How to get article commissions and please magazine editors
Skin Deep editor Sion Smith tells us what editors want from freelances
I am the editor at Skin Deep magazine. It’s the best selling tattoo magazine in the UK, has been for some time and will hopefully continue to be so. As a niche title, we have big numbers behind us sitting at 22,000 in the UK alone and lurking at around 46,000 internationally. When I was asked to write a guest post on what it takes to get published in the magazine, I figured it would be easy, but now I come to study it - and myself - maybe it’s not.
Let’s get the negative out of the way first. Sadly there’s rather a lot of it. Sometimes I think I’m too hard on people but I do treat everybody the same, so it is a fair harshness. I feel some bullet points coming on:
• If a covering letter has spelling errors in it, it goes in the trash. Period. If you can’t be bothered to make sure your first impression is the best example of how you work, that’s a mighty poor indication of what is probably to come. This is not a shotgun reaction. It’s a learned behaviour on my behalf after many years of trying to help people along and getting stung in the process.
• If you’re an experienced writer, you should be able to prove it by providing me with links to your work. I don’t want to download files – neither do I want to open anything you have attached that has the file extension .doc. I want to look online – preferably at your blog or another web-space because it’s fast, immediate and safe for me to do so. This might simply be something that I’ve made up over the years as ‘good working practice’ but it works for me.
• Over the last two months, I have had at least one letter every single day from graduates who have completed some kind of media course. Most of them a) cannot write a decent cover letter b) expect to paid the kind of fees professional writers still dream of or c) are looking for work experience when they live 400 miles away from the office with no explanation of how they might pull this off. There is also d) which is starting the correspondence with ‘To whom it may concern’ instead of my name. This simply says to me that you are chancer and have plucked the magazine title out of thin air in the hope that I might be feeling kind that day. Having a degree means nothing to me. I don’t know if any of my writers have a degree or not. I’ve never asked. What I do know is that all of my writers can write, supply clean work nearly all of the time and get on with the job in hand. I have taken them on as ‘permanent freelancers’ because they know their subjects well, write entertaining copy and give me very little grief on a day to day basis. Whenever I am asked for advice about getting along, my response is simple. “If you want to write, write. Nobody needs to teach you. You need to learn by writing.” In a word to answer the age old question, you are born not made. Made writers are stale, dull and have formula. Born writers make it look easy and that’s what I want because a consumer magazine worth its salt needs to be entertaining in exactly that manner.
However, somebody I rejected once actually wrote back to me and said he thought I was wrong in my decision. I re-read his submission, we talked, we worked it out. Ten years on, we are great friends and work often and well together which goes to illustrate exactly how much all of the things I just said can change in the blink of an eye. Welcome to your writing career.
Assuming you’ve managed to navigate all of the above successfully with me, the last negative point is timing. How long do you wait before you ask me again about something because I’ve not replied yet? Sadly, this is one of The Dark Arts. You can never win. Sometimes I will see your email come in and respond immediately. Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of something and will leave it until later – this can sometimes be a week or more. If you’re looking for an honest answer, I think four to five days is a reasonable amount of time to wait. Mailing me later that same day to see if I got your earlier mail won’t help.
Having written all of that – and I must point out that when I use the terms ‘me’ or ‘I’, I think I speak for a lot of editors of consumer magazines – I see that it is almost impossible to tell you exactly how to approach anybody for publication. There are no hard and fast rules but the ones I expect everybody to cover, surely stand for all magazines: being polite, respectful and correct are good ways to get the door open. Sometimes I think because we are a tattoo magazine, people pay less attention to the detail, but at its core, it’s a professional international consumer title with incredibly high production values. In fact, I would gladly accept any challenge from any consumer magazine to find higher production values than ours. Any picture that is not 300dpi will be rejected regardless of its composition. I only wish there was a similar hard and fast rule when it came to writing.
Maybe there is. Can I describe a 300dpi article for you?
Primarily, in that first read through, I want it to flow like it’s already been edited. Contrary to popular opinion, I am not here to correct a writers every move. I am here to direct the magazine and orchestrate it so that it hangs together as a whole and this is where I think a lot of people make mistakes in their submissions. As a professional writer, you should expect very little to be changed in the final edit. That’s not to say I don’t change things – in fact, I watch my writers very carefully to make sure they always look good. When they look good, the magazine looks good and I look good. This last fact is obviously very important.
This may all sound pretty basic and obvious but you’d be surprised. You really would. I welcome writers with open arms, a hot mug of tea and a lifetime of loyalty if they can navigate these simple rules. If you’re really good, there are also biscuits.
We live in harsh, competitive times for writers. The old rules have changed beyond recognition. Our office is in an old school house in a tiny village in North Wales but one of the best of my crew lives in Toronto. I enjoy reading her submissions, hardly ever have to edit bar English/American corrections, she is on time and we have fun working together. This is how it should be and this is how it can be for all of you.
This is what I look for in every single one of my team – and this is what I get. We run a four weekly schedule with thirteen issues a year, so there is very little time for carrying anybody and their baggage. Are you expecting to be carried? Are you expecting somebody else to do the work for you? If you even slightly suspect that you identify with this category, it’s time to change and be honest with yourself. The rules are there to make life easier for everybody. 2,500 words means just that, not a variation on a theme.
To wrap up, here’s my advice to those looking to help themselves get published:
Blog. The more you blog, the more fluid you will become at writing for magazines. It will hone your own editing skills, keep you writing regularly and hey, everybody enjoys a great blog don’t they?
As something of an afterthought, just because you have been published before, doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. Sad but true. I am more interested in the here and now than what has been before. For the record, I also find it unacceptable for any writers to submit material to another magazine within our field. That’s a big no-no for me but this is the trade-off for loyalty, decent rates of pay and a very visible place in the hierarchy which you can use to impress other editors who do take notice of the work you have done elsewhere. I’m sure they’re out there somewhere and are equally capable of being as lazy as I am.
Finally, never under-estimate who you know over what you know... or vice-versa. Talent will only get you so far. Knowing somebody will also only get you so far. If you can find a way to balance the two, you’re already two steps ahead of everybody else trying to fill the space.
Hey, I never said it was fair.
Welcome to life in the twenty first century.
You can read Sion's interview about Skin Deep in the June issue of Writing Magazine, available here.