A nice young woman recently got in touch with a finished story she wanted to sell to a magazine. I no longer run The Proposal Factory, which was my side business of helping people craft book and magazine proposals, but since she is the daughter of an acquaintance, I replied to her email. This is what I told her:
best advice i can give you is take this article and write a proposal from it. in my experience magazines don’t like looking at finished articles. For one thing, your piece probably isn’t in the style, the voice, of any particular magazine, and it must be. Choose the magazine in which you’d most like to place this. The New York Review of Books? The New Yorker? Rolling Stone? and write a proposal that sounds like that magazine. (See my little essay about this here.) I cannot stress enough the importance of doing this.
So we all got that? Don’t write an article for a magazine until you have a contract from the magazine laying out what the article will include, word length, and deadline. And the way you get that contract is by writing a truly crackerjack proposal. As I say, I can’t help you do that, but you might find it helpful to look at some magazine proposals that resulted in good assignments for us, and, if you’re trying to sell a non-fiction book, at our successful book proposals.
Fiction is another story. Pieces of fiction, from short stories to novels, must be written in their entirety before being sold. The imperative to write a proposal first applies to non-fiction articles and books only.