Thanks to everyone who asked Alex Gazzola questions about breaking into writing non-fiction for magazines. The answers and announcement about the winner of the book follow.
Julie Day: “What was your very first non-fiction success?”
Julie Day: “What was your very first non-fiction success?”
I left university with a maths degree in the 90s and didn’t know what to do with it. I had vague notions of being a writer, so taught myself to type, then took an intensive course to learn to type fast. I eventually got so good, around 80 words per minute, that I got some temping work, which kept me going while I decided what to do with my life. I then took a correspondence writing course, and the first thing I wrote was a light-hearted account of those experiences as a male typist in a female-dominated environment. It seems ridiculous now, but at the time it was unusual. I sent it off, my first ever submission, to a careers magazine, and the editor (who would eventually become a good friend) wrote back offering me £100 for it. I still have her letter. And so it began …
Patsy: “Is it a good idea to supply my own photos and should I mention that in the pitch?”
Yes and yes, but it’s not usually essential. I have hardly ever done it (my photography is useless) and I’ve managed to get by. It’s more important for travel or outdoors-y writing, and I’ve focused on health. Two things to say, though: a/ just tell the editor what is available or on offer, and b/ don’t be presumptuous about it or try to assume the role of the picture editor. It’s not your job to determine what pictures are used or even how the finished piece should look. But yes, if you can offer a good words and pictures ‘package’, editors will like you. Don’t forget to negotiate separate fees for images too.
SJM / Sonja: “It's been a good few years since I tried submitting non fiction. What is the best way to approach an editor, with a pitch or a completed article?”
It depends on the editor. Some prefer one or the other; some are happy to see either. Generally speaking, editors of glossies, women’s weeklies and newspapers prefer or insist on a pitch, while a lot of editors of modest, niche magazines will consider completed articles. The safer approach is to pitch. Some editors consider the submission of completed articles unprofessional and will not read them.
Gina Gao: “I would like to know how to begin the process of going from fiction to non-fiction (i.e. did you find a mentor to help you or was it just practice)?”
I’ve never written fiction. You don’t have to ‘go from’ one to the other. You can just mentally approach it as starting afresh! You can obviously write, so there’s no reason to suppose you can’t write factual material as well as fictional.
Seaview / Marion: “I was wondering about how to go about selecting topics for articles. Is it a case of write what you know about/are interested in, or should you be prepared to do lots of research in order to come up with a piece on a subject you know little (or nothing!) about?”
It’s natural to begin with subjects you know a lot about or are particularly interested in or appropriate to you – such as a first-person story, or an interview with a local personality, or an article about your professional field of expertise. But eventually you will run out of material and have to diversify. I always say ‘follow your nose’. Yes, be prepared to come up with ideas about literally any subject for any publication. It’s far more interesting this way, because you have to teach yourself, and learn, and research, before you can then impart that information on to others through writing. The writers who are best at this are those who are naturally interested and curious about the world and the people in it. Look externally. Be nosy.
Carrie: “I've written a few non fiction articles but am having trouble knowing where to place them. What is the best way to go about contacting an editor and asking if they're interested in what one has written about?”
You really need to have a market in mind *before* you write, and write it according to that market’s needs – ie targeted towards that readership, and perhaps aimed at a particular slot. Research the market first. You have to write what the editor and the reader want. You don’t mention the subjects of your articles, but browse the shelves at your local newsagent for possible markets, and adjust your ideas, pitches or articles as you think is best to suit them.
Sharon Boothroyd: “I'd like to know how difficult it is to break into non-fiction articles. Don't most women's mags have their own writers? Why would editors consider pitches from freelances, when they have staff on the existing pay roll who can produce articles 'in- house'?”
It varies a lot. Most magazines have their own writers, but most magazines also use freelance contributors too. Analysing several editions of magazines closely will tell you who the regulars are, and which slots or pages are open to ‘outsiders’. Remember you, as a freelance writer, are not ‘desk bound’ as in-house writers may be. Play to your advantage. Propose or write articles which the publication’s staff may not be able to produce, perhaps due to a geographical advantage you have, or access to a particular individual or case study.
Ann Hodgkin: “Do editors publish non fiction guidelines about article lengths etc?”
Some are very good about this and do – for instance, Woman Alive publish their guidelines here. Browse websites. Some will make them available online, others will email them on request. But most don’t. This isn’t editors being unhelpful or lazy. Bluntly, some editors don’t really know what they want until they see it. And – not unfairly – other editors feel the ‘guidelines’ are there for all to see … in the magazine. What they want is what they publish.
Amanda Barton: “Would you recommend that authors use a different name for writing non-fiction than the one they use for fiction?”
You should use your real name, so if you use a nom de plume, then yes, but if you use your name then no. There are exceptions. One is for an intimate or personal first-person story which you would like to share, but only anonymously. Some editors are willing to do this with a ‘not her real name’ alongside the byline. Bear in mind that using different names dilutes the frequency of any one name appearing in print, and is therefore, literally, harder to make a ‘name’ for yourself. There may be implications for ALCS payments too. And if an editor ever asks for clippings, and your best piece of writing doesn’t bear your real name, it could raise eyebrows. Why do it? Just use your name.
Celia: “Assuming at some stage one's work is accepted, what sort of payment for how many words? (trust me to lower the tone and talk dosh, sorry folks)”
Some modest magazines pay tiny amounts. This England used to pay £25 per 1,000 words, although this may be higher now. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail pay around £600 per 1,000 words. Some American publications pay $1 a word and over. It varies so much. Most publications come in in the £100-£300 per 1,000 word zone. The most interesting thing about your question, though, is your ‘lower the tone’ remark! I know it was half in jest, but there’s an important point to be made here. Talking money is not a subject for shame or embarrassment. It is professional to talk money. This is a business. Never be apologetic or shy about broaching the subject with an editor, or anyone else!
Jenny Worstall: “Do magazines generally take all rights for non-fiction articles?”
Urgh, this issue upsets me and I know it upsets many womag fiction writers, as has been highlighted recently by Patsy in relation to Spirit &Destiny (Bauer), and by Carol Bevitt and others last year in relation to Woman’s Weekly. First thing to say is that magazines can’t ‘take’ anything you don’t give them. Sending them an article is not giving them an article nor is it offering it to be ‘taken’. It’s offering it to be made an offer on. If that offer comes, and is not to your satisfaction, then you can say no. That said, sadly, many these days when they make an offer are making one asking for all rights or copyright (essentially the same thing), so that they can license the content to overseas magazines or reuse the material elsewhere, without having to pay you more than the original flat fee. Resist, negotiate, ask them what they *really* need. And never sign a contract you don’t understand or like.
Kate Hogan: “My first paid writing project was an Astrology column for a regional magazine. The pitch for it was pretty straightforward - sort of 'Would you like me to write an astrology column?'. I'm guessing pitches for articles are a bit more in depth than that, so my question is 'How much detail do I need to deliver in a pitch for an article?'”
I would aim for around 100-150 words in a pitch, but the idea itself should determine how much you should say. Convey the subject, the idea, give a flavour of the proposed content and overall ‘direction’ your piece will take, but don’t spell every little thing out. If it needs 200 words, fine, but I’d be wary of going longer than that.
Julie Perrott: “I worked in the Spiritual arena in the UK, relocated back to Western Australia, where the industry is smaller & more underground, but I would like to use my expertise to write non-fiction, unfortunately.....the publishing arena is smaller here as well. So, how do I get a leg-in? Plus, I totally lost motivation & enthusiasm after my mother's passing.”
It’s difficult when the market is limited, but there’s no reason why you can’t write for the spiritual press worldwide. Perhaps offer something that you are in a good position to cover – there’s a promising idea in your question, that of the underground spiritual ‘scene’ in Australia. A US or UK publication may well be interested in some aspect of that. If you’re looking to make a name for yourself at home, a blog is a good way to pick up local / regional readers and perhaps eventually attract the attention of editors. And I do understand regarding grief. I lost my father and one of my closest friends two years ago within weeks of each other and it has taken me some time to relocate my writing mojo. All I can advise is don’t put pressure on yourself to do so. It will come when it will come. And when the first signs of it make themselves known to you, you will begin to feel a lot more enthusiastic.
Julia Pattison: “I write memoirs for war veterans, would a magazine be interested in an extract from the memoir of an ex FEPOW veteran for an August 2020 issue when it'll be the 75th anniversary of VJ Day?”
Wow. This is interesting. I’m not sure a magazine would be interested in only an extract, but they may be interested in featuring a short extract alongside a full article. I presume these are book-length memoirs you write? You must surely have dozens of ideas here at your disposal, assuming the veterans are happy for you to pursue them. Aside from the obvious publications (war / history magazines) look also at placing stories in the veterans’ local papers. I think you have lots of scope to produce many stories from many angles and perspectives for many publications.
New girl on the block: “Women's magazines always ask for fiction writing that is 'uplifting' and tend to shy away from 'difficult' topics. Is this requirement the same for non-fiction writing for magazines?”
It very much depends on the publication. What The People’s Friend may like is unlikely to be what Marie Claire likes. There is a market out there for all types of material, so if your ‘difficult’ subject isn’t right for one publication, find one for which it may work. If you prefer to write uplifting non-fiction there is a market for that too. There are features based on women’s triumphs over adversity and incredible achievements in dozens of magazines on your newsagents’ shelves right now.
Ann Williams: “Quite a few magazines publish guidelines online and usually state if they prefer a pitch first or accept unsolicited articles. In the absence of this advice is it best to send a pitch first or write and send a complete article? If the editor is not familiar with your work, is a pitch sufficient?”
You can always call and ask, but generally a pitch is the better approach if you’re uncertain. If an editor is not familiar with your work, she can Google you or ask for cuttings or ask for your experience. There’s no need to be fully ‘sufficient’ in your first approach. If the idea is good enough, she will engage, and once you have engagement you’re half-way there. I think some new writers feel the need to give too much information from the off. Don’t overwhelm the editor. Just send your pitch and sign off. Don’t tell her every article you’ve ever written. A link to your website is fine.
Bea Charles: “Is an editor interested in knowing about my previous writing experience? For example, if I pitch a camping article to a travel magazine, is it relevant to mention I have had fiction published by various womags? And would an editor be interested in seeing an example of such earlier published work?”
Instead of mentioning it’s fiction, you can just say you’ve written for various womags, although you do risk the editor then asking for further info and you having to ‘confess’ it’s ‘only’ fiction (if that’s the case). If you’ve had no non-fiction published, I perhaps wouldn’t say anything on a first approach and just propose the idea or send the article, as appropriate. Regarding a published example, the editor can ask if interested. Don’t overthink this aspect of the pitch. Really, I can’t emphasise enough that an editor is mostly just interested in a superb idea. Catch her attention with that and the odds are for you, and everything else will usually fall into place.
Brenda McHale: “Are there any resources like Patsy’s excellent blog that detail some of the best publications for freelancers to pitch to? I use Writers and Artists Yearbook but wonder if there are any others, or even really good blogs and websites, especially for non-fiction articles”.
You’ll find some publications listed on my website, Mistakes Writers Make, under the Markets drop-down, as well as a ‘Finding markets’ article which gives guidance on how to find others. I have mixed feelings about the WAYB as I don’t think it gives much useful information to established magazine writers, although it’s handier for newbies. The American equivalent, The Writer’s Market, is superb in comparison.
Sheila: “What can we learn from clickbait, and what should we not copy?”
Clickbait catches your eye, so you can learn what it is that catches *your* eye from it. Are the subjects ones which you can write about too? You can also use clickbait tactics to model your opening paragraphs on, although you should be more sophisticated about it. An opening paragraph which is enticing and filled with the promise of what’s to be revealed in the article will draw a reader in. That said, you must deliver on your promise, which clickbait sometimes fails to do. As for what we should not copy … You can’t copy words, but you can ‘copy’ facts, article structures and market ‘styles’. That said, interesting and good non-fiction, to me, is discovering facts that aren’t known, and conveying them to readers who need or want to know those facts, whether or not they know that they want to know before you tell them!
What an interesting selection of questions which I very much enjoyed answering. Thank you all! I’d like to award the prize of a copy of one of my books to Celia. She asked perhaps the most important question of all. I’m passionate about conveying the sense that what we do, whether we call it non-fiction or journalism or somewhere in between, is a vital service to society, especially in this depressing era of fake news. To research and write is time-consuming. To fact-check and to verify is a responsibility. It. Is. Work. And we deserve to get properly paid.
Congratulations, Celia! You have the choice of 50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make or 50 More Mistakes Beginner Writers Make.