How do I get experience with nonfiction magazine-style writing?
June 23, 2008 5:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm a journalism student who wants to gain experience with a particular form of freelance magazine writing, if not break into the business itself. How can I find a print or online outlet willing to give me a shot?

I'm interested in the sort of long-form nonfiction found in publications like Harper's, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Radar, etc. Literary non-fiction, as it's sometimes called - this being one of my favorite examples. At this point, I'd just like to gain some real-world experience with this style of writing, even if it's unpaid. However, I'd like to have an outlet in mind and at least some plan of getting my writing published (in print or online) as opposed to putting it on some personal blog or the like - though I am realistic about the fact that I won't be starting out at The New Yorker.

I suppose finishing a story on my own and submitting it unsolicited to various publications is one option, but that doesn't seem to be a practice many of them encourage. I have written for my college newspaper and will continue to do so, but this isn't a style of writing generally found in student newspapers due to time and space issues. I know some of you will suggest an internship of some kind, which I will be doing at some point, but this would be independent of that. More importantly, I want to start writing ASAP while I have some free time over the summer.

I did a quick search of the archives and found a few things related to freelance writing (several horror stories, natch) and one more geared towards fiction outlets, but nothing directly related to my situation.
posted by iamisaid to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Get ready for the long line for internships at these magazines. I ran into an old friend who is now at American Prospect, and if we actually do meet up I'll keep a note to get him in touch with you.

On a further real-world note, most people who write for the several big magazines didn't start there, they started in newspapers and wrote features and reputations with enterprise reporting on niche topics. I'm sure you have a few. Mine are religion and education. As you are still a student, let that be your sideline for now. Go out to your local papers (go to all of the newspaper within 25 miles of where you are living. Really, every single one.) You'll want to talk to the Assignment Editor and bring or send clips (not more than three if their long and as a j-student they are probably long) and be prepared to offer a beat to them. They want to hear what kinds of stories you are going to bring them and what kind of line you can carry on that beat. That means you have to get prepared. Don't choose topics you are not familiar with and don't make an ass out of yourself trying to plunge first into a new side of a topic that's family to you.

Let's say you like cars and you see yourself as the holy grail of automotive journalists: the American who's willing to say there are too many Camry's on the road and that axing Mercury will save Ford. So you start small: Best cars for the single guy who makes less than $35,000 a year; Great used cars; the old cars that you see in the neighborhood - have the owner tell a story, go for a ride, find out how much it costs to maintain, how much would a reader have to pay to get that car for themselves.

This is how you build a beat, with solid stories that you can repeat when necessary and build a contact sheet around. Start submitting your work for awards and soon enough you might have one.

Good luck.
posted by parmanparman at 6:26 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

There are TONS of newspapers and magazines out there that would love to publish good writing for next to nothing. When I started out, there was a reference book at the local library that was a directory of all different outlets for freelance writing. So hie thee to your local public library. I think for my first feature piece, I got paid something like $25--didn't even cover the cost of the subways I had to take to do the interviews. And it was for a really really crappy weekly newspaper. But I did that for two summers, then parleyed the clippings into a job as a features writer.

And as for college newspaper, unless it's exceptional, don't get too caught up on writing for it. Do as parmanparman suggests, and start writing/stringing for the local newspapers.
posted by jujube at 6:54 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

the above advice is very good. if you can get an internship at one of those magazines, that's a great foot in the door, but it's by no means a guarantee. what you need is solid reporting experience--a lot of it--and literary talent as well. once you've built up a beat, you can start pitching more and more ambitious stories.

depending on how the publishing industry is doing, it may actually be easier to pitch a book project than pitch a story at one of those holy-grail magazines. but, with a book under your belt, you'll have a better chance at getting published in one of those magazines. (btw, this is where an agent comes in handy)
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:54 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ditto above. I would also do some background research on the authors you enjoy reading to see what their backgrounds are. You might discover some common paths you could use as a basis to pave yours.
posted by producerpod at 7:06 PM on June 23, 2008

Writer's Market is a great way to find magazines to write for. You do have to pay but it's not much, and their database gives you contact info and a brief description of the magazine. I suspect this is an online version of the book jujube is talking about. Write some query letters and see what happens.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:06 PM on June 23, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the input all, particularly the Writer's Market suggestion.

Although I was asking more about getting magazine experience without necessarily going the newspaper route, afterward it did occur to me that "alternative" weekly newspapers would also be a potential outlet for this style of writing. If anyone has thoughts on/experiences with freelancing for these papers, I'd be happy to hear them.
posted by iamisaid at 7:57 PM on June 23, 2008

Seconding the first piece of advice here, as someone else who works in news. The publications that put out the kind of articles you'd really like to write are among the most coveted and sought after positions in the journalism world today and, as such, tend to only be given to people with massive amounts already established experience and credibility. The people who regularly contribute to these magazines are either established writers coming from other fields, such as fiction or academia (such is the case with David Foster Wallace) or, alternately, have simply managed to survive the long, hard slog up through the ranks in an industry notorious for its high rates of turnover and burnout (like, say, Seymore Hersch).

Further complicating matters is that, from own own perceptions, knowing the right people is extremely important. You're much more likely to get an opportunity from someone that you already know who works inside the publication you're looking to write for, someone who isn't taking a huge gamble by giving you a chance because they already know that you can produce high quality work. Generally how things tend to work, again from my own perceptions of the trade, is that people you work with at, say, a small newspaper tend to leave for other companies but will still remember you and through them you can get your foot in the door when it comes to that particular publication. Once you've written a few things for them, they start to know you as a reliable person who does good work and this makes them more likely to listen to your pitches. Think of a dandelion gone to seed.

Which means that, since you are still in college, you are years away from this stage of your career. Unless you're a prodigy of some sort, in which case disregard everything I just said.

Echoing the first poster, your best bet is to secure internships, nurse contacts and write. Write, write, write. Get experience in journalism in and of itself, but try to focus on the kinds of stories you'd like to write in the future. I'd like to get into political journalism, personally, and so I tend to focus most of my attention on the town council, the state legislature and, when the season arises, local elections. On the other hand, I devote almost no time to features. The long and short of it is that you're probably going to need to work your way up, slowly, like almost everyone else.

I don't recommend freelance work until you're already well established in a journalism career. Until you get to the stage where you can command $1.50 a word for a 2,000 word story, freelancing can be very feast or famine. I recommend internships, while still in school, and a staff writer job once out of it. Though, the Internet might be worth looking into as well -- a more recent route people have begun taking has been people establishing prominent blogs and then making the leap into mainstream publications.

Good luck.
posted by KantGoOn at 7:58 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Although I was asking more about getting magazine experience without necessarily going the newspaper route, afterward it did occur to me that "alternative" weekly newspapers would also be a potential outlet for this style of writing. If anyone has thoughts on/experiences with freelancing for these papers, I'd be happy to hear them.

Oof. The alt-weekly market is a tough one, esp. since most of the major cities' ones are owned by Village Voice Media now. Corporate ownership means that they often syndicate a lot of their small music reviews, as well as film reviews, video game reviews and other columns. Sometimes they even run the same features in two markets at once that have some interest in the topic being covered. And the one in my city, at least, restricts its freelancers from writing for other publications.

I do know of at least one staff writer there, though, who came on board via a staff writer fellowship of some sort in conjunction with her college or grad school. And as KantGoOn suggests, were you to land a staff writing gig at an alt-weekly, you'd definitely be set in terms of getting to write weekly long-form nonfiction. Definitely gotta have your reporting chops honed, though, and it's still tough to get in the door.

You might want to try writing for some startup online publications to get your name and writing out there. Sometimes that's a good backdoor way in; I know of several sports bloggers who've gotten the chance to write columns for magazines, alt-weeklies and even national newspapers because they proved they could put out a consistent product on a semiweekly, thrice-weekly or even daily basis.

Anyway, I'd suggest pitching your local city or regional magazine(s). They're usually in the market for freelancers who know the territory and can write a good short feature on the cheap without a lot of hand-holding. Build up a steady relationship with a couple of these and you can amass some great clips. Here's a tip: If your pitch gets accepted, ask your assigning editor what style guide and dictionary they prefer writers use. Get those and actually use them and you'll immediately be above 90 percent of the rubes out there calling themselves writers. Tack on another percentage point or so if you can actually write coherently and to the specified length, can take constructive criticism and make substantive changes to your copy, and happen to have downloaded a basic Word template for your invoices.
posted by limeonaire at 9:04 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm in a similar position, although I took communication in school, not journalism. Sometimes I wish I had taken gone to j-school, because I've been told that internships are easier to acquire that way. I would recommend the internship/staff writing route because freelancing is incredibly difficult. Check out the post I made last year. It may be more Canadiana-oriented, but gompa's advice is more than worth it.

I've been basically a whore to the student press for the past four years, and unlike jujube, I would highly recommend it, so long as you are learning from the experience. It really depends on the culture of the newspaper, because some are better than others. For example, our city has the "best" journalism program in the country, and their student paper is absolute shit. I've always thought that maybe it's because their writers are bottom of the barrel students and the more talented/ambitious ones use their j-school connections to get published in "real" papers. Meanwhile, my school has a joint journalism program with the local tech college, where students do two years at the university for the theoretical communication aspect, and then two years at the tech college for the practical element. The paper they have at the tech college is also bad, but my school, which doesn't offer any guidance from journalism profs, is considered to have one of the best student papers in the country. We are considered to be so by the Canadian University Press, a collective of student newspapers, and our alumni have gone on to bigger and better things, including the Washington Post and Harlequin. It's good to write for the paper, but even better to edit it, because you're totally involved in every step of the process: editing shitty writing, writing last-minute stories because a contributor flaked out, doing a gazillion interviews, filling in for people and writing stuff that isn't your specialty, getting to make the cool editorial decisions, staying abreast of specific issues like student politics, becoming ridiculously nitpicky over grammar, going to conferences, etc. However, j-school may already be giving you at least some of this stuff, so YMMV.

After finishing my term as arts editor in April, I approached our local arts weekly. Now I write all the gallery/museum reviews. How did I do it? I e-mailed the editor my portfolio, resume, and an awesome cover letter. I also said I had a bunch of story ideas. In fact, my best pieces so far have been my pitches. I'm actually about to approach the editor to suggest a comedy column. I'm also in the process of approaching a couple of Canadian music magazines (Chart and Exclaim!) and Ottawa Magazine, a surprisingly well-written lifestyle magazine. Once my portfolio has "real" newspaper pieces, I hope to approach the Globe and the National Post.
posted by Menomena at 9:32 PM on June 23, 2008

I think you shouldn't neglect the fact that there's an "old media way" and a "new media way" to do this. It's probably going to be very difficult to get such a position the old media way, as others have already described.

I'd start taking the steps described above, since long-term that's what you want to do, but in the meantime, investing some time in the new media way of life will help:

1. Start a blog - not "some personal blog" but a very professional site with its own domain name and a good design. Call it an online 'zine if you like.

2. Write for it. Don't write short witty blog posts that link to Metafilter posts - write articles, exactly like you plan on writing. Do the research, write an outline, write an article, and proofread it. Ideally have someone else proofread it. Don't hit "publish" until you feel it's ready for consideration by The New Yorker.

3. After you have a few good articles online, start looking for writing gigs on the web. Talk to editors at online magazines / blogs you respect, link them to your site, and offer to write articles for them (or let them reprint your existing ones.) You might still be doing this for no money, but it's great exposure.

4. Once you've had some success with online sites, start contacting "old media" sites - start with their online divisions - and use your writings online as a resume. You'll look WAY better than some nobody with a cover letter and a manuscript.

I realize this plan will involve writing for free, but in the long run it will be worth it, and the sooner you stop thinking of your words as precious the better. By the time you get your first article published in the Post you'll be MUCH better because you wrote a hundred online articles first.

[Disclaimer: I don't write this sort of material, and I published several books before moving on to websites, but I still think this is your best chance of success in this day and age.]
posted by mmoncur at 10:58 PM on June 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: menomena, thanks for your thoughts and the link to your ask post. I should clarify that I'm actually a journalism undergrad, and I've never intended to do a master's program. Reading the responses to your question generally reinforced that decision.

mmoncur, excellent advice. It may be that I need to take things into my own hands at some point and do some completely independent writing. It can only help my case, as you point out. The ability to self-publish on the web shouldn't be discounted, and although I do realize that fact, I think I sometimes get caught up in wanting to be "taken seriously" right away. Can't see the forest for the trees, as they say.

Thanks to everyone who answered. Your input is invaluable, both to myself and anyone else in my position who should happen to stumble upon this thread.
posted by iamisaid at 12:41 AM on June 24, 2008

Seconding mmoncur.

A family member of mine was recruited to write regularly for a web site which is at the top tier of it's sphere of focus after about six months worth posting in that site's forums. He's a good writer and knows his subject matter intimately.

He doesn't make much money at it but they bankroll him to attend some neat events, etc.

He does not aspire to be a journalist but enjoys doing this. It's also opened up numerous professional connections in the process.
posted by imjustsaying at 1:26 AM on June 24, 2008

Get ready for the long line for internships at these magazines. I ran into an old friend who is now at American Prospect, and if we actually do meet up I'll keep a note to get him in touch with you.


It turns out this childhood friend who was with the American Prospect actually just wrote an article for them. He was pulling what we call in journalist law: "You are only to identify yourself with the best job you had."

Although I was asking more about getting magazine experience without necessarily going the newspaper route, afterward it did occur to me that "alternative" weekly newspapers would also be a potential outlet for this style of writing. If anyone has thoughts on/experiences with freelancing for these papers, I'd be happy to hear them.

Okay, here are mine:

If newspapers really are going the way of the dodo, it's pretty much certain that alternative weeklies aren't going to survive the fall. Creative Loafing, which bought the City Paper franchise in Baltimore and Washington, DC is getting rid of their regular local features in all of their weeklies coast to coast and focusing on entertainment and food reviews and lots and lots of classified ad sales.

Newspaper will need to pull a London Guardian trick: either move to a new city - they went from Manchester to London - or move to a newer, less rigorous format. They introduced the G2 featurette, a little fold-up with a different career section everyday, lots of 'special' one time shots about things like fundraising and christmas cheer and tackling drugs with some words but lots of ads, and regular sex and health and entertainment columns. It worked. For the most part, it worked. Then, everybody did it and Guardian wasn't special anymore.

But don't look at the competition to mean that an idea has met its end. Look at the the continuation of the medium to understand what works in that non-daily format. What works is specialization! Specialization is going to continue to be the key to growing audiences around journalists and non-fiction for the next 10,000 years. Thinking you can just write anything 'quirky' won't cut it. You really have to pick something and stick to it.

So, Honeybunny, what is no one talking about that you will?
posted by parmanparman at 1:36 PM on October 23, 2008

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