A recurring theme emerged among my clients at The Proposal Factory, and continues to crop up when talking to writers at the beginning of their careers: Too many freelancers aim too low.
“What magazine were you thinking of pitching?” I’ll ask, and often get a response along the lines of, Footwear News, Quilt Collector, or somesuch.
“Why not The New Yorker?” I’ll ask, if it seems the proposal could be configured that way. “Why not The Atlantic?”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” beginners (and even some veterans) will often say. “I’m nobody.”
Here’s a little secret of the magazine world: Everybody’s nobody.
Yes, there is a little cohort of big names that cluster around Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair and breathe different air from the rest of us. But that’s a very small club, and completely irrelevant.
In the quotidian world of magazine writing, what you’ve got is vastly more important than who you are. I’ve been making a living as a freelance writer since 1987, and I am firmly convinced that what you’ve done and where you’ve published means little to the magazine editor reading your proposal. All that matters are two things: Is the story right for the magazine, and are you the person who can deliver it.
It is true that magazine editors like working with writers they know. But it’s equally true that they’re always looking out for new ones. Magazines are constantly looking to expand their stable. They’re bored with some of the writers who they’ve been publishing for years. They can pay newcomers less. And an editor who discovers the next great voice earns career points. When you send a good proposal to a top-flight magazine, you’re doing them a favor.
Of course, the proposal has to be superb on many levels — not only a great story, with a detailed plan for delivering it, but tailored perfectly to the magazine in question. That takes work.
But there’s no point in shooting low. The big-name magazines pay better. They reach more people. You can do more good with your journalism writing for an influential million-circulation magazine than for a small one.
This life is full of rejection. The world is lining up disappointments for you; you don’t need to give it any help by limiting your ambitions up front. It costs no more to send a proposal to The New Yorker than to Energy User News. The practical thing is not to restrict yourself. The practical thing to do is to dream big, and then work hard to achieve those dreams.