Early each November many novice writers feel the holiday spirit and produce a paper trail of Christmas and New Year’s stories. Most magazines publish 4th quarter seasonal stories around the middle of August for their December issues or for a special holiday issue. You would assume that most freelance writers would grasp the publishing process. Any content that goes into a seasonal issue should be sent to the editor no later than August; even if the freelance writer had his query letter accepted upfront, he still must send the full story in advance to reach the December issue.
Let’s start at the beginning. Like most writers, you’ve written a story and want to sell it. You have various opportunities open to you. You can:
(1) Use a literary agent (very unlikely).
(2) Submit directly by e-mail or mail (very likely).
(3) Get referred to an editor by a personal friend or colleague.
(4) Contact the editor by phone.
Many articles that magazines and their affiliated websites publish are written “on assignment” by freelance writers.
The Typical Editorial Review Routine
Suppose you submit your article or query letter directly by e-mail or by postal mail. What happens to it? Who actually reads it first, if not the editor?
The size of the magazine and editorial staff may dictate who reads your query letter or submission first. If not the editor, then the managing editor or an editorial staff member. Even if you target your submission to the editor, it does not guarantee that the editor will handle your submission.
Editors are very busy people, and most likely they will not reply to your submission promptly. Typically, you will wait…and wait..and wait. A common response time is two weeks for any submission, and sometimes shorter if you are submitting timely news for a website publication. Occasionally when I query an editor via e-mail, I receive an automatic reply from an auto-responder stating that the publication has received my submission and I can expect a reply in 7-14 days. Sometimes I do not receive an e-mail reply and I am compelled to follow up with another e-mail a few days later. Unless the website or magazine specifically states to query by mail, I always query by e-mail. And unless the editor wants full submissions, I always query first, and write the article next.
Next phase in the editorial routine
Your submission goes to an editorial staff member or directly to the editor. He (or she) may spend two minutes on it, maybe less. He or she decides its fate: accept it or reject it. If rejected, you will receive a carefully-worded e-mail or postal response stating the conclusion.
Editors do not have superhuman powers (despite popular belief). It is impossible for any editor of a widely circulated magazine or highly trafficked website to read every e-mail and postal mail submission. Even if addicted to several cups of caffeinated beverages, editors fatigue as easily as you do if you had to peruse through submission after submission to find that one gem.
Large publishers have several editorial staff members on hand to help the editor decide what to accept and what to reject. The job of the editorial staff (who works under the management of the Editorial Director) is to separate the junk from the gems and separate the available from those that are definitely unavailable. An editorial staff member communicates three essential things to the editor: (1) the subject and plot of the article or story; (2) the outstanding features of the story (its usefulness and relevance); and (3) in what manner the author has handled or researched his material.
Many publications handle submissions in the reverse way
The editor looks first at everything that comes in; weeds out the hopeless at a glance; and uses his readers to verify his own judgments. Many large publishing companies and media conglomerates employ copyright and media lawyers to review every accepted manuscript to ensure that it contains nothing libelous.
Do not anticipate or demand an instant reply, even if you submit something via email. Some editors take a week, some six months—which is roughly the limit. Publishers assume no responsibility for the safety of your submission.
Know Exactly What You Are Doing
Send your query letters or submissions to publications that you know are trustworthy and reliable. If you are unsure, do some research on the Internet. You’ll find that some editors do not bother to return or reply to rejected submissions, and some publications do not pay on time. Handle your submissions on a sound business basis—a small business owner would not ship products on consignment to a stranger without credit. Do not send full-length manuscripts to a magazine until you have a reasonable idea of what the magazine publishes and the current needs of the editor. Don’t continue to submit query letters if you have totally lost faith in what you desire to write.
Avoid Sending Stupid Letters of Desperation
Don’t send useless letters to editors, detailing how great you are. A big ego accomplishes nothing for you, including procuring work. Do not tell an editor, as some novices do: “I have been told often that I was born to write.” It does not impress the editor, nor does stating: “After reading some of my work my English teacher seemed enthused over it, and was sure I could become a freelance writer.”
An introductory letter, like the following, sometimes creeps into editors’ in-boxes:
“I am what is known as a ‘budding’ author, and I need some pruning and care. The rejection slips I am amassing are like early frost—they curse the fruit. What I need is a little of the sunshine of success.”
Editors don’t want to hear your sob story or how unfair you think other editors have treated you. To make a positive first impression, offer the editor the necessities. Tell the editor 1) what you are proposing or submitting; 2) what publications or website have published your
material; 3) your experience and skills; 4) why you feel your article is a perfect fit; etc.
Once you become a frequent contributor to a magazine or website, the situation is different. Many editors aspire to know their contributors personally, each of them.
Act Professionally, and Editors Will Treat You Professionally
Professional writers who’ve accumulated an impressive portfolio of published articles usually sell their articles before they write them. It is prevalent these days to submit query letters to editors before writing the full-length article. Most editors would rather receive a one page pitch letter than an entire manuscript. This is the best approach for an unknown writer to sell a first article. Professional writers who’ve earned a reputation for themselves can bypass the query letter process and simply e-mail the editor directly about a possible story idea. Besides, editors often solicit articles from well-known writers who specialize in the field and who are relatively known based on their previous work.