Tips from a Pro Journalist On Breaking Into Print

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Like a lot of writers, when I first started thinking about publishing, I found a copy of Writer’s Market and began thumbing through the entries. I liked cats, but did I know enough about them to write for Cat Fancy? I enjoyed making up little stories for my younger sister, but was I Highlights for Children material? I read guidelines, compared rates, consider who would welcome beginning freelance journalists — and I event sent out some query letters, most of which were ignored, a few of which were rejected.

But then I got my first big break.

A creative writer primarily, I attended a wonderful poetry workshop at a university. It was affiliated with an important literary journal, and I had a transformative experience there. On a whim, I wrote to Poets & Writers magazine and proposed an article about what my attendance at the workshop meant for my art, and also about the historically prominent magazine that sponsored it. P&W said they’d like to take a look, and I did my research and wrote the thing, and before I knew it, I had a byline.

The Trick to Breaking Into Print

Why did P&W work where Cat Fancy had not?

The answer is obvious: I was a creative writer, and I was passionate and knowledgeable about the topic. That showed in my query letter, which played up my qualifications to write the story while also giving a taste of the kind of writing they might expect from me.

That early debut was years ago — a couple of decades, in fact — but the same strategy that scored me a feature story in Poets & Writers still works for me today. In fact, the main magazines and websites that print my work are affiliated with my religious denomination, and for these I write about the spiritual issues I find compelling (those that I contemplate even when I’m not freelancing). 

Start with Your Passion

To break into publishing for a national audience for that first time, it is wise to consider one’s passions. Do I like skydiving, anime, gardening, quilting, stamp collecting? There are journals for that. The key to getting a byline in them is to think of an intriguing story or a unique point of view, and then to write a query that expresses the writer’s knowledge and passion. Our passion shows. And editors want to tap into it, because it enlivens their magazines and excites their readers.

Key Takeaways

  • When you're a new writer, you have a much better shot of getting a byline or assignment if you have a deep expertise in a niche.
  • The more "niche" your niche is, the better. There's a publication or website for just about any hobby, trade, or topic -- and plenty of them pay.
  • Don't give up! Like sales, pitching your stories is a numbers game. You can't win if you don't play, and the more you play, the better chance you'll have of landing your first assignment.