Having worked as a full-time freelance writer for just shy of a decade, I often find friends reach out to ask me how I do it, hoping that they, too, can get published.
A part of me wants to take umbrage – after all, you wouldn’t presume that just anyone could become a plumber or reach out to a dentist friend and expect them to direct message you everything they know about root canals. At the same time, I know my editors are just as interested in your personal journeys, passions, and opinions as they are in mine. And maybe they’re more interested in your story, because you’ve never told it before (whereas, like most writers with a beat, I’m a whiz at spinning the same narrative or making similar arguments every opportunity that I can).
To publish short nonfiction essays and articles online or in print, you need only follow a few basic steps – and they’re the same steps whether you’re a seasoned professional or a total newbie. Those of us who publish often take these same steps again and again.
1. Do your research
The first step is to acquaint yourself with the market. There are literally hundreds of places that want your writing. Familiarize yourself with what’s out there. Publications open and close quite frequently, so stay up to date. Read, read, read. Follow other writers and editors on social media. On Twitter, search the phrase “pitch me” to find editors seeking stories. There’s also a site called pitchwhiz.com that curates editors’ calls for pitches.
Learn the difference between a service piece and a feature, a personal essay and a reported piece framed by your personal experience. You don’t have to know all the lingo, but you do need to know what kind of writing various publications generally publish…although knowing the lingo will help when it comes to pitching your idea (more on that in a sec).
Subscribe today to The Writer magazine for tips, industry news, reviews, and much more.
2. Make a love connection
Sometimes you have a completed essay or an idea for a piece that you’re eager to write. Find the right publication for that idea. Other times, we start with the publication in mind. Peruse the site. As you read, ask yourself: What do I have to contribute to the conversation? What hasn’t already been said?
You wouldn’t try to sell a steamy personal essay about the time you inadvertently attended a sex party to Real Simple. But that idea may be just right for Cosmopolitan or Vice. Similarly, you’d skip Playboy if you were looking to place a breezy service piece on caring for antique dinnerware or a fiery op-ed on the importance of physical education classes in school. Few ideas are inherently good or bad – it’s all about finding a good fit.
3. Make Contact
Once you’ve matched the perfect idea with the perfect publication, it’s time to pitch. A pitch or query letter is composed of three basic sections: a lede or introduction, “the what,” and your credentials as a writer and/or on the subject you’re pitching.
Let’s break that down further:
- A lede is the start of your pitch. Maybe you start the pitch the same way you start the essay. If it’s a personal essay, that may be an anecdote. Lure us in with the inciting incident or an otherwise dramatic moment lifted from the story. Or maybe you’ll lede with a newspeg, something currently being talked about in the news. Explain clearly and concisely what’s going on (hyperlink it to a timely article). Answer a question: Why now?
- The next section is “the what” – a paragraph or two that succinctly describes to the editor exactly what you’re offering, i.e. “I’d love to write a 1,200-word reported essay about the housing crisis in New York, and how poor and working class people like myself are being pushed out of the city we call home. Framed by my personal experience, the essay will explore how services in place to help people with rent fail to…” and so on. If there’s a story with a beginning, middle, and end, spell that out. Explain the ending – avoid sentiments like “find out what happens when…” Instead, tell the editor what happens when. No cliffhangers. End this section with a sentence like, “Ultimately, readers need to know [what].” Tell us what your argument is. Tell us why the story matters. (If you didn’t lede with a newspeg and there is one, you might mention it here.)
- The last section is a paragraph on your credentials as a writer and/or on the subject that you’re writing about. Why are you the perfect person to write this story? Answer this question here. If you’ve published similar writing before, send the editor links, often called clips. If you don’t have clips, that’s OK. Hopefully the story idea is unique enough – and you’ve proven yourself to be the right person to write it – that they’ll take a chance.
4. Hit send and follow up
Publications don’t make it hard to find editors’ contact information – so long as you’ve done your homework, they really do want your pitches. Go to the publication’s website and look for a section entitled “contact us,” “write for us,” “submission guidelines,” or something similar. If the submission guidelines ask you to do something other than what I’m telling you to do here, follow that editor’s instructions instead of mine (duh). Sometimes, for example, an editor will ask you to send a piece “on spec.” This means they only consider completed drafts rather than pitches. It’s up to you if you want to write an essay for them without the promise that they’ll publish it.
Few ideas are inherently good or bad – it’s all about finding a good fit.
After you’ve sent off your pitch, a couple things might happen. You might get an email back along the lines of, “I love this idea! It’s perfect.” Awesome, that means you’ve just scored an assignment. Other times, an editor might get back to you with a “maybe” response. Maybe they need to clear it with the editor above them. Or they might have questions. They may suggest a different angle or in some other way change your idea. The editor might take a while to respond, they might not respond at all, or you might get a rejection.
If you get a yes, excellent! From here, make sure you clarify the deadline (that’s when the editor expects you to turn in the story), and confirm your rate (that’s how much money the publication is paying you for your services). A rate for any given assignment can be anything from 0 dollars to thousands of dollars. Check out the site whopayswriters.com for an idea of how rates vary.
If the editor doesn’t respond to your pitch, follow up in a week or so. And if the answer is no, do not despair! Seasoned writers like myself get lots and lots of rejections.
The truth is that publishing short nonfiction is a lot less about talent than it is tenacity: If there’s any secret to becoming a published writer, it is learning to weather the rejections and silences. Repeat the steps until you get your yes.
Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. Follow her on Twitter: @melissapetro.