March 6, 2006
After winning the Nobel Prize and marrying Padma Lakshmi (or her male equivalent), the natural goal for any writer—or a blogger—should be writing for magazines. Look around any subway car or hair salon and you'll see that magazines are the number one information and time-killing medium. Ever since the tragic events of 9/11, a growing number of Americans have turned to magazines to explain their world to them and comfort them in uncertain times. Plus, magazines are great when it rains: try keeping your head dry with a newspaper and tell me what you'd rather write for, Men's Journal or The New York Review of Books. Plus, if you're getting gussied up for a Bar Mitzvah or court date, you won't get free cologne or perfume from a book. Don't even try it.
But for bloggers, breaking into magazines might feel a lot like alchemy. Turning lead into gold seems really, really hard, but, man, is it ever lucrative if you can pull it off. Here are some tips for all you aspiring magazine writers out there. You can thank us later.
1. Know the Lingo If you're gonna break into the fast-paced world of magazines, you better sound like you belong. Knowing a few keywords will help you sound like an expert. Here are some helpful terms to commit to memory:
· The Book: Literally, the magazine. This one's confusing because it doesn't refer to a book. Think of it as an example of aspirational metonymy: magazine writers and editors wish they were writing books, so they call their publications books. (You, on the other hand, wish you were writing for magazines, so start referring to your blog as a magazine.)
2. Understanding the Masthead If you're gonna work—or freelance—in magazines, you better know who you're dealing with. This can be a challenge since magazine job titles are as convoluted and complex as those you might encounter in the House of Lords. Clip and save this skeleton key:
· Editor-in-Chief: This person is in charge. And she's too busy to talk with you. In fact, she's probably in Milan right now. And she doesn't check her email. Her assistant prints out her email for her and she always leaves the printouts in the back of her Town Car. Also, she hasn't read the magazine in years. Leave the editor-in-chief alone. (But, when talking about your work with friends, always refer to her by first name: see "Bragging Rights," below.)
3. The Competitive Edge There are a lot of writers (not to mention bloggers) out there and only so many openings in "the mix." Success in magazine writing depends on maintaining some advantage over the competition. Here's all you need to know: Never pitch a story unless you've seen it written about elsewhere. If another magazine, newspaper, or blog has covered a particular subject, you know that the story's worth doing. Don't worry about editors passing on stories that have already run: they're too busy putting out a magazine to actually read magazines. Besides, when they're not working 12 hour days, they're writing their books. (See: "The Book," above.)
4. Protecting Your Ideas One of the risks of pitching stories to magazines is having your ideas stolen—even if the idea is one you got from another article. (See: "The Competitive Edge," above.) You cannot copyright an idea, but you have some recourse if an idea you've pitched has been stolen: Complaining. Let's say you pitch a story on a famous Hollywood actor in an upcoming major studio release and you see another publication has also written about her—and the writer of that piece interviewed the star, to boot—you have to use your blog to complain about the theft. Print all your emails to the editor you pitched and any responses you might've received. Not only will this get the word out that the editor acted unethically, it will let other editors know that you mean business and won't be pushed around. Now when you pitch them and they Google you, they'll see that you're a professional.
5. Numbers Numbers are an important part of making your article seem important. But you didn't get into magazine journalism to mess with numbers. You're a writer—or a blogger—not a NASA scientist. You can achieve the "numbers effect" without actually using numbers by employing terms like "a growing number," "several," "increasingly," "many," "untracked numbers," or "a lot." As long as it seems like some research backs up your findings, you're golden—increasingly golden.
6. 9/11 You should probably mention this in every story you write. It contextualizes almost anything. (Example: "Ever since 9/11, increasing numbers of consumers have sought sweatbands...") Plus, 9/11 lends a soupçon of gravitas to any article you may be writing.
7. Lingua Franca Throwing foreign-ish terms like 'soupçon' and 'gravitas' into your piece will not only make you sound smarter, it will help educate your readers who will feel superior to their friends after looking up your fancy terms and sprinkling them into their conversations.
8. Sources While you're more than capable of articulating the point of your own article, you'll need sources to flesh it out and bring it some real world frisson. (See, "Lingua Franca," above.) Some good sources include: friends, former lovers, your brother or sister, your college roommate, and yourself. If you don't want to embarrass your source, just employ an asterisk and state that, "Names and identifying details have been changed." No one will ever know who said what. (See: "Reporter," above.)
9. Ethics This mostly refers to freebies. You want them, be they free books (referred to as "review copies"), DVDs, clothing, continental breakfasts, or housewares. Some editors frown upon writers taking too many freebies because they might function as bribes. But that usually applies to staff members. You're a freelance writer—or blogger—so your only boss is yourself. Since you're the boss, don't you feel like giving your "employee" a nice bonus? Maybe a new set of sheets? Or some freeze-dried Omaha steaks. Whatever. Enjoy it. You've earned it.
10. Contributor's Photo This is why you do it: To have your image immortalized in the pantheon of professional journalists. (You also do it so that a talent booker from VH1 will call you to appear on Revenge of the Awesomely Sweet Sitcom Bods II, but that won't happen without an awesomely sweet contributor's photo.) This one photo may determine whether or not you'll ever get a book deal or sell a script, so make this photo a good one. You better look your best. Use special lighting. Hold a baby. (Don't have a baby? Borrow one. An ethnic one.) Hair. Makeup. Designer clothes. Figure out your most flattering angle and strike a pose. (Side note: once you've figured out your most flattering angle, you're gonna have to always appear that way all the time. If you go with the hand to ear thing, you better feel comfortable doing that constantly. Ditto, the surprised, open mouth laugh thing.) Your contributor's photo will prove that not only have you made it, you looked good doing it.
10. Bragging Rights Another reason you do it. You have bragging rights for as long as the magazine is on the newsstand. This is why writing for a monthly is better than writing for a weekly. Writing for a daily is a huge mistake. The best magazines to write for are quarterlies. Just imagine how proud of yourself you'll be when you see the quarterly with your article in it on the newsstand month after month after month. This is where your blog comes in handy: Use it to remind people of the article you wrote. Your online boast will live well after the quarterly you've written for folds.
11. Getting Paid You're on your own, sucker. (See: "Managing Editor," above.)
So, there you go. A simple guide to going from blogger to magazine writer. Now, go forth and turn that lead into gold. When we see you at the newsstand, we'll be sure to say, 'Hi.'
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