by Erika-Marie Geiss
Your idea is great. No, it’s fabulous. The content is good, you’ve spell-checked and proofread — even read it aloud. It’s perfect, and you are ready to send the article or query. You’re excited, because you are positive that this is definitely going to get published. You’ve even run through your mental submitting check-list and everything suggests that this baby is ready to take flight. But is it?
Understanding how an editor triages submissions and queries can be the difference among a flat-out rejection, a “No, but please submit again,” an “I’d like to see more,” and an unquestionable acceptance. Beyond writing a strong piece, that has been proofread and edited, there are some other important things to consider that can improve your chances of getting published.
Keep out of the slush pile by following these ten tips.
Get Intimate with the Publication
Knowing and understanding a publication is an excellent way to stay out of the slush pile. You have to be a voice that the editor will believe, without reservation, that their audience wants to hear and will connect with.
1. Understand the tone of the publication’s voice. Is it academic, casual, business-like, conversational, instructional, humorous, or something else? Does each department have a different underlying tone?
2. Know the audience. Submitting a “How to Please Your Man” article is probably not going to fly with a feminist publication and a piece on beauty tips isn’t going to work for the Economist. Enough said. You get the picture.
3. Understand their editorial style. Does the publication use AP, Chicago, MLA or some other style? You might have a piece that’s well-suited for Psychology Today and for Redbook, but Psychology Today uses APA (American Psychological Association style) and Redbook uses AP style. Tailor the piece to the respective styles of each publication you hope to land.
4. Understand their house style. Do they hyphenate certain terms? Do they favor American, Canadian or British spelling? Are by-lines with an uppercase or lowercase “B”? How do they designate units of time: AM or a.m.; with or without a space after the numeral? These and other questions are important to ask yourself. Making your submission match the house style tells the editor that you really know their publication. (It also means that the design and editorial staff doesn’t have to reformat your article too much if it gets accepted. And that makes them practically giddy.) If you can’t find the house style anywhere in the publication’s information, simply read through several articles to research the style then match it in your piece.
5. Know the editorial calendar. The editorial calendar will help you determine what to pitch and when. It will also save you from the embarrassment of pitching a topic that the publication just covered or that fits into upcoming themes. Hint: Can’t find it easily? Look for themes, upcoming themes and under advertising information.
6. Examine the usual suspects of advertisers for the publication. This will also help you understand the audience. No publication is going to seek advertising (no matter how much revenue it might bring in) from companies that don’t match the publication’s mission, philosophy or standards or that won’t appeal to their audience/demographic.
Follow Submission Guidelines
Sure, it seems like a no-brainer. You’re thinking: Duh, of course. But ask yourself if you are really following the publication’s submission guidelines explicitly every time you submit to that publication? Even seasoned freelancers miss a thing or two when it comes to the guidelines. Submission guidelines/writer’s guidelines are there not to be persnickety. They are there to guide you towards a greater probability of getting your work accepted for publication.
7. Do everything required or suggested with a submission guidelines check list. No matter how long the guidelines are, read them not once, but multiple times and make sure you have the most-recent edition of guidelines. Use the checklist as you prepare your query letter or manuscript to address each requirement. Even if you are pitching the same piece to several publications (simultaneous submissions), do this for each publisher/publication you’re targeting. When it comes to submission guidelines, there is no one-fits-all approach.
8. Get the current version of submission guidelines. If you are submitting to a publication that has previously accepted your work, make sure that the submission guidelines haven’t changed before you send a new pitch. Being accepted once doesn’t mean you’ll get accepted again, especially if it appears that you aren’t staying up-to-date with the publication or cannot follow directions.
Is your approach an immediate turn-off? Editors receive hundreds (thousands for some) of queries and submissions daily. Make sure that yours makes it through the initial filters. Avoid instant routing to the slush pile by using the right approach.
9. Use proper business format in your cover letter or query. A properly formatted cover letter shows that you’re a professional, so include on with that submission especially if it’s your first time pitching or submitting to a publication. Do this even when submitting or pitching electronically. Hint: if you cut and paste from MSWord into an e-mail, don’t forget to make sure that you haven’t lost formatting.
10. Send your submission or query to the right person the right way. This tip goes back to following the submission guidelines and knowing the publication. Don’t send a blind e-mail to editors asking what their needs are or a generic letter/e-mail or telling them that “your writing services are available.” Doing so makes it look like the “fishnet approach” to getting a gig and is one tiny step removed from being SPAM. (If you want to introduce your freelance services, use a letter of introduction instead.) Tailor your communication to a specific editor/publication by referring to the masthead or submission guidelines.
Some Final Words
If you can’t stay out of the slush pile, you can’t have a successful career as a freelance writer. The keys to that include not just being a great writer with a strong voice; it means treating your writing career as a business and doing a lot of research along the way. Let those editors know that you’re as passionate about their publication as they are, and you have a better chance of staying of the slush pile.
Are these things that you already do? Are they things that you hadn’t thought of before? How do you stay out of the slush pile?
#9, these are FANTASTIC tenets to follow. Really great. The whole piece did feel a little long to me, but the information is very good.
My reservation comes with your title. I am not really sure these are tips to stay out of the slush pile as much as they are tips to improve your odds of acceptance and publication. Perhaps they are tips on GETTING out of the slush pile, rather–because in most cases, unless you have an “in” with an editor at a company, you’ll be in the slush pile until you provide a reason to get out of it.
But really, I’m being nitpicky. This was great.
#3 is a good one and it’s rarely covered. Anything you can do to make the editor’s and the assistant editor’s job easier is going to go over well. Another thing I still do and it may be a little old school is I go to the library and go through a year’s worth of the publication. I zero in on a specific section or department and check out what they’ve put out in the last year. It’s an hour’s worth of work with a pretty big pay off.
A very informative and helpful post, as my interest lies in pitching articles to magazines and websites.
I was laughing so hard from the “How to please your man” article idea that I hardly got through the rest of the post.
4 and 5 are especially good pieces of advice. Thanks!
Jenny B says
I like how you reminded us to zero in on a certain publication to a get a feel for the writing style, the pieces within a publication, the tone,etc. so that we really know the publication. Excellent market testing suggestions.
Thanks to you all for the comments!
@#4…I realize it was a tad long, but I felt some areas needed a bit more explanation. Glad that it still held your interest though. 🙂 The idea was to give writers some tips for breaking through the “gatekeepers.” I don’t think that everyone automatically ends up in the slush pile, and also wanted to have a good balance between what a new freelance writer (or new to a particular pub.) and an experienced freelance writer might need.
@#3…Excellent tip for using the library. I’m going to add to that friends/family with recent back issues.
@Sara…You’re welcome! Glad I could help…now, go get ’em!
@Rhonda…Glad I could tickle your funny bone. Thanks for reading! Making mental note: tone down humor a tad so that people can get through post. :p lol
@Jenny…thanks. Knowing the market can be key…it really makes the editor feel comfortable with you as a writer–even *if* they reject the piece you’re pitching at that time. If those other things are in place, they’ll think “hey, this writer really gets us, let’s keep the channels of communication open.” You might not hit it out of the park, but a base-hit is better than striking out.
when you can’t get editors to respond to queries or submissions one way or another, do you assume you’ve gone to the slush pile? how long is reasonable to wait before sending to someone else?
Apple, just saw your comment. Thanks for the question and it is a good one.
If the publication accepts simultaneous submissions, send it to another publication that does, that way you’re not waiting around. Then if/when it’s accepted somewhere, let the other pubs to which you’ve submitted that it is no longer available along with the information about when you originally submitted.
Writers need to remember that editors receive a lot of e-mail (and snail mail), and that it takes time to read through all of them and make a well-informed decision. Also take into consideration submission deadlines. If person “A” sent in a submission or query that’s “okay, but would work” early, but person “B” sent in “the perfect fit” right at deadline, it wouldn’t be prudent to have accepted submission “A” when submission “B” was the perfect one for that pub. What would you do as an editor–when accepting both may not be in the cards and the goal is to publish the best content possible? You’re competing not just to get into a certain pub, but against all of the other writers interested in being published with that publication.
Part of freelancing requires a lot of patience, especially until you’ve established a relationship/reputation with a publication/editor.
As for how long is reasonable? A month, sometimes two…depends on the publication. Sometimes it can take longer if the publication is short staffed and volume of subs is high. Also check your spam folder, where responses from editors can sometimes lurk. I’ve seen it happen.
Hope that helps.