Cracking the Women's Magazine Marketby Donna Elizabeth Boetig
The Internet Writing Journal, May 1999 Want to Crack the Top Women's Magazines Market? Write for National Newspapers? Write a Love Letter...
When you write to an editor proposing a story idea, write a love letter. Toss out the conventional notion of a query letter or proposal, and instead focus on passion, emotion, a sense of urgency, even a bit of breathlessness. Only by writing this way will you shake the editor format stupor evoked by reading all those staid, letter-perfect proposals. Proposals that go nowhere except into the rejection pile.
From the very first words of this personal letter, the editor will sense you're different from all the other hacks vying for her attention. You're on to something and she'll notice.
Design the letter to be visually pleasing. No, don't rush out and buy a desktop publishing program with fancy fonts, graphics and logs with smiling faces. Nothing shouts amateur as loudly. Instead, use a businesslike typeface. And don't cram every square inch with copy; allow sufficient white space giving the editor, as reader, room to breathe.
Like any letter expressing affection, it should connect with her on a visceral level, acknowledging that she is a person, not only a ticket to publication. Beginning with the salutation, make her feel chosen. You've thoughtfully selected her, whether she's a senior editor or the lifestyle editor or whomever. Address her by name and spell it correctly.
Next, type your article's title, center it a few lines down from the salutation and set it off in boldface. This is the first step to help the editor envision the article in her publication.
Let me explain. Visual presentation includes everything that frames an article: the photos or art work, the title, the subheads (those bold face phrases that break up blocks of text), the sidebars, the boxes, even the italicized lines at the end noting reference material.
Editors love writers to supply these things because they lend themselves to creative layouts that attract readers. Surveys show that readers look at these elements and decide in a few seconds whether to read the first paragraph or two.
Listing the visual elements in your query letter helps the editor to imagine the story in print, and moves you closer to getting the assignment.
Okay, now conjure up a coverline or two that might--if the editor deems the story enticing enough--make it to the cover of the publication. Place the coverline below the title, centered but not boldfaced. Yes, this is the editor's job. Do it for her and she will love you. She might even assign you to the piece.
You've been told everywhere else to limit your query to one page. Relax. If you've got something to say, allow yourself the space to make your point. For me, a page and a half usually feels right.
The main part of the letter is divided into six sections. The first is the lead, a few paragraphs with a big job. Here you choose the most compelling part of the story and breathe life into it. In a true-life drama query the lead brings the reader to the brink, the moment of crisis, that makes her want to read more. The query in "Lead of Faith" (the story of two desperately ill children who were best friends and needed the same liver) began this way:
"This is the situation," Dr. Thomas Starzl said to the two mothers waiting outside the operating room. "We've located one liver. Candi needs it, but we can stabilize her for now. Jason's liver is gangrenous; he's going to die tonight unless he gets a new one."
Besides everything else they had in common, the two children were the same size and had the same blood and tissue types, making the organ suitable for either of them. Dr. Starzl believed it would only be right to give those who would be most affected by the choice a part in making it--even if it meant confronting Candi's mother with the toughest decision of her life. Turning to Penny, he asked, "What should we do?"
Penny looked at Nancy who had tears in her eyes, and wondered how she could weigh her own child's life against another's. How could she gamble that another liver would become available in time?
In a service, or how-to piece, use the lead to show the editor how the reader will be luxuriating in her new, improved life--thanks to your article. Take a look at the lead in my query to Family Circle for "Don't Pay For It--Trade For it."
If you've never wished upon a star, now's your chance. A diamond necklace, a romantic cruise, piano lessons, even cosmetic surgery can be yours without spending a dime--when you barter instead of buy.
If you're stuck for how to begin, crawl into yourself and ask, What images come to mind? What's the story's most dramatic moment? What's the first thing you'd tell a friend? These are all triggers to openers.
Be sure to launch the letter in the tone that's in tandem with the publication's. Get under your skin the subtle nuances of how the writers published in this magazine (or newspaper section) address the reader and the reader's attitude toward the subject. Hint: read the letters from the editor and write the way she addresses her readers.
The Middle Section
In the second part of your letter, broaden your idea. It is here you convey a sense of urgency. In the transplant query I promised the editor her readers will share the families' nail-biting tensions as doctors peform transplant surgery on Jason and struggle to keep Candi alive while waiting for her organ to arrive. I promise that every reader will see herself in this story and ask, "What would I do?"
The middle section of the bartering query explained that bartering is not new--our grandmothers bartered over backyard fences--but what is new is that today barter is big business.
I explained that the power of negotiation is multiplied many times over in homes across the country as women join small neighborhood clubs or one of the 600 commercial exchanges--and trade just about any service or product you can imagine.
The Can-Do Section
This section is the reality check. The editor will want to know if the story is doable. To assuage her fears, spell out what you will do. Will you spend a semester in high school incognito to report on how teens have changed? Who will you interview? Offer a few questions you'll ask. Mention where in the publication you think the article will fit.
In the "Leap of Faith" proposal, I promised extensive interviews with both families and the surgeon.
The fourth part of the letter tells in a sentence or two why the story is important. Here's the postlude to the "Leap of Faith" query:
Could a mother risk her own child's life to save another's?
And the postlude to the query on bartering read:
Women throughout the country are trading their own special skills to make their dreams come true. This is a trend readers won't want to miss.
In part five of the letter, mention any perks that ante up the story's appeal. You're traveling to a distant city on business, and the editor could piggyback on your company's plane ticket. Or your subject has kept a journal of her desert sojourn and will open it to readers. Photos, too, can sweeten an offer. When I wrote about Dick Scobee's family for the tenth anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle explosion, I offered Woman's Day photos of the former mission commander and his wife and children.
This is also the place to suggest secondary or shorter angles for the idea. But keep this brief. You don't want to divert the editor's attention from the main story.
Here's a good place to suggest topics for sidebars or boxes for the main story. I'd even title them, and maybe give an enticing point or two. Again, keep this short.
The final part of the letter is the toughest. It's easier to plan your funeral than to praise yourself. But you must hone in on why you're the perfect writer for the piece. You spotlight what you've done and let your passion for the proposed idea ooze off the page.
Pretend you're writing about a friend, or imagine you're a top public relations writer assigned to promote a gifted client. Address yourself in the third person, using "she" instead of "I," and watch your unfounded modesty vanish. When you're finished, change the "she's" to "I's."
Exactly what do you say to a sophisticated editor who's heard it all before? You say things that no other writer in the world could. What talents do you bring to the story? What passion? What perseverance? Although you'll probably not spell out your strengths in a letter, reflecting on them will make you feel better, and that added oomph of confidence will come through in the bio.
Begin the bio by listing any major publications in which you've been published. If your words haven't hit The New Yorker yet, don't despair, local press counts, too. But rather than listing publications an editor has never head of, say something like, "I've published a variety of articles in Mid-Atlantic publications, including profiles, essays, and investigative pieces."
Next, consider writing-related jobs, volunteer or paid. Graduate degrees in a relevant subject sound good, too. But passion counts most. Been painting with water colors since you were seven? Offer to profile an artist?
Muzzle those voice telling you to be modest. What impresses an editor and convinces her that you're the writer for the job is adding one more detail after you've drawn a portrait she can't resist.
Be sure to say you'd be pleased to answer any questions and are open to her suggestions. Then seal your letter with a one-liner telegraphing the story, such as: " 'Reunited At Last' will inspire readers to pick up a pen, dial the phone, or knock on the door and reconnect with someone who once meant so much."
If you've worked with the editor before, close with a personal comment about a story she's edited, or some other friendly reference. If not, simply sign-off with "thank you."
After telling you all this, I'm going to say goodbye with a disclaimer. Like all love letters, the best ones come from deep within. Nothing could be worse than a pile of letters arriving on an editor's desk all sounding like they've been written by writers who've read the same advice books--and, mindlessly, followed the rules to the letter. How could an editor expect an insightful, creative article from a writer whose letter was an imitation? I've shared the guidelines that have worked for me and for my students. Help yourself to what you like from my guidelines, then add something that no one else can: yourself.
Best to you; I'll see you in print.
** Donna Elizabeth Boetig, the author of
Feminine Wiles: Creative
Techniques for Writing Women's Feature Stories that Sell
(American West, 1998), contributes to
pubications such as McCall's, Reader's Digest,
Family Circle, Woman's Day, The Saturday Evening
and Bride's. A former newspaper reporter, she
earned her graduate degree in
writing from Johns Hopkins University. She
now teaches writing in the graduate program of
Hopkins University, and presents her writing workshops
United States and Canada. You can reach her at:
Feminine Wiles, a Writer's Digest Book Club bestseller, is available through the book club, the publisher, American West Books at 1-800-497-4909, or through Amazon.com.
Copyright © 1999 by Donna Elizabeth Boetig. All Rights Reserved.