How to Break Into Magazines

Freelance writing for magazines is a great way to earn money as a writer. But the magazine market is so massive that many writers don’t even know where to start. So let’s take a look at the landscape.

Consumer Magazines vs. Trade Journals vs. Academic Publications

Consumer magazines are what most writers know well, because they’re aimed at everyday people. Magazines like Runner’s World, Popular Science, and National Geographic–these are all consumer magazines.

Trade journals, on the other hand, are publications aimed at specific professionals. Magazines like Bartender Magazine, Law Enforcement Technology, and Rural Builder target specific professions (bartenders, police officers, and construction companies).

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Academic publications, or peer-reviewed journals, often cover more esoteric subjects and do not usually pay the writers. They’re more a platform for discussion of important topics and are used for career building within academic circles.

What You Need to Know About Consumer Magazines

The national magazines are the most well known, so they’re also the most competitive among freelance writers. Breaking into them is difficult and usually requires a very unique story or very exclusive access to a major story. Even then, freelancers find their best shot at breaking in is by pitching smaller pieces for the front or back of the issue (not the main feature story).

That’s not to say that regional magazines are a cakewalk, because they aren’t, but these magazines often offer a better chance (percentages-wise) of breaking in than with the nationals. Most states have a general interest publication dedicated to it, and many decent-sized metro areas have one (or more).

Also, don’t forget literary journals, such as The Georgia Review, Tin House, and The Paris Review. They typically publish short stories, poems, personal essays, and creative nonfiction.

Consumer magazines are directed at specific demographics, but the content can cover the map–from recipes to anecdotes to profiles of influential people.

What You Need to Know About Trade Journals

Trade journals fly under the radar for most freelance writers, but they still require freelancers who are knowledgeable of the professions they cover. While you don’t have to be a police officer to write for Law Enforcement Technology, for instance, it sure doesn’t hurt to have that experience.

Of course, one way to get around the experience issue is to find interview subjects who have that experience. Using the Bartender Magazine example from above, having access to bar tenders may help you write a piece on the one problem all bar tenders have (and how to overcome it).

As with consumer magazines, trade journals are directed at specific demographics. However, the content is usually very focused on the business and industry side of the subject.

How to Break Into Magazines

After you’ve found publications (consumer or trade), it’s time to make a list and start sending query letters. Before you query, learn more about each publication. Here’s a list to get you started:

  • Website. Check the website for the latest information on the magazine. If you’re lucky, the site will include updated submission guidelines. It’s always a good rule of thumb to hunt these down, because guidelines often change.
  • Masthead. Sometimes a masthead can be found on the website. Other times, you’ll have to hunt down a recent issue (at the bookstore or library). One tip: the Managing Editor is the person to pitch more times than not–if another name isn’t provided in the guidelines.
  • Front of book/back of book. Pay attention to the smaller sections in the front and back of magazines. If you have a piece you can pitch for these, they often have a better chance of acceptance–and once your foot is in the door, you can try to write more featured pieces.

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