In spite of the fact that my first foray into writing was a never-completed novel called Mean Marvin the Mouse, inspired by another fictional mouse while I was in second grade, my first completed work was a screenplay I co-wrote with a close friend (Hey, Sam!) based on one of my favorite books of all time.
And in spite of the fact that fiction is my first love, the first several items I ever published were articles. As I wrote novels, submitted them, and had them summarily rejected, I also tinkered with articles on the side. This is thanks to the fact that I attended writing conferences and subscribed to Writers Digest and read the magazine cover to cover. I soaked up every word and wanted to know everything there was to know about writing. Not just fiction, not just novels. But WRITING.
I bought writing books and read them. Yes, they included plotting, characterization, and structure, but they also included research, hooks, pitching articles, queries, and freelancing. Every so often, I'd submit a query to a magazine. At one point, an editor I had queried a few times called me back and asked for more on a particular topic.
Long story short, I didn't get that job (apparently it was between me and another writer), but she remembered me and a couple of months later gave me a job. It was a brand new special project for her magazine, a spin-off newsletter. I had no clue what I was doing, but by golly, I was going to do my best. I must have impressed her, because she turned around and assigned me more articles. And more. And more.
Each time, the check increased with each piece, which was awfully nice!
At the same time, a paper started up locally. It's now defunct, but it was a great learning experience for me. The new religion editor had a great nose for finding stories, but didn't feel comfortable writing them up. She happened to know me personally and remembered that I was a wannabe writer. In short order, she started dumping stories on me. Pretty soon it was "Hey, next week is the Jewish holiday of Purim. Research it and write it up," or, "Interview this Catholic priest. He's constructing a new building in Orem, and he's been in the area for like, forever." I also did book reviews. Several times I ended up on the front page, like the article that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Miracle of the Gulls.
I eventually dropped the paper, because while it gave me lots of experience and published clips, they only paid $25 an article (and the magazine was paying me significantly more than that).
The hey-day lasted about a year, peaking when I did a five-article job in one-fell swoop that more than paid for Christmas that year. Following that, the editor got a major promotion, and the gal who replaced her had her own freelancers she worked with, so I never heard from them again.
Shortly after that, I started focusing harder on my fiction, and my article-writing stint faded into the background as my novels (woohoo!) started coming to light.
It's really only been in the last year that I've dusted off the freelance article hat and put it back on again. I've sold close to ten articles in the last year to various magazines, including ByLine (a writing magazine), LDS Living, The Friend, Desert Saints, and Knitty. A handful of those articles are online, and you can access the bottom of this page of my website to read them. Some of the ones you can't see online I'll add to my website later (which I haven't done yet, alas).
As for how to query magazines, the format is generally up to the individual magazine. Some require a formal snail mail letter, while others allow you to send an e-mail query. But overall, the trick is finding what the magazine wants. Read the magazine and know its style, voice and readership. A sports magazine isn't going to want an article on cooking, obviously. And a cooking magazine that just ran an article on 10 top chili recipes isn't going to want another one on chili. Then follow the magazine's writer guidelines (often posted online) for queries.
I recently wrote about some of my tricks to getting article ideas on my Precision Editing Group blog here (I'm the Wednesday contributor). If you have specific questions about article writing, let me know, and I can blog about them there!
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