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Writing for Pet Magazines: An Interview with Moira Allen

by Kelly Milner

What special challenges set freelancing for the pet niche apart from other specialties?

Actually, I'd say that a better word would be "opportunities." This market offers an excellent opportunity for less experienced writers to break in and build a collection of clips. The focus in this market is on solid information, and most pet-magazine editors are willing to deal with writers who haven't completely polished their style, if they can provide solid, worthwhile information.

For example, if you can interview someone who trains pets for commercials, or talk to a vet specializing in canine dentistry, or gather a selection of grooming tips for long-haired cats, you have a good chance of selling that article, even if your grammar isn't perfect. Editors of pet magazines can clean up punctuation problems, but don't have the time to go out and hunt up this kind of information -- and it's the sort of information readers are hungry for.

This is also a market that doesn't require you to be an expert. You should, however, have a basic understanding of the type of pet you're writing about (dogs, cats, birds, ferrets, horses, etc.) -- and an understanding of what the market's specific audience needs and wants to know about. It's important to recognize the differences between different publications for the same species -- e.g., one dog publication may be for the pet owner, while another may be for the breeder/exhibitor. These are very different types of markets, with different interests and values (e.g., the "pet" magazine will rarely touch an article on breeding, but prefers to emphasize spaying and neutering, while the "breeder" magazine will never use an article on mixed-breed dogs).

What kind of pets and pet issues do you write about most often? Which are most popular with editors and consumers?

Editors are always in need of solid how-to information on the various "care" issues involving pets. This includes health care, general household care (e.g., how to build a doghouse, how to housetrain your puppy), training, seasonal care, activities, grooming, feeding, special needs, etc. Anything that covers "taking better care of your pet" or "improving your pet's quality of life" (or improving the human/animal interaction) is popular with editors.

Most pet magazines will feature around five to seven articles per issue (sometimes less, sometimes more). Of these, one will often be a breed profile, and one may be a "special interest" article (e.g., a look at rare "big cats" or an article about circus dogs). The rest will have something to do with care (in the topics listed above). This is the best area to break in, as you don't have to be a specialist, or a known "name" to write about this topic. (Breed profiles are also good, but you have to get your name in the hat early to get an assignment, and you often need to be able to demonstrate some knowledge of the specific breed.)

One thing pet writers need to remember is that consumers are not interested in stories of "your pet" -- and neither are editors. This is the biggest mistake new writers make -- sending in the story of their beloved pet. New writers tend to think the story is interesting because, after all, it's their pet! But unless the story is truly unique, it will be rejected. Editors get these stories by the hundreds. Think about how to help the reader and you'll be much more likely to make a sale.

How would you break into this specialty if you were a beginning freelancer?

First, decide what type of pet you want to write about, and focus on that type. If you're a cat person, start out by writing about cats.

Second, determine what the basic cat owner needs to know, or wants to know, about cats. (Need I mention it's a very good idea to study the magazines to find out what they're publishing?) Figure out a topic that will fill a need for the reader -- e.g., how to make sure your cat is getting a balanced diet, how to care for an older cat, how to help an obese cat lose weight, etc.

Third, submit a query that explains your topic. If you don't have a host of clips or credentials, don't worry; in this market, that's not nearly as important. It is important to present a solid query that demonstrates that you know what you are talking about and conveys the impression that you can write a coherent, worthwhile article.

Fourth, find qualified experts to give you the information you need to fill out that topic. (You should probably query first, of course, to get an assignment.) You don't have to be an expert; you just have to be able to locate and talk to them. Do not try to quote books -- most editors will discard an article immediately if it's simply built on book quotes. Look for live quotes; you can interview experts via e-mail or by phone, but be sure you actually talk to someone.

Finally, write up the piece and send it in. If you are accepted, immediately follow up with a new proposal; pet editors like to find writers they can work with on a regular basis. Don't be surprised if you have to submit "on spec" for the first two or three articles; after that, if you've proven your worth, you will probably get firm assignments (and may even find that editors start contacting you with ideas.)

What is the general pay scale a freelancer can expect writing about pets?

The better publications pay around $300 to $500 for a feature article (around 2000 words). Even some of the online publications pay close to that. Expect around $100 for filler-length material. Most publications also offer an additional fee for photos, or buy photos separately. Most likely, if you submit a text-photo package, you won't be paid the equivalent of the "text" rate and the rate for each individual photo if they'd been submitted separately, but you'll be paid a higher rate than for text alone. (That might need some explanation. Let's say you submit an article and are paid $500 for the article itself. Let's say that another photographer submits five photos that are used with the article at, say, $50 a photo. If you submitted five photos, you might not be paid $500 plus $250 for the photos -- but you'd probably be paid more than just the $500. This is something to keep in mind when negotiating rates...)

What are the most common mistakes freelancers in this arena make (and can avoid)?

The most common mistake is writing about one's own pet. Pet magazines are inundated, deluged, swamped with "my pet" stories. In fact, this is quite honestly the reason why so many have gone to a "query first" policy and have stopped accepting unsolicited submissions. When I worked at Fancy Publications, Cat Fancy would receive around 200 unsolicited manuscripts a month; the number steadily increased until CF finally stopped accepting such manuscripts. Since then, most other pet pubs have followed suit.

So -- again, don't try to tell the story of your pet. Unless your pet is a five-legged dog that you rescued from the circus (or perhaps a laboratory) in the dead of night, and who routinely climbs telephone poles, it just isn't going to be that interesting. Also, please, please do not try to submit a retrospective of the life story of a pet who just died! One of the most common (and unwanted) types of manuscripts is the one that begins something like: "As I watched the gleaming needle in the vet's hands, knowing that it was about to end my beloved [insert pet's name here]'s life, my eyes blurred with tears and I found myself remembering the first time I saw [beloved pet], as a tiny, squirming [kitten/puppy]..." The rest of the manuscript is basically a cradle-to-grave account of a (typically) very ordinary pet's life. Yes, you loved your pet. Yes, it was a wonderful pet. But this is not a sellable manuscript. (I did wonder about one we received, in which the person was noticing, not the gleaming needle, but the way "cat scratches intertwined with the hairs on the vet's muscular arm..." OK, that was weird.

Another approach to avoid at all costs is the talking pet. I don't know of any pet magazine that wants accounts from talking dogs or cats. (I've even seen manuscripts about talking, cussing pets.) Do not narrate your article in first-person from the perspective of a French poodle. (Got that; it was 50 pages long.)

The point is, readers want to find out how to make life better for and with their pets. They do not want to hear about yours. That doesn't mean that you can't incorporate personal experiences with your pet into your article -- however, the purpose of the article must be reader-focused. For example, you might certainly sell an article about how to handle canine diabetes that is drawn from your own experience with the disease -- how you discovered that your dog was ill, how you learned to give it insulin shots, etc. But the focus of the article must be on the disease itself and how to handle it, not on your experienced. Your experience should simply be the vehicle that carries the all-important information to the reader (and perhaps makes the article read more personally and less like a dry medical account).

Personalizing your articles is fine. Most pet magazines prefer a more personal approach to a dry, boring "technical" article -- e.g., a medical article that contains lots of long, complicated terms and details. But information comes first.

What is your best single tip for writers trying to make the most of their freelancing energy?

Write about things that have a genuine interest for you. If you just "go for the money," and write about things that you find personally boring, you'll lose the spark and enthusiasm that brought you into writing in the first place. Writing will turn into just another dull, mundane job -- and eventually you'll wonder why you're doing it. Your writing itself will also suffer, because you won't have any enthusiasm for what you're doing, so you may find it difficult to move forward to better assignments. You became a writer because, presumably, it was something you loved to do -- so write about what you love, and you'll go on "loving" it. (Pet writing, by the way, is a great way to keep that spark alive, as it often combines two things that you love!)

Related Articles:

How to Write for Pet Magazines, by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/pets.shtml

Pet Markets, by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/petmarts.shtml

Copyright © 2001 Kelly Milner
This article originally appeared in the 2002 Writer's Market.

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

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