One of the first questions writers tend to ask about a magazine is "where do I send my submission?" Deciphering the masthead can be a challenge. With all those names and titles to choose from, who is the right person to contact? What do all those people do?
The first place to look for contact information is the publication's guidelines, which you may be able to locate in a market guide or on the publication's Web site. Web guidelines are usually the most up-to-date, as they're likely to reflect any recent changes in editorial staff. If you're using a market guide, check the title of the person you're asked to contact, then check the magazine's contact page online (even a printed masthead can be three to six months out of date) to make sure that the same person still holds this title. If the name has changed, send it to the person who now holds that title.
If you can't locate a magazine's guidelines, it's time to review the masthead. Fortunately, most magazines have a relatively small editorial staff, usually consisting of an editor, managing editor, and either an associate or assistant editor (or both). Some may have an editor-in-chief; some may have an editorial assistant. Some may also list "contributing editors," who are actually freelancers who contribute regularly to the publication (including columnists). These have no actual editorial status and do not make decisions on manuscripts, and should be ignored.
For this type of publication, the first title to look for is "managing editor." In most cases, this is the person who reviews queries and manuscripts. Often, the managing editor has full authority to make decisions about acceptances and rejections, and will also make assignments in response to query letters, often "on speculation" (which means that acceptance of the finished article is not guaranteed). In some cases, however, a magazine's editor must make the final decision on manuscripts the managing editor recommends for accceptance (including assigned pieces). This makes no difference to you -- you should still contact the managing editor. It's important to remember, however, that when the managing editor isn't the final decision-maker, an acceptance can take awhile.
If no managing editor is listed, check next for either the editor or the associate editor. If the only title listed is "editor," this is the person to contact. If, however, an associate editor is listed, chances are that this person is in training to become a managing editor, and probably screens the slush pile. An associate editor will generally have the power to screen out obviously unacceptable material, and perhaps to respond to queries, but will generally not be able to accept material directly without the final approval of the editor.
Two other titles on the masthead that may look tempting, but that should be ignored, are "editor-in-chief" and "editorial assistant." An editor-in-chief generally presides over a group of related magazines produced by the same publisher, but does not get involved in day-to-day decisions for each magazine. Conversely, there's a popular myth among writers that one should send submissions to the "editorial assistant," on the premise that this person will be so pleased that you've contacted them directly that they'll make an extra effort to support your manuscript. Forget it. The most an editorial assistant can do is hand your manuscript to the appropriate editor -- the person to whom the material should have been addressed in the first place. While in some cases editorial assistants may help screen the slushpile by weeding out obviously unacceptable and inappropriate submissions, they have no decision-making power.
For major publications, your choices are usually more diverse. You may not even see titles like "managing editor" on the masthead. Instead, you'll probably see a list of department editors, covering such areas as health, travel, food, fashion, and so forth.
In this case, addressing your submission to the "editor" is definitely not a good idea. Instead, see if you can pinpoint the department that would be the most appropriate for your submission, and contact that editor directly. Again, check the magazine's guidelines if you can find them (though the larger the publication, the less likely they are to publicize these guidelines). Again, ignore contributing editors, editorial assistants, and the editor-in-chief.
When dealing with smaller publications, the process between submission and print may be relatively uncomplicated: You submit your article, it is accepted, you get a check, and six to twelve months later, you get a copy of the magazine in which the piece was published. Often, you will deal with only one person on the staff -- the editor who handles submissions, makes assignments, and (when appropriate) discusses recommended changes to your proposed article. This may also be the person who edits and proofreads your article before sending it to the designer. This is also the person you'll talk to regarding rates, rights, contracts -- and, eventually, raises!
If you're dealing with a mid-size publication, you may find yourself talking to more than one person. Major publications, for example, generally employ research departments to "fact-check" submissions, and even queries. Some women's magazines, for example, contact writers to gather additional information about a proposed article before a decision is made. Some writers are alarmed by this practice, fearing that the magazine is just trying to gather enough information to enable a staff writer to put together the article. Generally, however, the publication simply wishes to be able to verify the facts, and to gather enough information to present the proposal at the next editorial content-planning meeting.
Larger publications are also more likely to fact-check an article after it has been accepted. You may be asked to provide details about the sources referenced in your article, such as books, artricles, Web sites, and contact information for interviewees. A researcher may contact you to verify the exact spelling of names and addresses. You may also be contacted by a researcher or a subordinate editor if the facts in your article seem unclear or contradictory, or to provide a specific reference for a number or quote. If the copyeditor doesn't fully understand something in your text, you may be asked to clarify the material.
The final interaction you're likely to have with a publication before your article is actually printed is the "galley proof" stage. Again, the smaller the publication, the less likely it will be to actually send you galley proofs for review. Galley proofs are actual copies or print-outs of the article as it will appear in print -- fully formatted and typeset. By this time, your article has already been edited (perhaps by the editor who accepted it), copyedited (for grammar and often for "house style"), and proofread. It may also have been trimmed for length. Sometimes the editor trims the article before it goes to the designer; often, however, an editor may have to make cuts at the last minute because the article proves a paragraph or so too long for the allotted space.
Since all the major editing work has already been done, at this point the last thing an editor wants is for you, the writer, to suggest major changes and revisions to the article. The purpose of galley proofs is to give the author one last chance to make sure that no errors have been made in the text (either by the author or during the course of editing), that everything is spelled correctly, and so on. Often, galleys will be faxed to you, and you'll be asked to review them in one to three days. If everything is fine, a quick e-mail to the editor will often suffice. If you need to make small corrections -- such as correcting a misspelling or a URL -- that can also often be done by e-mail. If, however, you need to make more detailed corrections, you'll generally need to mark these on the proof and fax it back.
While the galley stage is not the time to rewrite or edit your article, this may also be the first time you've seen the changes or cuts that the editor has introduced. In some cases, these changes may have altered the meaning of the article, in which case you may need to discuss ways to "change it back." Most editors are understanding if you can show where cuts have introduced inacccuracies by altering information or leaving it incomplete. You will, however, greatly endear yourself to your editor if you can provide a correction that matches the original length of the galley.
Deciphering the masthead is the first step to building a positive, long-term relationship with a publication. Once you've done this, and become a regular contributor to that publication, who knows? One day people may be looking at your name on the masthead!