Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
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by Sean McLachlan
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So what are state magazines? They're publications focusing on the lifestyle, attractions, and history of a particular state. Some have a specific focus, such as food or outdoor activities. More general publications such as Ohio Magazine or Missouri Life offer interesting features, travel tips, and photographs on a wide range of subjects. State magazines generally pay well and add attractive clips to your portfolio. They're widely read, every state has one or more of them, and many are open to beginning writers with a good knowledge of the region. Here are some tips on getting in.
1. The big three. The three subjects state magazine editors look for most are: travel, town or personal profiles, and history. Editors especially want articles that show their state to be unique, unusual, or important. I pitched to Missouri Life about St. Louis being the site of the westernmost battle of the American Revolution. The editor leapt at the idea. None of the staff, and few of the readers, had heard of this important but nearly forgotten battle.
2. Find an unusual angle. The obvious ideas have probably been done. The old advice of checking back issues before you submit is twice as true with state magazines, since their regional focus limits their subject matter. This is where your writer's creativity comes in. Has your town been profiled? Check if they missed an interesting new attraction or historical anecdote. The Civil War been done to death? Find a decorated veteran of the Korean War, or delve back in time and write about the War of 1812.
3. Good color photos are a must. State magazines are usually glossy and rely on beautiful pictures to attract the eye on those crowded magazine stands. Ask yourself, "how can I make my readers see the story?" Pick a place that's attractive, like that forested path leading to a hidden creek, or something funky, like the oil rigs a rancher painted to look like grasshoppers. History articles need to be well illustrated too. Historical societies have a wealth of photographs they're happy to share with the public, and the editor will usually pick up any fees. If you aren't a good photographer, don't let that stop you. Editors generally have a list of local photographers they can call on.
4. Don't forget the specialty magazines. If the main state magazine is tough to break into, there are generally more specialized magazines open to beginners. They focus on everything from food, specific sports, and art, to religious or ethnic communities. Some concentrate on specific locations, such as Arizona Foothills Magazine, which covers wealthy residential neighborhoods. Features for these magazines generally range from $25 to $300, although some pay much more, while major state magazines generally pay $300 to $1000 and up. If you have knowledge of a specific topic, local specialty magazines can give you that first break you need. Once you've assembled some clips, it's time to pitch the big boys!
5. Have a nose for news. Read your state's newspapers and magazines. Perhaps the winner of the local marathon is a cancer survivor. Profile her. Is the state capitol getting a facelift? Do a photo essay and interview the restoration crew. Be quick; other freelancers may get the same ideas, but remember that just because a story has been covered doesn't mean it can't be done from a different angle.
6. Start small. Magazines generally have departments at the front with briefs. These cover recent developments or subjects that don't need a full article. These briefs are short (generally 250 words or less) and quick to do. They're a great way to break in since editors are more willing to risk a quarter page on an untested writer than a whole six-page feature.
7. Network, network, network. Get to know the folks at the department of tourism. Subscribe to the local university's news wire. Meet those archaeologists excavating that prehistoric village. Make sure everyone knows you're hunting story ideas and check in with them periodically, without making yourself a pain in the neck. Public relations people are good sources of information, but beware. Their job is more to advertise than inform, so always check your facts.
8. Market to the magazine's needs. Pay attention to the type of articles published in the magazine and the kind of people who buy it. For example, Texas Highways is published by the Texas Department of Transportation, and they want all the subjects to be destinations reachable by automobile.
9. Play to your strengths. Are you an avid cyclist? Pitch an article on the ten best routes in your state. Do you collect model trains? Do a feature on the railway museum. Writing about what you love makes your enthusiasm and knowledge shine through in your prose.
10. Get around. Become an expert on your state. Is there an historic home in the next county? Take the tour. A trail in the state park you've never done? Hike it. Even if these trips don't turn into articles, you'll get to know your state better. Don't worry if you're a newcomer to the area; that can give your article a freshness longtime residents lack. Now get out there and start finding ideas!
Five Ways to Increase Your Chances of Acceptance
Sense a trend in this advice? The whole game is to make it harder for the editor to say "no." Remember, they don't want to say "no." They say "no" way too often. Editors want to say "yes" because it means they can fill up part of an upcoming issue and their day becomes less stressful. Give them a reason to say "yes."
This article originally appeared in The Writer.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Sean McLachlan worked for ten years as an archaeologist before becoming a full-time writer specializing in history and travel. He is the author of Byzantium: An Illustrated History (Hippocrene, 2004), It Happened in Missouri (TwoDot, 2007), and Moon Handbooks London (Avalon, 2007), among others. Visit him online at http://www.midlistwriter.blogspot.com.