Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ask Editors for Writing Assignments by Malcolm Campbell

What happens when the editor of Fir Tree Magazine receives an unsolicited article manuscript titled "How to Get Barnacles off Your Boat”?

Whether he laughs, cries or uses industrial-strength profanity, the result's the same for the writer:
a form rejection slip.

A publication’s submission guidelines tell prospective contributors to
read the magazine first. Get to know what it does and how it does it. Many writers skip this step because it takes time. Yet, if you submit an article that demonstrates that you know little or nothing about the magazine, the editor might also doubt the credibility of your article itself.

Instead, write a query letter or e-mail describing your idea rather than writing the article and sending it in blindly. Show the editor how the article will meet his readers’ needs, what you plan to cover, and why you are qualified to write it. Online and printed magazines often place editorial calendars for the coming year on their websites; consult this for themes and subjects on tap for the year.

Asking for an Assignment

Most editors depend on a trusted, dependable group of staff writers, guest experts, and often-used freelancers for most of their material. They don't sit around waiting for somebody they've never heard of to send in exactly the thing they are looking for at the exact moment they need it.

Once you read the editorial calendar and learn that
Fir Tree Magazine is planning a series of articles on the identification of flat needle conifers this fall, it’s obvious why the barnacle article is a bad fit.

When you pitch an on-target article idea to an editor, he immediately sees that: (a) you’re approaching the magazine as a professional, (b) you aren't wasting time researching and writing something the he may not use, (c) you’re asking "what do YOU want in your magazine" rather than assuming he will like something randomly sent in.

You want the editor to say, "yes, write the article," while offering guidance that helps ensure the it has the right approach. If you've proposed an article about pine needles and cones, the editor might say, leave out the cones, we're already working on that one. The editor also might suggest a slightly different focus or a longer article than you initially planned.

The first time an editor says, "yes, send me your article," he will probably stipulate that you are sending it in on speculation, that is, without a guarantee that it will be used. Once an article or two is published, the editor will see that you can deliver what he wants. Then, the next pitched article may result in a more formal assignment.

One Day, the Editor Might Contact You

In time, the editor might start pitching ideas to you: "We need an article about the Douglas-fir. How would you like to send us about 2,000 words on the largest examples of this tree in Oregon and Washington?"

Now you're where you want to be.

Writer's Market and Funds for Writers are among the sites you can consult for market listings.

Malcolm R. Campbell is a contributing writer for Living Jackson Magazine and the author of two novels, "The Sun Singer" and "Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire."


  1. Excellent advice, as always, Malcolm.

  2. Ah, so that's why my pitch about eating disorders was rejected by Bits & Bytes mag! (jk)

    Sage words. Thanks.

    Chelle Cordero, Author
    http://chellecordero.com/ Chelle Cordero

  3. Thanks Smoky.

    Yeah, Chelle, you might want to rethink that market.