The Mistakes Writers Make

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 2, 2016.

As an editor of a homeschool magazine, I get a lot of queries (i.e. “pitches” in the form of letters or e-mails) from writers wanting to write for us. I rarely respond to any of them because they rarely warrant a response. While I wish I could return each message with an instructional guide on how to make a proper pitch, it would be a waste of my time. Still, my heart goes out to these wannabe writers because many years ago, I didn’t know how to make a pitch either.

I have read books, articles, attended writers conferences and classes on how to write and make pitches to magazines. While I feel pretty confident I know how to write a decent query letter, I don’t write them often. That’s because most of the time even good pitches get rejected. That’s because of two reasons: 1) There are hundreds of other writers wanting to write for the same magazine, and 2) You just never know what the editor of a magazine may be wanting at the time you send your letter. They may list their needs on their website (which you should follow to a tee), but even then, you never know if your idea will suit them right.

As a homeschooling mom, I don’t have the proper time to do everything I must do to write a good query letter for a magazine, let alone research and write the article, and unless I’m pitching to a national magazine, the pay usually won’t be worth the effort. I love writing, and I’d do it for free (and usually do). But when time is limited, and my priorities are elsewhere, I have to weigh what’s worth my time. So I don’t query much.

But I wince at these queries I’m getting in my inbox. It makes it clear to me that most writers don’t go to any effort to learn not only how to write properly but how to contact an editor with an article idea. If you want to be a freelance writer, you should first spend a few months reading books, articles, and perhaps attending a writer’s conference or class on how to do it properly. Nothing is easy. If you want it to be, you need to do something else.

I’m not going to give instructions here on how to write a query letter because there are plenty of resources online that will tell you how to do that. There is an art to it, and you have to practice to get it right.

What I will tell you is the biggest mistake I’m seeing coming into my inbox and that’s that the writer knows nothing about our publication. For example, I’m listed as the editor to send queries regarding health and balance, among other things. So I get a lot of queries for articles about living a healthy lifestyle. The part that the writer doesn’t address is that we’re a homeschooling magazine. Hello? How does your article tie into homeschooling?

If you are not a homeschooling parent, student, or at least someone who comes into a lot of contact with homeschoolers, you probably do not have the right experience to write for us. Yet even homeschoolers make the mistake of not getting to know our publication. Recently a writer sent us a query more suited for a Christian publication. If she had read our magazine, she might have realized it’s secular.

I also have had people send me submissions for blog posts, which shows they didn’t look closely at our website. We do have a blog, and if we were making a call for bloggers, we’d have that on our website. But we’re not hiring bloggers. We are a magazine, and we accept queries for magazine articles.

Another mistake is to bug me on social media. Creating relationships on social media take time. Don’t rush it. Do not copy (cc:) me on every blog post you write and then post to Twitter. I don’t have time to read your posts, and you’re bordering on spammer. Or stalker. You will be blocked, and you will never write for my magazine.

One of my and my editor-in-chief’s pet peeves are the writers who write a cheerful note letting us know they are writers and available to work for us. Even if well-written clips accompany this e-mail, it’s not a query, and unless you’re famous and willing to work for what we can pay, it’ll go unanswered. Please do your work. Take the time to come up with a good idea that will add value to our magazine.

As I keep saying, most writers fail to read our publication. If you haven’t read at least one issue cover to cover, you will not understand our tone or the subject matter we’re seeking. And queries should not only explain your idea for an article in (brief) detail, you should be able to tell us where it fits into the magazine. And we want a short, succinct paragraph about you and your experience too. Many queries I get are one or two lines long. While brevity is good, this is too brief.

There are times when a writer sends a pretty good pitch, and my partner and I talk about it and consider it. But for whatever reason, we decide we can’t use it. I always respond to these writers and tell them their idea wasn’t quite right, but they should try again. Yet, I never hear from them again. Why are you giving up, I wonder?

Writing is hard work. It takes time to come up with a good idea, do the research, and even more time to find the right publication for it. And, yes, if you can’t find it in the library, you have to buy a copy of the magazine when you barely have two pennies to rub together. I know it’s frustrating. I know it pays crap. But if you’re going to do it, learn to do it right.

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