The Top Ten Mistakes Magazine Writers Make

By Kelly James-Enger

Hoping to launch themselves into the world of magazine writing, both novice and experienced freelancers often unwittingly sabotage their efforts by committing one or more of the "top ten" magazine-writing mistakes. Avoid these common pitfalls and you'll improve your queries---and boost your chances of publication in the process:

Mistake #10: Not Looking at the Market First

Blame Writer's Market. You're browsing through the latest edition and find a magazine that sounds perfect for your latest story idea. Instead of picking up a recent issue, though, you shoot off a query and hope for the best. I've fallen victim to this trap myself, but in three and a half years of fulltime freelancing, I've never sold to a market that I didn't look at first. You need a feel for magazine's tone and readership to ensure that your query "fits" the publication.

Mistake #9: Addressing the Query to the Wrong Editor

Or to "Dear Editor". By the time a magazine hits the newsstands, its masthead is probably outdated. Editors change positions and publications with amazing speed. Call the magazine and confirm the name and title of the editor you're pitching to, and your query will wind up on the right person's desk instead of languishing in the slush pile.

Mistake #8: Not Researching the Query

Don't start a query for a diet article with "Americans are overweight. They eat too much and exercise too little." It's too general, especially for a health story. It's much more convincing to cite recent obesity statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. Including facts, statistics or quotes--or naming experts you plan to interview for the story--lets the editor know you've already done your homework about the topic.

Mistake #7: A Weak Lead

As a novice freelancer, I often started queries with "I'd like to write an article about..." Not very compelling. An article lead captures your attention and draws you into the story. A query lead should have the same effect on an editor.

Mistake #6: Query is Too Long or Vague

If you can't adequately describe your subject, your approach and your qualifications in a page-long letter, chances are your query is too long or too general. Your topic should be narrow enough so that you're able to address it in the suggested word length.

Mistake #5: Query Looks Sloppy

Think of your query as a letter of introduction. If it's riddled with grammatical mistakes or incorrectly used words, it says that you don't much care about the impression you make. On the other hand, a query that's easy to read and contains no typos or misspellings says that you're a professional (or aspiring to be one).

Mistake #4: Forgetting what the Editor Wants

Just because you find a subject fascinating doesn't mean the editor will, too. Keep the magazine's readers in mind as you pitch an idea. Why does this story concern them? Why will they want to read it? Think like the editor and you'll be closer to receiving an assignment.

Mistake #3: Being too Modest

Every query should include what I call the "I-am-so-great" paragraph. Mention your background and experience and demonstrate why you're pitching this article. If you recently lost 50 pounds and are pitching a diet story, say so. If you have stepchildren and are querying about the challenges of step parenting, mention that. Convince the editor that you're uniquely qualified to write this story.

Mistake #2: Not Querying First

First, many major magazines don't even accepted completed manuscripts--they only want queries. Second, when you write an article and send it in, you're saying, "take it or leave it". The editor has no chance to offer guidance or direction. Perhaps she likes the idea but would prefer a different angle. Finally, when you submit a completed story, you run the risk that the magazine already has assigned a similar piece--and you've wasted your time. (The two exceptions to the query-first rule are humor and essays. With both, you should submit the completed manuscript.)

Mistake #1: Giving up too Soon

Yes, rejections (what I call "bongs") can be disheartening. But it will probably take some time--and more than one query--to nail an assignment from a national magazine. Pitch timely, well-developed ideas and your persistence will pay off. It took me 6 queries (and 18 months) to nail an assignment from Woman's Day; 5 queries (and a year) with Fitness; and 7 queries (and 18 months) with Marie Claire, but it was time well spent. I've written multiple times for all three magazines.

So don't let your bongs get you down--consider them steps toward eventual publication. The more you get, the closer you are! ______________________________________________________
Kelly James-Enger is a fulltime freelancer whose work has appeared in more than 25 national magazines including Woman's Day, Family Circle, Marie Claire and Fitness. Kelly is the author of Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money (The Writer Books, 2003.) She can be reached through her website

© 2007 Kelly James-Enger All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

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