You have two options.
When you send a completed article, it’s known as “submitting on speculation” (or “on spec”). This method works well if you’re a novice writer, and need a foot in the door with a magazine.
The editor can immediately assess the quality of your writing, and if it will fit with the style and tone of the magazine.
Remember, you will need to study the magazine carefully before you even start writing. Requesting the magazine style guide from the features editor is another way to tune in to the type of reader the magazine is targeting.
Usually, the editor will let you know within a week or two if your piece has been accepted for publication. If you do not hear from the editor before this, you may need to give the features editor a call. Your conversation could run along the lines of: “Hi, I’m …. I sent you a piece two weeks ago called …. Did you get it? OK, good. Have you reached a decision on whether to buy it?”
Editors literally receive hundreds of letters a week from the public. Very often they haven’t even looked at your e-mail, because they don’t know your name. That’s where your phone call will help.
Surprisingly, good journalism is not just about fine writing skills.
Editors emphasise five key habits of their star journalists:
1. Their writing captures the unique tone, style and content of the magazine – and fits with the needs of the target reader.
2. They can stick to deadlines.
3. Their facts are accurate; their research is sound and thorough.
4. Their work is not “shoddy” – meaning that spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct, and sentences are carefully crafted.
5. They behave professionally, from their well-written cover letter to their invoice.
Regardless of how many years you’ve worked in the industry, your income as a freelancer depends entirely on how hard you’re willing to work, how well you can write, the thoroughness of your research and your general professionalism when dealing with the publishing houses.
Rates vary depending on the country and the magazine's circulation. Best is to find out the rate by phoning the magazine and speaking to the features editor. Here are some rough guidelines.
Most often you are paid per word. The recommended going rate for beginner journalists is 60 c per word in New Zealand and Australia. Specialist writers can get double that amount per word.
Considering that most features are 1500 words in length (2200 words at most), you can do the maths to work out your income per article. And then, remember, you’d still need to pay up to 25 % tax on that income.
Seasoned journalists write about 13 pieces per month (this can include columns, advertorials and other business writing).
Some publishing houses pay upon publication, i.e. the month-end following when your article appeared in the magazine. But what few know is that magazines work 6 to 12 months in advance, so the fee for the piece you sell today could only appear in your bank account a year later!
A few publishing houses pay upon acceptance of your piece, which means roughly one month after acceptance.
As a freelance journalist, you are in charge of your own “small business”. You are responsible for invoicing the publishing houses.
The features editor will let you know when you need to e-mail your invoice – either upon acceptance or upon publication of your article to the accounts department. You are usually paid by electronic transfer directly into your bank account.
There are hundreds of publications and speciality publications looking for freelance contributions. Apart from shelves loaded with consumer magazines, there are trade magazines and inflight magazines that offer outlets for freelancers, although they may pay slightly less per word.
Furthermore, we have thousands of reputable webzines and paying blogs online. Many of these publications don't pay for writing, but for those that do, you generally get paid a flat fee for a 300- to 500-word article.
Once an editor knows you and likes your work, it won't be long before you receive your first commission.
What is a commission? It’s when the editor asks you to write a piece on a particular topic and gives you a brief to follow. You need to follow the specifications in the brief – and deliver to deadline. It’s easier to work this way, rather than go through the more work-intensive process of querying or writing on spec, but you first need to build a good relationship with the editor.
Apart from the essential skills already mentioned under question 3 above, you will also need:
This can happen to the best of writers! The magazine may have recently published something on the topic you’ve covered, or the article simply doesn’t fit the style of the magazine. In those cases (and you can politely ask a features editor why they’ve declined to buy your piece), you can send it on to another magazine for possible publication.
However, sometimes articles are simply not up to standard. In that case, you need to rewrite and edit, before you can try selling it again.
As the writer, you retain copyright over your piece, as long as you don’t sign away “All Rights” in a contract with the publisher. This means that a magazine has no legal right to re-sell your piece in any form or format, without paying you again for the re-sale. Every country has writers’ guilds or groups of writers that can support you. All freelancers are highly advised to join one of these guilds, not just for invaluable advice, but also ongoing support from other journalists.
Nichola Meyer has been the principal of The Writers College for the past 13 years.
With a background in lecturing at secondary and tertiary colleges, she taught magazine journalism for several years. She was also a journalist specialising in parenting and women’s issues for several magazines, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Femina, Child Magazine and Baby & Me.