Break This Rule: Always Follow the Magazine’s Writers’ Guidelines
As the co-author of The Renegade Writer, I’m all about breaking rules. In the book, Diana and I tell writers to write queries that are longer than one page (because that rule is a holdover from paper query days and because editors like to see research in your query), write for less than $1 per word (because it’s your hourly rate that matters), and to negotiate for better pay, deadlines, and contracts (because you can).
It’s been a long time since I’ve written about rules to break, but after teaching my Write for Magazines e-course for five years I can see there are more rules that are holding writers back. I’ve decided to start a new blog feature where I tell you about a rule you should break, spindle, bend, and squash. Here’s the first one:
Break This Rule: Follow the Magazines Writers’ Guidelines
By week 3 of my e-course — where students are sleuthing out their target markets’ editors and their contact info — I can guarantee that just about every student will e-mail me and say, “The guidelines of the magazine I’m pitching say to query via snail mail with a SASE and to address the letter to ‘Round File.’ They also say I need to ship them my firstborn son.”
Consider this a public service announcement for aspiring freelance writers everywhere: Forget about the guidelines! When I was first starting out I kept a binder of printed-out guidelines, but I quickly lost it and haven’t looked at a guideline in ages. Here’s why:
Guidelines are usually out of date. I can’t find the post, but I once did a Q&A on the blog with a former editor at some major magazines, and she said that updating the guidelines is just about the last priority of any editor. So if the guidelines say to snail mail your query with a SASE, that could be because the guidelines were last updated in 1995.
Editors often don’t even know what’s in their own guidelines. Editors have better things to do than act as guardians of outdated guidelines. I’ll bet that if you ask ten editors what their guidelines say about pitching the magazine, nine of them won’t know. In my experience, editors are happy to receive well-written queries outlining great ideas at the right time. They don’t care if it comes via e-mail, or if it comes to them directly instead of through the editorial@ e-mail address that’s listed in the guidelines. (By the way, I’ll tackle the editorial@ address rule in a future post.)
Guidelines’ main purpose is to discourage newbies and keep the editors from getting deluged with pitches. I also got this on authority from an actual editor. Magazines get inundated with unprofessional, sloppy, off-topic queries, and the guidelines are a way to stem the flow. That’s why they may say to snail mail with three to five relevant, national clips and a resume and an outline and blah blah blah. But your queries are on-target and professional, right? Then those guidelines aren’t intended for you.
The Renegade Writer concept is all about doing what works well for you and tossing anything that doesn’t. Is it furthering your career when you spend time fussing over outdated, irrelevant guidelines whose main purpose is to make sure you don’t get through to a live editor? My bet is no.
Do you know of a rule I should break on the blog? Pleae e-mail it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Or, if you like, you can snail mail it with a SASE and five national clips.) [lf]