Research You Need to Do Before Querying
Research You Need to Do Before Querying
Targeted submissions can lead to success.
by Emily Allen
August 6, 2019
Before you even start to query a publication or an agent, it’s important to do research on what they’ve already written, their style and the person you need to sell your work to.
When I was a student in college, I’d often begrudge the research needed when I started to write a paper. Before the day of widespread internet access, research meant a trip to the campus library, a visit to the research librarian, and a few hours sitting in front of a microfiche or sneezing in the basement stacks.
Fast-forward to 2014 when I began to build a historical walking tour business. It required months of research to understand the history of the city in connection with its standing historic buildings. I found very little information online, so I trekked down to the closest branch of our city library to spend long winter days tucked inside the Missouri Valley Room going through old news clippings and scanning through microfiche. I hated to leave when they closed up for the day. Research can be fun. And for aspiring magazine writers, a lot of it can be done online.
While I may not turn you into a research lover, I will break down what you’ll need to explore on the Web and at the library before you query a new publication. Once you’ve done this a few times, it will become second-nature.
If you’re just starting out, browse the internet or the magazine racks at your library or local bookstore. Magazines.com has a long list of magazines published in the United States by category to kick-off your search. Even though they’re pushing subscriptions, it’s a good place to find magazines you didn’t know existed. Lose yourself in every rabbit trail you can find on the Web. Spend a few afternoons at your local library flipping through any publication that piques your interest.
Once you’ve identified one or two publications you want to write for, check out the masthead to know where to direct your query.
On the masthead you’ll find the name of the publisher, editor, and sometimes contributing writers. If it’s a publication of size, section editors will often be listed. But it’s possible the periodical just lists the publisher and editor only.
You’ll also find the publication’s address and often other contact information; the date of the issue, the volume number and subscription information. Sometimes you can find submission information as well.
Mastheads can be as comprehensive or sparse as the publication deems it to be. The masthead on “O, The Oprah Magazine” is very detailed, often spanning a couple pages giving tidbits of information about its staff.
You’re not going to want to submit your query to the editor-in-chief unless that’s the only name you can find. Also, don’t ever submit to the publisher as her role is the financial health of the publication—usually not editorial decisions. Choose an editor a bit farther down on the masthead to increase the chance your query will be considered.
By familiarizing yourself with the masthead, you’ll find the names you need to submit a story. It’s always better to use a name in a query letter if you can find one.
Even when I was editor of an association magazine for secretaries, we published an editorial calendar for advertisers. And we were a small magazine. What you’re looking for in the publication’s calendar are demographics, editorial themes, and departments. Take a look at the “O” magazine’s yearly calendar.
First, look for their editorial themes for issues through 2019. While “O” has a sparse calendar, I’ve seen many other publications list article topics as well. Next, learn about different departments in the magazine’s layout. These are recurring in each issue of the magazine. A publication may take freelance pitches for their departments but that depends on the publication.
Most media kits also list reader demographics, which is important info for advertisers and can aide a writer when crafting a targeted pitch. Finding out age demographics helps you determine the writing style of the pitch. You’re going to write a query to Rolling Stone in a different way than to the AARP newsletter.
Studying the editorial calendar can help you target your query and make your idea more relevant for the publication.
Study the publication
After picking your target market to pitch to, and having an idea in mind, look through past issues of the magazine. Maybe your story idea was already turned into an article that ran in the first issue of the year. You will look like a novice if you pitch a story your dream magazine just published five months ago.
While this sounds like a time-consuming part of research, it doesn’t have to be. Skim the magazines. Note article titles and themes. This is also the time you look to see who pens the reoccurring departments in the magazine. If there’s a different writer every issue, you can create a targeted pitch.
It helps if you already have your topic in mind when you flip through past issues. That way you can quickly determine if your article is unique or if you can shift your subject matter to piggyback off an article the magazine already published. If the publication has a website—or if it’s online-only—spend time clicking around and skimming articles and reading the comments readers post.
Who doesn’t want a national magazine writing gig? I do. I always get inspired reading the journey of other writers. Carol Tice has an excellent site on writing for magazines with an inspiring story on her site by another writer on how she landed her first national magazine gig by targeting a recurring department in the publication.
When it’s time to craft your query, a little research goes a long way in seeing your story idea evolve from your brain to the printed page. And even if an editor rejects your first idea, they’ll know you did your research and will look on you more favorably with the next pitch.