Magazine Writing: How to Break In at the Very Top

A sign reading "Entrance" and pointing downward.
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Note from Jane: This post is an excerpt from The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing: How to Write, Work, and Thrive on Your Own Terms (Writer’s Digest Books) by Zachary Petit (@zacharypetit).

Let’s take a moment to discuss a potential game changer in your career.

Common journalistic wisdom has always held that you need to start all the way at the bottom of the sea floor, and you can then work your way up to the gratifying oxygen gulp that is a major publication. It’s sound advice—and logical advice, when you consider how many people have gotten their start that way—but it’s not the only advice.

Want to write for the New York Times? Well, try it.

Allow me to explain. When I started at Writer’s Digest, I was put in charge of the nonfiction column, which at the time was written by a brilliant, charming, hilarious Manhattan writer named Susan Shapiro.

In one of the columns I edited, she suggested going straight for the top and writing for the big boys and girls right out of the gate. I’m a journalist by nature, meaning I’m overly skeptical and a tad surly about most things.

Bullshit, I first thought.

But over the years, I saw it work. Susan teaches a class, “Instant Gratification Takes Too Long,” which, again, may sound like snake oil for writers who should instead be toiling away for thirty years at a newspaper before attempting to pitch the big guns. But then you look at her students, all previously unpublished writers, and you see their first bylines in the New York Times, an assortment of major women’s magazines, and many other outlets.

She and her students are proof that you don’t necessarily have to start at the bottom. If you shoot for the top and you’ve got the chops, you might get there. Obviously, landing your first clip in general is a gratifying and thrilling prospect no matter where it is. But it doesn’t hurt to have a powerhouse under your belt.

So how do you do it? In my opinion, it depends on what you write.

The chances of having no clips or reporting experience and landing 
an investigative journalistic feature in Wired magazine are nil. Editors need to know and feel confident that you can do what you’re proposing to do for such a piece, and seeing previous examples of that work helps them sleep better at night. Moreover, the highest echelon of publications, like, say, the New Yorker, has thousands of writers querying it at any one time, and competition is hilariously fierce.

Once, at the New Yorker’s office high in the Manhattan clouds, I asked the features editor what it takes to break into the magazine with a feature article. His advice: Wait—years, if need be—until you have that one perfect, refined idea that you feel truly merits the scale and readership of the publication.

Now, that may sound like the sort of arrogant counsel you’d expect from the New Yorker, but it’s true. You’ve got to present your very best to such publications, and you’ve got to have an idea that will blow them out of the water. Otherwise you’re wasting their time and, moreover, yours. (For the record, I’m still trying waiting to come up with that pitch.)

Again, breaking into the top when you’re all the way at the bottom depends on what you write. A big journalistic feature? Not likely. But if you can pen a shorter piece ahead of time and submit it to an editor complete, rather than pitching it, then you’ve gained a rare advantage: Your writing can speak for itself. (This is called on-spec writing and is admittedly a controversial subject.)

Essay sections—which, as mentioned earlier, an overwhelming amount of magazines, online outlets, and major newspapers, publish—can be a great way to break into the big leagues. Write a great essay, and an editor will publish it. Simple as that. She doesn’t care in the least if you haven’t been published anywhere else first. She wants a fresh voice and a good piece. At Writer’s Digest, I published dozens of essays from people no one had heard of but who could write their faces off.

Susan is a big advocate of what she calls “The Humiliation Essay”—in which a writer reveals all and channels his most embarrassing story for readers in print. (Susan wrote a piece on this for me. Check out “No Reservations.”) And, as I’ve seen many times now, it works. Match your essay idea to a fitting section in a publication, and you’ve got a good recipe on your hands.

Cover for The Essential Guide to Freelance WritingWhen it comes to that first clip: If you’ve got something good, go big (meaning send it to your favorite powerhouse publication). If it doesn’t hit, work your way down the list, get it published, and then work your way back up with your next articles.

For more on freelance writing, check out Zachary Petit’s The Essential Guide to Freelance Writingjust released from Writer’s Digest Books.

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