Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Kathryn Lay
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Why do we love lists? What is it that captures our interest when someone promises to give us "15 Different Ways to Decorate an RV", even if we don't have one?
There is a sense of accomplishment in checking off items on a list. It keeps us in control of our lives. In reading others' lists in magazines, we gain many ideas to change or improve our lives. List articles give us many ways to do something -- whether that something is physical, emotional, spiritual, or relational. A small list can give a reader hope that only a few steps are necessary to reach their goal. A large list provides the reader with plenty of options.
There are opportunities in all areas of writing for list articles. In keeping with the list theme, here is a list of ways to write and sell these popular pieces:
Make a List
List the things you are good at, knowledgeable about, or able to research. What have you been praised for? Your kitchen organization? Your knowledge of great family vacation sites? Your job skills? Have you found the best 5 ways to do, accomplish, or make a project easier? Could you give 10 ways to help children understand the value of money or how to avoid a bully?
Look through a wide variety of magazines for list articles. Many magazines will have at least one, often more, listed on the front page. This gives a good indication of the importance of such articles for their publication.
Take your time to think about the possibilities. You may want to carry your "List" list around with you as you consider what you know or discover areas that you are interested in writing about.
On your job, have you found better ways to do something that work and could help others? Maybe there is a publication read by other insurance agents, physicians, painters, or amusement park managers who would be helped by your knowledge. At the grocery store, are there groups of healthy foods that can be made fun and interesting for children? Parenting magazines are read by parents often desperate for new ideas.
Once you've made your list, divide it into areas of: What I do, What I know, What I can learn about, or What I need to talk with an expert about.
Check It Twice
Now go through your list with a critical eye. Would this interest or help others? Do you have enough information to expand on a few areas or enough ideas to give a little information on a lot of ideas? Should it be a filler or a full-length article? Could you write it in a humorous way? Do you need statistics to back up your claims?
What type of publication would be interested in these ideas? Parenting, women's, men's, children's, trade? Study various magazines and find out which buy the most list articles. The covers of magazines such as Woman's Day or Family Circle are full of list articles. By looking at magazine covers in the bookstore or the library, you may also find other ideas for articles.
After many years of working with various refugee groups in different situations, I knew that an article titled, "5 Ways To Be a Missionary in Your Own Backyard" wouldn't sell to Reader's Digest or a woman's slick, but it did sell twice to two different religious publications.
Are there ideas on the list that sounded great at first, but on second glance have been overdone or don't seem interesting even to you? Cross them off; keep only the best ideas.
Craft a Query
Once you've chosen a few ideas, begin working on an eye-catching query that will cause the editor to be intrigued enough to want to see the finished article. Tell them how many items are on your list and why readers would be interested or benefit from those ideas. Give short examples of three or four of your best ideas.
For some publications you may want to send the completed article. Most of the smaller religious magazines prefer the full manuscript, while slicks of all types often prefer queries.
I was relieved that I queried first for an article idea for "20 Ooey Gooey Kid's Party Ideas." In the end, Woman's Day only asked to see eight ideas and chose four from that list. Although I had dreams of a long article at $1 a word, I was paid well for the size of the piece and now feel comfortable querying this editor on other ideas.
If your list will be humorous, make sure the query reflects this. If your list could save a life or prevent an accident, let the editor know. If you have personal experience, photographs, or are including expert information, make sure to mention this in your query.
Most importantly, give the editor the sense that they cannot turn down your list idea because it is too interesting, helpful, humorous, or important.
Don't be disappointed if an editor's interest is for a small portion of your list rather than a lengthy article. Some of the best ways to break into a magazine is through columns and fillers. Perhaps you can use your extra ideas to create a different list for a different type of publication.
Don't forget the possibilities of reselling your piece once it is published. You may have to rewrite to target a different audience, but your article on "50 Ways to Cure the Winter Blahs" that sold to a woman's magazine may also be helpful with a few changes as "I Love Winter in 25 Ways" for a children's or family magazine.
Of the 20 ideas I had planned for the Woman's Day piece, the four that were chosen were not my favorites, and one was created later, to complement the fact that they were using the article in their July Fourth edition.
If you want to sell 5 ideas or 15 or 99 or 365, always have more handy in case the editor dislikes a few and wants them replaced. When I sold "77 Safe and Fun Family Internet Sites" to Christianity Online, I found that the editor felt uncomfortable about putting 16 of the original 77 in the conservative publication. I spent many hours one weekend searching for and replacing those 16 rejected ideas. By being prepared with extra items in advance, you can quickly respond to a request for changes or additions, and show the editor that you are reliable and quick to respond.
Another way of being prepared is to think of all possible problems with your piece ahead of time. With the Christianity Online piece, I hadn't considered that, although the sites I included were all "safe", some had gray areas that might not be appreciated by a largely conservative audience. And would I have sold the Ooey Gooey ideas if I'd have sent them first without querying? After all, I hadn't considered the need for giving parents cleanup tips. Thanks to the editor's request for this information, I was able to come up with those helpful hints and send them in with the samples.
Craft the Article
Once you are ready to write your list article, you will need to decide on the format. Should it be a straight list? A humorous list, such as David Letterman's "Top 10" may be a series of one- liners. Does it need to be broken into sections? In "30 Ways to Amaze Mom on Mother's Day" (Straight, April 2000), I broke the ideas into sections: Create, Do, Say.
Always make sure your facts are correct, especially if it's a list of how-to's or a service list (12 Ways to Tornado-Proof Your Home). Check with experts when necessary. You may even learn enough information about one of your areas to give you enough material for a full-length article later.
List articles are a great way to break into a publication. By using what you already know or can easily research, your own "list" of bylines and checks will grow.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Kathryn Lay has had over 1000 articles, essays, and short stories published in magazines and anthologies such as Woman's Day, Cricket, Guideposts, CHICKEN SOUP, and more. Her first children's novel for ages 8-12, CROWN ME! is out from Holiday House Books. She is also the author of The Organized Writer is a Selling Writer, which can be purchased through her website at http://www.kathrynlay.com.