The Metamorphosis: Going from blogger to magazine writer is easier than you think.
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.)
· Front of the Book: Just what it sounds like: the opening section. Nine out ten times, this is where your work will appear. Depending on the magazine, your front of the book piece (remember, this is the front of a magazine, not a book: see “The Book,” above) will run roughly 95 to 100 words, which might or might not include a caption.
· The Mix: Think of this like your iPod playlist—a seemingly random assemblage of content you define yourself with based on trends, marketing, PR, and the recommendations of your friends who are up on trends, marketing, and PR.
· The Feature Well: The deep, dark hole in the middle of the magazine where everything cool and vital is found. Chances are you won’t be asked to write for the Feature Well, but you should know this term anyway. (Usage Example: “Maybe my front of the book story on designer sweatbands can be expanded into the feature well?”)
· Nut Graph: The paragraph containing your piece’s most salient points. Think of this as the pearl inside the muculent guts of your article. The best place to put your “nut graph” is towards the end of the piece where it can be like a little reward for readers who’ve read all the way to the end.
· Kill Fee: This is what you get paid when your editor decides not to run your story. Typically 20-25% of the agreed-upon fee, the kill fee is like a no harm/no foul. With it in hand, you can feel the rush of having written for a magazine (good job!) without having to risk anyone ever reading the piece. Plus, you can try to resell the piece to another publication or—natch—use it on your blog. (Side note: When re-pitching a killed piece, you should definitely mention that it was killed by another magazine, particularly if the new publication is a direct competitor to the magazine that killed your piece: Printing your front of the book—maybe feature well—article on designer sweatbands will be sweet, sweet revenge for the editor who runs it.)
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.)
· Managing Editor: This person is a frazzled maniac. He will not return your calls because he’s really, really busy. Besides, he’s busy handling the stuff you don’t care about: scheduling, budget, liaising with the art department, consoling emotionally distraught staffers. Plus, he’s super busy.
· Features Editor: This person is too high up to talk to you, so don’t bother pitching him. If you do pitch him, he’ll probably reply via Blackberry while the publicist he’s lunching with goes to the bathroom for the fourth time that hour. He might actually like your idea, but more often than not, he will forget you pitched it and won’t assign it.
· Editor-at-Large: This person is never in the office and, more likely than not, is drunk. Often he’s located in some exotic locale—or at home, sleeping in—yet he’s still working at the magazine because he saved the editor’s life a few years ago. Don’t ever pitch him.
· Senior Editor: This person will still take your calls and she might even assign you a story if she likes your idea. While she’s got the ear of her superiors, the pieces she brings in might still get killed. But she’s cool, you know, so she’ll get the managing editor to cut you a full kill fee. (See: “Kill Fee,” above.)
· Associate Editor: This person is your new best friend. She’s not an assistant anymore, so she can actually get stories into “the mix,” usually in “the front of the book.” (More likely than not, she’ll be the one using these terms.) Best of all, she can usually take you out to lunch and expense it. (Like we said: your new best friend.) Your success depends on her success, so keep your fingers crossed that she gets promoted, like, soon and doesn’t forget about you. (Side note: invite her to your birthday party, set her up with a friend.)
· Reporter (aka, fact-checker): This person will hate your guts. She knows that she’s a better writer than you are, but she’s stuck in a windowless room verifying the spelling of Audrey Tautou’s name without relying on the IMDB. Treat this person with utter disdain—don’t return her increasingly frantic calls, refuse to turn over your notes or tapes, call her by the wrong name (usually whatever name is on the shared email account she’ll be writing to you from)—and she’ll know you’re legit.
· Assistant Editor: This person can be you—if you play your cards right!
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.’