I had the pleasure of attending the annual American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) conference held in New York over the weekend. The conference, for writers at every level of their career, featured more than 70 sessions covering a variety of topics, such as how to score a big book deal, how to break into women’s magazines, how to write white papers, and more. I was able to attend several of the sessions, and will recap them here over the next few days.
Women’s magazines are some of the most sought-after clips in the industry, but how do you get your foot in the door and score a byline from a top-tier magazine?
This session, “Breaking in: Women’s Markets,” looked at what two major women’s magazines look for in article pitches – and what to do once the pitch is accepted.
The panel was moderated by Gina Roberts-Grey, a freelance writer who has written scores of articles for women’s print and online magazines, including Glamour, Better Homes & Gardens, Woman’s Day, Redbook, Self, Essence, LifeScript.com and many others. Rounding out the panel were Lynya Floyd, senior editor, Essence; and Celia Shatzman, associate editor, Family Circle.
Following are highlights from the panel:
Q: What are each of your markets currently looking for, and what’s the best way for someone to break in?
Floyd: We’re obviously looking for something that comes through the lens of an African-American woman, specifically women’s health. Start with smaller pieces – the “Fit and Fab” column, a fitness column, nutrition pieces – and work your way up to bigger things. Whatever new spin you can put to those stories is fantastic. Why is this important to African-American women, and how do you spin it so it’s different? You can spin a story three or four different ways. If it doesn’t work for one magazine, you can tweak it and pitch it to another.
Shatzman: We cover a broad variety of features aimed at moms of teens and tweens. Toddler-related news is not of interest. Start out with a one-page column and work your way up from there. The best columns for a new writer are the “Good Works” and “Pets” columns. What sets anyone apart is something really new.
Q: What percentage of articles is contributed by freelance writers?
Floyd: The vast majority (85-90 percent) are freelance pieces. Stories with celebrities or real people are usually done in-house.
Shatzman: At Family Circle, the beauty, fashion and home articles, as well as columns, are done in-house. For the rest, about 75 percent is from freelancers.
Q: Do references impact who you go with?
Shatzman: They go a very long way. I’ll definitely take a few extra minutes to read the pitch.
Floyd: I couldn’t agree more. There’s so little time in the day. If someone puts a reference in the subject line, or in the first few sentences, it helps. And use a subject line that’s headline-worthy, and flesh out the story. Also, persistence does work for me. I will remember your name when I’m assigning stories. “Wow, she has some well fleshed-out ideas and really wants to get in the magazine.”
Q: Do you prefer pitches of letters of intent (LOIs)?
Shatzman: It depends on the letter. Include a couple of paragraphs – introduce yourself, what you’ve written for, what your interest is.
Floyd: For me, LOIs don’t make a huge impact. What I’m more interested in is your ideas and if you’re the right person to write the story, and I can usually get that from the query letter. Add personal experiences – anything to let me know what makes you the right person to write the story.
Q: Can you tell us what you consider a good, fleshed-out pitch?
Shatzman: Write the beginning of the pitch like the beginning of the article. Make it catchy. Two to three paragraphs is enough. Include possible interview subjects, studies, what makes it timely. Explain why you’re the right person to write the story. If it’s your first time pitching me, include what other things you’ve written in this area.
Floyd: One page will suffice, but remember we’re pitching to other people, too, so include as much information as possible. You want to make sure I have the answer to any questions I’m going to get from my editor. Make me look good.
Q: What are some mistakes writers make when trying to establish a relationship with a new editor?
Shatzman: My biggest pet peeve: Your email needs to be professional, especially with the way you address someone. Err on the side of formality.
Floyd: When someone misspells my name, or when someone pitches me for an area/column I don’t handle. Also, an overly generic pitch -- it really has to be specific to our magazine. If you have a website with your clips, definitely include that in your pitch. Also, I am not a phone person. I do 90 percent of what I need to do by email.
Q: Regarding follow-ups, what’s a good time frame, and how often?
Shatzman: I welcome follow-ups. It sometimes takes months to assign an article because I have to pitch to my editor, who has to pitch to her editor, etc. If an editor says, “I’ll tell you in a month,” wait for the month before following up. I also don’t like phone calls; email only.
Floyd: We have a two-month turnaround for pitches. Please don’t follow up the next day. I know it’s hard, but it’s a process and it does take time. I don’t mind if you include a deadline. After that, you can move on if you haven’t heard from me.
Shatzman: When you do follow up, make sure you include your original pitch. We get so many pitches, we can’t keep track.
Q: If you do reject a pitch, should the writer pitch another article right away or wait?
Floyd: Span out your pitches. It shouldn’t be something you can crank out in a day. To me, that means you haven’t really tailored it to my magazine. You can pitch again, but wait a few weeks and flesh it out.
Shatzman: Take the time to tailor it to the magazine. And remember, I don’t always have the time to tailor a response to everyone. I might just write back with, “No, thanks.” Don’t take it personally. I just don’t always have the time to give specific feedback.
Q: Do you mind if writers ask for feedback on a pitch that’s rejected?
Shatzman: It depends on the stage the pitch has gotten to. If it has gotten to a higher stage – I pitched it to my editor, who pitched it to her editor – I might spend a few extra minutes to tell you why it didn’t work.
Floyd: If you want feedback, you have to be open to feedback that might not be nice to hear.
Q: Do you have to be a woman to write for women’s magazines?
Floyd: You don’t have to be a woman and you don’t have to be African-American to write for Essence.
Shatzman: If you have a great idea, we don’t care who it comes from.
Q: Do you like it when writers suggest extra elements for a story, such as video, sidebars, etc.?
Shatzman: Any time you add extra elements, it shows you’ve done your research.
Floyd: It helps.
Q: Once a writer has the assignment, what are some mistakes that make you think, “Never again”?
Shatzman: Being late is not a good thing. If you’re going to be late, always ask for an extension vs. going MIA. Also, turning in a completely different story than was originally pitched. If something changes, keep in constant contact with the editor.
Floyd: 1) Turning in a story late. There has to be a serious reason. If you know it’s going to be late, tell me ASAP. If you hand it in early, we’ll totally assign to you again because then we’ll know you’re a writer we can go to in a pinch. 2) When we ask for revisions, read the suggestions and make changes. Ultimately, 15 other people will have an idea about the story. Go with the flow. Be flexible. Don’t fight us on it.
Q: Are revisions commonplace?
Shatzman: There are always revisions. Always expect them. Editors change their minds. Sometimes it’s just a handful of questions.
Floyd: It runs the gamut, but unless you’re Maya Angelou, there will probably be some revisions.
Q: In what format do you want clips?
Floyd: Please do not send me attachments. Links are at the top of the list.
Shatzman: It’s also good to include two clips from the same magazine. It shows the editor there went back to you.
Q: How do you want to be pitched?
Shatzman: Email: email@example.com
Floyd: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
[To read my first installment of recaps from ASJA 2011, "Beating Blog Burnout," click here.]