How to Find out What an Editor is Really Looking For
Two decades ago, when you wanted to find out what an editor was looking for, you had to call the publication and request their “writer’s guidelines.” And some nice, unpaid intern would put a copy in the Post for you.
These days, it’s easier and faster to find out the best ways to get your stories published.
You simply go to a publication’s website and search for “writer’s guidelines,” or “contributor’s guidelines.” Up will pop for your viewing pleasure the step-by-step instructions the editors have created to walk freelance writers through what it is those editors want.
For example, you can see the writer’s guidelines for the publication I edit, International Living, here: http://internationalliving.com/about-il/write-for-il/
But what do you do when a publication’s guidelines aren’t posted?
You have a few options.
First, you can e-mail the editor and politely ask for the guidelines. I know my friend Kyle Wagner, Travel Editor at the Denver Post, does not post her guidelines on the newspaper’s website but is always happy to shoot them off by e-mail to any writer who asks.
Or, you can use your writerly divining rod to ferret out what it is an editor wants and needs. Here’s how.
First, figure out who is reading a publication so you have a good sense for the audience the editor wants to appeal to. A travel story that might engage an adventure-savvy group of 20-somethings is not the same travel story likely to engage a group of seasoned 70-somethings, no matter how adventuresome.
Next, read the publication with an eye to the different departments or sections in which articles appear. Look for what makes each section distinct.
You’ll probably have the best luck aiming your article for a section where shorter pieces live. This is usually the “FOB” or “Front of the Book.” Here editors often source content from freelancers. They’re more willing to take a chance on a new writer with a short piece than with a long one.
Think of it from the editor’s point of view: Here I am with a publication to fill. Would I reserve a large, important swath of it for a new writer about whom I know nothing and who is unproven? No, of course I wouldn’t. But I might be willing to “test the waters” with this person on a short piece if the idea seems on the mark. If, in the end, the article doesn’t fit the bill, well then I’ve only got a little hole to fill.
Finally, strive to come up with an article idea that is as unique, specific, and targeted to a particular reader as possible. Remember, a place is not an idea.
When a writer e-mails us at International Living and asks if we’d be interested in his article about “Spain,” we say, “no.” There’s no idea there. But if a writer e-mails to propose a piece about his day-to-day life as an expatriate in the small Spanish village where he’s been living for two years now… well then we’ll perk up and take notice.
Pay attention to the average length of articles in the publication you’re hoping to break into, and create a piece that falls in line with that. If all the stories seem to have photos—and you have photos to illustrate your piece—well then by all means, offer them up.
Bottom line: Try to get a hold of a publication’s guidelines. That’s where the editors tell you, in no uncertain terms, exactly what they’re looking for.
But if those guidelines are elusive, then do what you know to do: Offer a story that makes good sense for that publication’s readers. And write it in a format that fits what that publication usually produces.
I can promise you: If a publication you want to write for always runs articles that are about a very specific thing to do in a particular town and they are always about 400 words long… then if you offer up a round-up piece of 1,900 words about eleven things to do in a certain state… it’s not going to sell. That’s not what that publication does.
Lots of freelancers, by the way, don’t take the time to figure this stuff out. If you do, you’ll put yourself ahead of the pack.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]