This is intended as a guide for first-time writers wishing to submit non-fiction articles to magazines. It is based on my experiences in five years of writing and editing for a dive travel magazine; however, it will apply to most types of magazine writing. Some points may also be relevant to writers of fiction.
It is not my aim to tell you how to write, but to give you some ideas about how to submit an article in a way that will improve your chances of publication.
You should never submit the same article to more than one magazine at a time. Fate has a nasty sense of humour, and the problems that will arise if several competing magazines publish your article simultaneously are not worth the thrill. If the article is rejected by your first choice, that is when to try elsewhere.
If there are several magazines for your topic, buy one of each and read the articles they print. Look at general differences of style from one magazine to another - each columnist's writing will vary, but there is almost always a broader "feel" to a magazine. Some are friendly, chatty and informal in their approach, maybe with a touch of humour. Others present an air of authority or sophistication. You will be unlikely to succeed if you submit work in a style that varies greatly from the magazine's chosen image.
Don't just read the articles, either. Look at the ads. They are an excellent guide to the magazine's target audience. It may be a home improvement magazine, but if every second ad is for gold-plated doorknobs or holidays in Monte Carlo, your article on how to build a house out of old crates and dried wildebeest dung would be better sent elsewhere.
Think laterally about what sort of magazine might want your story. Consider those catering to what may seem a completely different area of interest. As an example, our dive magazine ran articles on these subjects:
None of these are directly related to scuba diving, but were of great interest to the magazine's readers. Articles which complement a magazine's normal topic, rather than conforming to it, are often eagerly accepted.
Unless your aim in life is to have the world's largest collection of rejection letters, don't pin your hopes for first publication on National Geographic or Time. I'm not saying it can't happen, but it is incredibly unlikely. As an unpublished writer, go for the small magazines.
By "small" I don't mean "poorer quality" or "fewer readers". I mean magazines which do not have a large permanent staff of writers. Many magazines are produced by a very small team, with a few regular columnists and the rest of the articles gleaned from wherever they can be found. A first-timer's best chance is here. Look for regional rather than national or international-distribution magazines. The credit list in the front pages may give you an idea of the company's size, or look it up in a business directory.
Having found a small magazine, don't be afraid to simply phone the editors and offer your services. We usually had a backlog of several dozen feature ideas - people to be interviewed, stories to be researched "as soon as somebody finds the time." These were stories we wanted to publish. It didn't matter who wrote them. But nobody ever did, because they were too busy getting their regular column finished before the deadline.
Just once, a guy phoned up out of nowhere and asked if we needed any writing done. He didn't have a story to submit. He was just a guy who said he could write, and was willing to write about whatever we wanted written. It turned out he lived in the same part of the country as somebody we'd been desperate to interview, but we hadn't had the time or money to send a writer to do it. That guy did the interview for us the same week, and a couple of years on, he is a regular columnist with his own page in the magazine. He writes a column about his own field of interest - something totally different from that first story - but he got there simply by asking if he could help out. With a small magazine, it's worth a try.
There are two things that give non-fiction writing an unfair advantage when it comes to getting published. One requires skill, the other doesn't. These are illustration and advertising tie-ins.
I can't stress enough how much more likely you are to get published if you can provide good illustrations as well as good writing. In any non-fiction field, illustrations - photos, diagrams or whatever is relevant - will give you an advantage. It will certainly be more difficult without them, and for some topics (such as travel, nature or outdoors) it will be almost impossible. If you can't or won't do it yourself, consider forming a partnership with a photographer. (Some people take this idea to extremes - husband and wife teams are very common!) Plan your articles together, so text and pictures form a coherent whole. Again, check the magazine you have chosen. See how big a part photos play. Bear in mind that for every photo printed with an article, five or ten may have been submitted for the editors to choose from.
Now, if you are a romantic idealist dedicated to Art, skip this paragraph, because it will make you disillusioned and cynical. The advantages of advertising tie-ins are completely unknown to most new writers. Magazines cost a lot to produce. There are a few which carry no advertising and rely solely on income from subscribers, but the vast majority are always on the lookout for ways to please existing advertisers and attract new ones. I am not suggesting you sell your soul to rampant commercialism, but think about how to help your story in this way. For example, if you are writing about your car restoration project, don't say you used "paint". Name the brand. Name the shade. Name the type of air compressor you sprayed it with, and the hardware store you bought it from, and the brand of paper towels you used to clean it off your dog when he stepped in the pot. This sort of thing is like gold to an editor. As soon as your story arrives, it will be mentally labelled "Potential Special Feature" and passed on to a sales rep with instructions to use it to extract advertising from the paint company, the air compressor maker, and the hardware store. If any of them are already big advertisers with the magazine, you are more than halfway there, and never mind how bad the actual story is.
For travel writing, supply a page with full contact details of the hotels, restaurants, tour operators and so on which you mention in the story. When you're on a trip you intend to write about later, grab a few brochures or business cards as you go. Restrain yourself, though: the aim is a professional-looking help sheet for the advertising department, not a complete tourist directory of the entire region.
So you have your article, and you're ready to send it. Before you hurl it into the abyss of your postal service or ISP, stop a minute. Most magazines have very specific rules about how articles are to be sent. Find out what they are, and do it.
That may sound obvious, but it's so important. At the dive magazine, we had our rules right there on the contents page: "PC 3.5 inch floppy disk, Word or text file, printed hard copy." And what did we get? We got stories on Mac disks which our computers couldn't read. We got stories hand-written in smudged pencil, on paper apparently used to mop floors. We once got -- and I am being perfectly serious -- a story in Russian with no translation attached.
If you can't comply with the rules for some reason, don't guess about alternatives. Phone the publishers and ask. The same goes for magazines which have no submission guidelines printed. Check first.
Always include a stamped, self-addressed envelope in which your work can be returned, and mark everything you send with your name. Picture what is likely to happen to your submission once it's out of the envelope and has been shuffling around on somebody's desk for a week. This is why clear plastic binders were invented. (Note that fiction magazines almost always require unbound manuscripts.)
If you have photos or illustrations, present them tidily in the binder too. Number them and make sure you have captions for each one (in a numbered list at the end of your article, not scrawled across the back of the photos). If you didn't take the photos, say who did.
When submitting photos, it is a good idea to find out what format they should be in, too. Some publishers don't care, but others can only use slide transparencies. Still others prefer prints or even negatives. Whatever you do, don't try scanning them yourself and sending them on a disk, or as inline graphics in your document. You don't want to know the sort of things this will make the magazine staff say about you.
It is an excellent idea to provide a separate page listing the items you are sending, along with the date and your contact details. It's simple to do, it makes it easier for poor harassed secretaries, and it increases the odds that you will get everything back. An example might be:
Submitted to Newt Breeders' Monthly by Gussie Fink-Nottle, 1 July 2000:
Article "Stalking the Giant Norwegian Whooping Newt," 5 page hard copy 1 page captions 8 color prints by the author 2 drawings by Mr. Snook Draddots (used by permission) 1 floppy disk
Please return in enclosed envelope to: (address).
Give them your phone number or email address too, in case they have any questions. If you need anything back by a particular date, say so.
Once the fruits of your creativity have been sent into the void, it's an anxious thing to wait and wonder. If you don't get a response, it's perfectly all right to phone and make sure they received it.
Submitted articles are not instantly divided into "we must publish this at once" or "somebody call the janitor to take it away before it stinks up the whole building." Most fall into grey areas in between. If your article is good, but they just ran a similar one, yours might be held until next issue or next year. Or perhaps it's not quite good enough to publish at once, but they'll keep it to fill an awkward gap in an emergency. We used to keep a whole file full of this type of article. Some articles are too good for immediate use -- to do them justice, we would keep them until we had room to run them as a major feature.
So, if the publishers ask to keep your story for a while, you're doing well. Just bear in mind that "a while" might mean anything from a fortnight to six years. This is why you wrote out your little page of items and marked everything with your name. Anyway, you can always phone and ask for it back.
Those who get published on their very first attempt are few and far between. Rejections happen to every writer, so don't take them personally. The best thing you can do is contact the publishers and ask how your article could have been improved. It takes a lot of courage to do this, and it's difficult to do with courtesy and grace, but you will learn how to fine-tune your writing into what the publishers want. You will also impress the heck out of whoever answers your polite inquiry, which has to be a bonus. Not all publishers are prepared to discuss reasons for rejection, but most will be happy to do so if they are aware your aim is to improve your writing, not to argue with their decision.
Writing for magazines can be immensely rewarding. Seeing your name in print for the first time is a tremendous thrill. Keep trying, and take every chance to improve your writing -- you can get there in the end. Good luck!