It is a very, very bad idea to write an article and then try to find somebody (anybody) to publish it. This is not the way the system works.
The real first step is to identify the publication you want to pitch. This means you must put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and do some serious research. Read at least six back issues (you can find in the library or online), so you can be sure your idea is appropriate for the magazine you have in mind and a similar subject has not been recently covered.
In other words, don’t propose an article on Hearty Winter Stews for Dessert Professional magazine or the best way to grill steaks for a vegetarian magazine or Tea Houses of Tokyo for Edible Hudson Valley. Don’t suggest an article on Summer Fruit Soups if that topic was covered three months ago.
Examine every advertisement in your target publication so you have a clear picture of its readership profile: if the magazine ads lean towards costly jewels, wildly expensive perfume and luxury cars, an article on the joys of living on $5 a week won’t be a good fit.
Each magazine has its own distinctive style. Cook’s Illustrated is all about cooking techniques, Food & Wine is devoted to food and wine. It won’t be even mildly interested in homemade organic dog food or baby food.
You must decide what the magazine does and doesn’t do. Bon Ap doesn’t do food politics. Every May is devoted to foreign food. July is barbecue. Thanksgiving is, O.K. (November), you guessed correctly.
Once you have identified your desired partner, you must dance to its music and speak in its voice; formal or chatty, first person singular or the royal “we.”
Each page in each issue conforms to an established design. Don’t suggest a 3,500 word treatise on childhood obesity to a magazine that doesn’t customarily devote space to this or a similar advocacy topic. The publication won’t add another eight pages to accommodate your writing no matter how brilliant it is. It covers only predetermined departments.
So with all this information firmly in hand, make a copy for your files. Do not expect anyone to return your hard work.
Crafting the Query Letter
Remind yourself that the purpose of your query letter is to interest the food or features editor in your idea. Ready?
- Keep your query letter short.
- Introduce yourself: e.g., I am the executive chef at the White House.
- Explain your idea in one sentence: I will describe the food served at the President’s daughter’s wedding.
- Explain briefly the history of previous events you have covered: brunches for the bereaved, inaugural parties, cabinet meeting lunches.
- Offer six sample recipes and two writing samples
Mail your proposal to the appropriate editor. You will find her or his name on the masthead. It’s essential to spell the name correctly (I received a letter addressed to Ilona Chompers. I did not respond.)
Here’s a sample letter so you can see what I mean.
April 15th, 2012
The Daily Blast
100 Paradise Lane
Utopia, KS 11111
Dear Ms. Stallforth:
I have been reading your magazine for several years, and I’ve noticed you are interested in celebrity functions. Last January, I was appointed to the position of White House executive chef. Would you be in interested in an article about the food that will be served for 5,000 guests at the wedding of the President’s daughter? I have obtained permission from the State Department to publish this information.
I have been a freelance writer for several years. My work has been published in XXX, XXX and XXX magazines. I am enclosing six recipes and two writing samples.
I will call you at 3 P.M. next Wednesday to see if you are interested in my proposal.
Send it and the query letter by regular mail on beautiful stationery.
Make sure every word is spelled correctly. You may receive an almost immediate phone call saying, “YES PLEASE!”
If not, wait two weeks. Call the editor. If you are told she is not available, call again. If she is not available when you call again, don’t call again. You have already received the answer. It is “NO.”
Move on. Knock on another door. There is an editor who is looking for you.
Next Wednesday, I’ll write about that mysterious thing called Voice.