Fresh out of university, I thought I’d found the perfect topic for my first article. A hot debate in my Tuesday night Bible study had been whether or not Christian women should wear bikinis. In one girl’s youth group at her home church, women even had to wear t-shirts over one-piece bathing suits. I knew the debate was something current, and I knew I could get quotes from people on both sides.
What magazine wouldn’t want it, right?
Well, as it turns out, the first magazine I queried. And then the second. And . . . I might still be wondering what I was doing wrong if it hadn’t been for one thoughtful editor who took the time to write a personal rejection.
“Your idea is well-thought out, but our readership is mostly women in their 50s. We don’t think an article on bikinis will appeal to enough of them.”
I’d wasted a lot of time and effort pitching an idea to a magazine who wouldn’t have bought it no matter who I was or how well I could write. I’d also risked burning a bridge with the editors I’d contacted.
How could I have avoided such a silly mistake? By using an essential writer’s tool—writer’s guidelines.
Whether you’re a new writer trying to get that first credit or an old pro who’s looking to branch out into a new market, here’s a refresher course in what writer’s guidelines can do for you.
The single most important thing you need to know about a magazine is who reads it:
- Are they men or women? You wouldn’t want to query the Promise Keeper’s magazine SEVEN with an article on feminine hygiene any more than you’d want to query Kyria (the online replacement for Today’s Christian Woman) with an article on bringing chivalry into 2010.
- How old are they? Some topics appeal to a broad base. If you want to write a piece about how you can help those suffering from AIDS, the age of your audience won’t matter as much as it would in an article on bikinis. In general, though, 20-year-olds will have different concerns and interests than 60-year-olds.
- What’s their socio-economic status? You’re more likely to sell an article on feeding a family of four for under $10 to a middle-class family than you are to the family with a vacation home and expensive cars. Income and education will speak to what interests a reader.
- Are they married and do they have children?
When asked what elements he looks for in a successful query, Stephen Kennedy, editor of Testimony, replied, “One that shows the writer has read our guidelines. Word count is important for me. We ask for 1000 words or less. If a query comes offering an article of 1500+ words, it’s doomed.”
At the risk of feeling like this is a tell-all about my early mistakes, I once pitched a 2500-word article about how to deal with doubts to a magazine that never ran an article over 2000. I bet by now you can figure out why that happened, and what the magazine’s response was.
Knowing the word count of articles published by the magazine you’re querying makes sure that you’re offering something they can use (and yes, you do need to give a proposed word count for the article you’re pitching). Checking the writer’s guidelines for word count also helps you narrow down potential topics. You won’t want to pitch an in-depth feature on the falling numbers of men in church to a magazine with a maximum word count of 600.
What They Want (Or Don’t Want)
Do they print profiles? What about personal experience stories? How-to articles? Writer’s guidelines are there to make everyone’s lives easier.
For example, in their writer’s guidelines, The Lookout states that they want teaching articles helping their readers apply Scripture, informational or journalistic articles dealing with current issues, and human interest stories about Christians with extraordinary stories.
As important as knowing what they’re interested in, though, is knowing what they don’t want. Maybe they don’t take reprints. Maybe they don’t want fiction or poetry. Maybe they’ve been swamped with queries on a particular topic and can’t bear to read even one more—no matter how brilliant you think your take on the subject is.
So Where Do You Get Writer’s Guidelines?
Most magazines put their writer’s guidelines online, but you might have to hunt for them. If you don’t see a “Write For Us” or “Writer’s Guidelines” tab, look under “Contact Us.” They’re also sometimes called submission guidelines. If that fails, a quick email will usually bring them winging their way right into your inbox.
Do you have more questions about writer’s guidelines? Or do you have a question about a topic that we haven’t covered yet? Post a comment, and you might see your question answered in detail as a future post.