hard-to-find statistics and answer thorny factual questions can easily rack up magazine assignments as long as they also understand what makes a topic relevant to a certain publication's readers. Build your queries around such material and you'll soon have lots of editors as regular clients - especially if your submissions sail through the fact-checking process.

2. First-hand knowledge. Pilot and flight instructor Mal Gormley found himself in demand as a writer for Business & Commercial Aviation, Aviation Week and other aviation magazines, which had all gotten burned by freelancers who were decent writers and researchers but who just didn't understand flying. Hobbies, languages you speak, where you live or have lived and family circumstances such as being a parent of twins can each sometimes add to your appeal and win you assignments and repeat business from editors if you play your cards shrewdly in proposing and writing articles.

3. Access. Did you used to be a wardrobe assistant in Hollywood or an executive coach for Fortune 100 CEOs? If you can validly claim unusual access to hard-to-reach groups of people, you may find it easier to land assignments. Debra Wallace, who has interviewed such film stars as Dustin Hoffman, Glenn Close and Lauren Bacall, says that the celebrity writing business is "tough and not for the faint of heart." She advises novices to prove their ability to get access first at smaller, local magazines before approaching national publications.

4. Expertise. Professional degree credentials are not quite as valued by editors as many well-educated people expect. Unfortunately, many experts cannot explain what they know in ways that capture the attention of magazine readers. But those who can write in a popular style have a great opportunity to endear themselves to editors.

5. Controversy. If you're one of those people who have a knack for making people sit up and argue for or against what you're saying, some editors consider that a worthy strong point. What generally accepted views can you passionately - and credibly - dispute? Just don't launch an attack that's going to inspire death threats or make you untouchable when you want to write on other issues.

6. Dependability. Editors can't know how dependable you are from a query, of course, but having had a weekly column or having written regularly for one publication strongly implies that you adhere to journalistic standards and meet deadlines. Because an editor has to get an issue finished on time no matter what, this quality counts heavily. "When I told editors that I'd written for Crain's Chicago Business every week for fifteen years, it impressed the hell out of them," says Joanne Cleaver. "'Wow - fifteen years': their tone of voice changed." Once you demonstrate dependability to an editor, you're in the running for repeat assignments.

7. Quickness. With their unforgiving publication schedule, editors also value writers who can bang out a readable article in next to no time. If you've ever had a writing job with daily deadlines, mention that as one of your qualifications. It might get you an opportunity to come to the rescue when another freelancer fails to deliver what was promised and an editor is looking at a hole in the issue about to close.

8. Catchy phrasing. Think about those phrases that suddenly enter the language, seemingly from nowhere, such as "mommy track," "chick lit" or "alpha male." Show the ability to coin such concepts in your query, and an editor might think "Cover story!"

Make one of these eight qualities your calling card, and you'll find numerous magazine doors opening for you as a freelancer.
About the Author
Veteran magazine writing coach Marcia Yudkin is the author of Freelance Writing for Magazines & Newspapers, articles in Ms, Psychology Today, New York Times Magazine, Yoga Journal, Business 2.0 and more. Learn about her magazine writing home-study courses: http://www.yudkin.com/breakingintoprint.htm
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