“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” — Samuel Johnson.
Making a living as a writer starts with writing successful proposals to magazine editors. Here are some proposals that resulted in good assignments at such magazines as Wired, The New York Times Magazine, Glamour, Scientific American, and others. Even when I was “on staff” at The New Yorker from 2003-2007, I was really a freelancer on contract, not an employee, proposing stories like anybody else.
Important: If you’re going to pitch a story to a magazine, the pitch has to sound like the magazine. Every magazine has its own sensibilities, its own voice, its own way of using the language. Your proposal has to match that. You wouldn’t put “$375 million” into a proposal for The New Yorker, for example, because The New Yorker writes out all numbers in word form: “three hundred seventy-five million dollars.” So forget about sending the same proposal to Magazine B if Magazine A rejects it; you have start over.
One must study a magazine carefully before sending its editors a proposal. You’re trying to walk a fine line between presenting yourself as an exciting new voice and someone who has been on staff for years and knows the magazine inside out.
Don’t worry if you’re a rank beginner. Magazine editors get props for discovering new voices, so are eager to read your pitch. (They can pay you less than they pay their tired old writers, too, but that’s okay.) I recently helped a young writer who had no journalism experience beyond his college paper land a long feature into Rolling Stone, and it was so good he’s gotten more assignments since then. He’s off and running, having started at a standstill.
Note, too, that some of these proposals are quite long. All of them are quite detailed. Often, I’ve done so much research to write the proposal that when I finally get the assignment there is little left to do but the traveling for color and quotes.
As for how to gain access to the story’s principals whom you want to interview for the proposal, it’s perfectly honest to say, “I am preparing a memo for the editors of [ ] about your [band, project/company/agency, batting streak, etc.] and would like to interview you before I send it to them,” or somesuch. For that is exactly what you’re doing. You’re not claiming to be an employee of [ ]; you’re not claiming to have an assignment for [ ]. You’re preparing a memo for the editors; that’s all.
Don’t despair if a good proposal doesn’t sell. Magazines reject pieces all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the proposal — they ran too similar a piece too short a time ago, for example. I’ve been at this more than 30 years, and I have a large graveyard of unsuccessful proposals. To borrow a phrase from Silicon Valley, fail fast. Do enough research to write a successful pitch, but not so much that you end up doing months of unpaid work. So do the necessary research, write it quickly, get someone you trust to edit it, and send. Wait two weeks — no longer — and then call to ask the editors if they want the story and tell them that you cannot wait forever. If they don’t want it, rewrite it for the next magazine and send it elsewhere
On our Articles page, you’ll find the stories that began with these proposals.
I hope these are helpful.
Juan Hernandez, for The New Yorker (although this story was never written, it is the proposal that first got me into the New Yorker. Click on it to see why.)
Jake Leg, for the New Yorker (This is the proposal for my first piece that actually ran in the New Yorker.)
Florida memo for the New Yorker This is an example of the kind of memo you might write an editor with whom you already have a working relationship. It contains nothing about you, and is written as though you’re starting in the middle of a conversation.