Margin of error (Mistake #24)

Over time I’ve come to realise that when new writers study a market, and its regular slots and sections, with a view to perhaps coming up with an idea to propose or writing a piece speculatively, they are naturally drawn to potential openings which look, well, a bit ‘easy’ to fill.

There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. Publications feature easy-to-write stuff and hard-to-write stuff, and plenty of stuff that occupies any number of levels between. Given an editor is more likely to pay handsomely for words at the tougher end of the spectrum, this means it is the more advanced work – interviews, reportage, analytical features – that the big players and journalists will be going for. Competition will be stiffer there. Targeting more realistic slots is no bad thing when you’re starting out.

But that doesn’t mean you should just fire something off without checking whether submissions are welcomed.

Often, occupying the front pages of many magazines are multiple-page newsy sections – round-ups of what is going on and has been going on, essentially. Products, research, launches, quotes, celebrity gossip, chat, recommendations, snippets, bulletins, NIBs… that kind of thing.

Before me sits a copy of Mother & Baby Magazine. Their newsy section is called ‘first words’ and it features quotes from parents, new baby gear, some Q&As, health news, ‘what’s on’, and suchlike. Some of this, you might assume, may be open to freelance writers like yourself. In all likelihood, it won’t be.

Turn your open magazine ninety degrees. Look in the margin. Often, you’ll find something like “Written by:” or “Text by:” followed by a name. Check that name in the masthead – the panel that gives staff names, job titles and publisher details. Typically, you’ll find it’s a staff writer’s name. This tells you that the page in question is compiled in-house. This is because it’s easier and more convenient, as press releases and samples from publicists flood into the offices, and provide virtually ready-to-roll snippets which can effortlessly be rewritten to fit the page, quite often by editorial assistants or interns.

It could be an outside writer’s name you find, and that might make you think, again, that the slots are open, but, again, probably not. I have a page of men’s news in Vegetarian Living magazine which is a rolling commission each month, for instance. Many other writers are in the same position. Check to see whether the name changes over subsequent editions. If it doesn’t, it’s probably a no-go.

In M&B there’s a ‘Welcome to the world’ page – a Q&A with a new mum about her pregnancy and birth. On the face of it this is the kind of thing a mother with a young baby could and should go for. Her name is clearly flagged in the sell. But look in the margin again and you’ll see a staff member credited with the interview. Darn it – in-house again. You can put yourself forward to feature on this page, but you can’t write it, seems to be the message.

So how to know what is open when you analyse a magazine? Letters pages, obviously. Any other pages, columns or sections which clearly ask for contributions. Any items written by a different contributor each issue – probably. If you’re not sure, call and ask to speak to an editorial assistant. Sometimes, the nice lady on switchboard will know the answer too.

Features pages, in all likelihood, will be open. Features are harder to compile in-house because they take a lot of work and concentration and may require the writer having to get out and about to conduct interviews or research; in a busy editorial office, with constant distraction, there’s not much time for that. They’ll hate me for saying it, but junior staff writers may not be skilled enough, either. Further, the magazine’s editorial team may be short of ideas for their features pages. They can’t think of everything. They need fresh, outside blood – you – to propose fresh themes.

Remember that freelance contributions are always credited with the writers’ names – names that you are unlikely to find on the flannel panel. And don’t be surprised to find a name in the margin either, as I often have. Indeed, a fitness centre’s customer magazine to which I’d once contributed a story soberly informed anyone inclined to peruse the margin of my article that the text on the page was “Compiled by Alex Gazoolaz”.

Probably my favourite margin of error, ever…

Comments 2

  • Oh Gazoolaz, you shouldn't have mentioned that! The other WB tutors will remember that at the next WB tutor get-together!

    I often tell students to look at two consecutive issues of the same magazine side-by-side, and turn the pages simultaneously. The regular columns are usually on the same pages each month, with a similar style and format. This means that the freelance slots often stand out more easily, but it's only obvious when looking at two copies of the magazine at the same time.

  • Watch it, Whaley – plenty of potential for amusement with your name I'm sure!

    Side-by-side comparison of two copies. Genius. Great tip.


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