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Tips for getting an editor's attention and finally landing that byline...Where should I send my story?

It’s one of the top questions I’m asked at travel writing workshops, during writing retreats, and in feedback sessions with beginning freelance writers.

But it’s the wrong question to ask.

Instead, I encourage writers to start asking this question, of themselves:

Where do I want to see my story published?

Envisioning that there’s a perfect publication for a story you’ve written is a bit like thinking that there’s one perfect pair of shoes for you to wear: You’re going to waste a lot of time racing from shoe store to shoe store and perusing online seeking that perfect pair, all the while ignoring all of the wonderfully comfortable and appealing shoes along the way.

Instead of writing a story first and then imagining that there’s an ideal place for it, consider following these five steps to increase your chances of getting an editor’s attention…

Pick five publications in which you’d like to see your story

This step reminds me of the advice my daughters received in their last couple of years of high school, when they were considering what colleges to apply to and were told to choose a variety based on likelihood of acceptance.

So, within these five, pick at least two or three realistic options, such as local and regional publications and online outlets known for accepting first-time submissions. Maybe these don’t pay well, or they’re not as highly revered as other options, but they are “get your foot in the door” publications that will be more likely to print your story, or at the very least, offer some kind of feedback.

Then, look for one or two “dream” publications. Go crazy and don’t rule anything out. As preposterous as it may feel to send a story to The New York Times or Travel + Leisure, you never know—and, of course, you won’t know unless you try. At the very least, you will become more proficient at self-editing and pitching to an editor.

Find the guidelines for each of those five

Some publications don’t offer guidelines, or they make it harder to find them. It can be as simple as looking them up online, or you may need to email an editor to request them. In either case, this is a critical step, because then you will be armed with the best information for ensuring that your story meets a publication’s needs.

The thing is, even if a publication doesn’t offer guidelines, it’s not hard to figure out what they’re looking for by looking at the publication itself. If there is a print version, go for that, because the formats will be more readily apparent.

Write the story for one of the publications

Choose one of those “safe bets” and write your story based entirely on its guidelines or format. If the publication runs only lists (such as “Ten Best Restaurants” or “Three Kid-Friendly Beaches”), then write your story as a list. If the publication runs nothing but short narratives, then write a short narrative.

In other words, don’t waste your time writing the story the way you want it to look for a publication that doesn’t run them that way. This will give you some practice with tailoring a story to a publication, and the best part is, you’ll have a completed story.

Tailor the story to the other four

Now, take that original article and then look at how it can be altered to fit the guidelines for the other four publications you chose.

Did you originally write it as a list, and one of the other ones requires it to be in narrative form? Rewrite the beginning to sound more like the introduction to a tale, rather than a setup for a series of shorts. Or, vice-versa. Did you originally write it as 500 words, but a publication allows only 300 words? It’s time to start slicing and dicing to make it shorter.

Pitch the story to the appropriate editor for each publication

Once you have the various versions completed, you can start sending them to the editors, each time addressing how the story is tailor-made for that publication. Mention the guidelines or the format and how it not only fits, but also offers the kind of information the publication’s readership expects.

The good news is, once you have five versions of the story, chances are pretty good that you’ll be able to find 10 or 20—or even 100—more publications that you can continue to shape the story for, thereby significantly boosting the odds of snagging that byline.

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