So, one of my jobs at Reason is to be the first (and, fairly often, last) pair of eyeballs on unsolicited article submissions. In case anyone cares, here are a couple things I tend to see over and over that influence whether I pass the submission on for further review. I have no idea how well that tracks the practice of people at other mags, so YMMV, but here they are:
- For the love of God, proofread your query. I expect that the final article is going to need some cleaning up; everyone’s does. But if there are elementary spelling or grammar errors in a two paragraph pitch, my confidence in the author’s ability to put together a salvagable piece is radically diminished.
- Think about length and format for the publication. If you send me a ten thousand word piece with footnotes, it had better be damn compelling: I’m going to look at it for about 10 seconds to see whether some kind of heavily redacted version might be appropriate, because we’re sure as hell not going to run it in anything like that form. Ditto if it’s a 500 word squib. Beyond the unsuitability for publication in that form, it signals that the author doesn’t know who he’s pitching or what a standard article for the periodical looks like.
- Do some research. There are a million bloggers putting out 800 words of offhand thoughts they had after seeing a news story. Even if it’s not a reported piece, strictly speaking, you’ve got to throw in some value-added that makes it stand out.
- Find a news hook. Even if you want to make a general point about policy or politics or even philosophy that’s timeless, they do call them “periodicals” for a reason. Hook abstract points to concrete—ideally recent—cases.
- Think about who you’re writing for. Obviously, Reason is looking for stuff that appeals to a libertarian audience; it shouldn’t be necessary to say that most pieces that’d be appropriate in, say, The Nation aren’t going to work for us. But there’s a slightly less obvious corrolary: We’re also not going to run a piece making the Econ 101 case against the minimum wage, because that’s going to be old hat for 90 percent of our audience. Hell, the most flaming liberal—one engaged enough to be reading political magazines, anyway—will be familiar with that argument.
- Remember how in Mrs. Grundy’s third grade English class, she warned you against using the first person—especially the dreaded “I”—in essay writing? And then someone later on, maybe high school, explained what rubbish this was, how the best writers do this all the time, and how hewing to that rule produces ludicrous workarounds like “this author” or “your correspondent” when it’s impossible not to make reference to the writer? Well, they were both on to something, and for a lot of journalistic writing, it probably makes sense to keep Mrs. Grundy in mind, if only because so many people seem tempted to make their pieces into personal essays when it’s inappropriate given the subject matter. If your personal experience regarding the subject matter is strongly pertinent and interesting, fabulous. But if you’re writing about Social Security reform and framing it in terms of the conversation you were having in the kitchen with your wife as it was being discussed on CNN, or your reflections as you were driving your son to soccer practice about how much better he’d do with a personal account… well, give it a second thought.
That’s just what’s coming to mind right now; doubtless there are others. Despite what I said in the intro, I expect on reflection that many of these do generalize for other publications, mutatis mutandis. Anyway, I hope someone finds this useful.