When it comes to getting published, “opportunistic” is not a bad word. To get work in print, it pays to seize every opportunity – both those hiding in plain sight and those you need to make happen. As a longtime freelancer who also teaches magazine-writing workshops, I always start by asking the group members to introduce themselves to the people sitting next to them. You never know if your seatmate’s uncle is the editor of The Atlantic or cousin is a bureau chief for the New York Times. First rule of thumb: Don’t pass up a chance to network. Here are eight additional strategies to jump-start chances of getting published.
1. Start small and local.
Many local or community publications are understaffed and seek out new contributors. For a neighborhood newsletter or your town’s hyperlocal website, such as patch.com, consider pitching a story about an event that might fall under the radar, a new business, cultural happenings or a hometown personality. Even if you’re not paid much at first, it’s a great way to build experience and bylines.
2. Make interests pay.
Beyond the high profile, brand-name magazines and websites, seek out the hundreds of trade and special interest publications catering to every topic from antiques to zoos. Use Writers’ Market or other reference sources to match your expertise and hobbies with one of these markets. Need to be inspired? Laura Hillenbrand wrote for horse magazines before she galloped onto the best-seller list with Seabiscuit. Are you a dog lover, quilter, haiku poet, winemaker, runner, parent of twins? Find the niche publication for your specialty and start publishing about your passion.
3. Coordinate calendars.
Media is news and event-driven. Time your ideas with holidays, the start of school, graduation, wedding season and anniversaries of landmark events (such as Pearl Harbor, the San Francisco earthquake or Martin Luther King Day). Contact editors at least a few months ahead of the targeted event and allow a longer lead time for national magazines. Some magazines post editorial calendars on their websites to show advertisers (and writers) when annual theme issues run – food, travel, education. Coordinate your proposals to fit those topics.
4. Be a joiner.
Unhook from your computer and make connections IRL – In Real Life. Become visible and build your own literary network by going to writers’ events and anywhere editors and writers will be speaking: classes, workshops, readings, conferences. Introduce yourself, even float a story idea if there’s time (but please, don’t burden speakers with long manuscripts). Create your own writers’ group or join organizations such as PEN, The Authors Guild, Media Bistro or the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Go to meetings and gatherings to widen your contacts and learn from fellow travelers. Even in the age of Facebook and LinkedIn, making in-person connections – and putting a face to your name – can help get your next query read and given a green light.
5. Answer the call.
Keep an eye out for open submission calls such as Sun magazine’s topics for Readers’ Write, which is published six months in advance, or themed anthologies such as Travelers’ Tales, Chicken Soup for the Soul or Cup of Comfort. (Many submission opportunities are listed in the back of this magazine and online at writermag.com.) Respond to requests from local publications for stories about family recipes, your worst break-up or best travel day. When Berkeley, California’s The Monthly asked for essays on the prompt “I’ve never told anyone, but…” Irene Sardanis wrote an essay describing her clutter problem, and her submission became her first paid publication. The best part: She was 81.
6. Go short.
Break into a magazine by submitting a story or story idea to the shorter, up-front sections (either news briefs or departments such as “On the Road” or “Weekenders” in AAA’s Via). Do the math: If a magazine runs three or four full-length features but includes 20 short, front-of-the-book pieces in every issue, your chances are much better writing short. Once you’ve proven yourself to an editor, a longer assignment may follow.
7. Profile a local celebrity.
Find a compelling human-interest story about a local personality who has national appeal: someone who has made a difference in the community, survived a major challenge, invented something useful. Editors on the coasts are hungry for stories about people doing innovative work in other parts of the country. If you find the right person, this can turn into “starting big” – as it did for Marina Krakovsky, who pitched an article idea about a crusading environmentalist in Southern California and was published in O.
8. Go online.
It’s often easier to break into online versions of national publications than their print editions, and online magazines and websites may be more responsive than print media to new writers. Although not all online outlets pay, some (such as narrative.com) offer lucrative prizes, and others are incubators for book contracts. Literarymama.com, for example, has birthed many books, including founding editor Andrea Buchanan’s Mother Shock, Heidi Raykeil’s Confessions of a Naughty Mommy and current editor Caroline M. Grant’s The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage. Need even more motivation? Best-selling Wild author Cheryl Strayed started out as an anonymous online advice columnist for Rumpus; her collected columns became another best-seller: Tiny Beautiful Things.
Elizabeth Fishel has written for O, More, Parents and Good Housekeeping. She is the author of five nonfiction books, including Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years (with Jeffrey Arnett).