Publications are like puzzles, built of specific pieces which come together in a particular way to create a cohesive whole.
Every week or month—or whatever the frequency of the publishing schedule is—the editorial team sits down and starts to put their “puzzle” together.
They know they’ll need a piece with a certain shape to fit this space over here… and another with another shape to fit that one there.
And all these pieces, with their varied sizes and shapes and characteristics, have to play nicely together so they look purposeful and balanced and pretty when the whole picture comes together.
In a magazine, these “puzzle pieces” are called departments—each with its own purpose, feel, and requirements.
Understand: At no time do editors just carelessly throw open the windows and yell to the heavens, “What stories does the world have for me this month?”
It’s a much more targeted process than that.
But when you understand that process, then you’ll begin to see how you, in turn, can be more targeted in your approach to editors. Don’t offer them general story ideas. Offer them specific stories meant to slot into a specific department and tell them that’s where you see your piece fitting.
When you do that, it instantly shows the editors that you’re familiar with their publication. It shows them that you have taken the time to do a bit of homework. It shows them that you have respect for their “puzzle.” Editors like this.
At International Living, for instance, where I’m the Executive Editor, we have a piece that runs on page 3 each month under the header “The Savvy Traveler.” It’s short, and it serves a specific purpose: To introduce the reader to an unusual, insider-y spot worth taking in. We wouldn’t try to write about a whole country here. Instead, we’ve recently run stories with headlines like—”Comacchio: The Mini-Venice Nobody Knows About,” “Roaming the Ruins—Central Portugal’s Conimbriga,” and “Holding Back the Waters at the Thames Flood Barrier, London.”
We have a collection of “tidbits” on pages 4 through 7. On pages 4 and 5, they are devoted to travel and overseas living, mostly. On pages 6 and 7, the tidbits focus on offshore and investment ideas. The rest of our issue is broken into specific departments that house longer pieces—profiles, travel, real estate, lifestyle, investment, solutions, and so on.
At International Living, we’re always thinking about how to best balance an issue. If there’s a story about Ecuador in the front, we might not want one in the back. If we have something for budget travelers in Europe in one department, then we might include profiles about people retired in Southeast Asia in another.
That constant search for balance is important for you to understand, as well. Sometimes a story you pitch might not be accepted—not because it doesn’t suit a publication, but because, at that moment, it won’t play nicely with whatever else has been slotted in. The point is: Don’t assume a rejection is because your piece isn’t good. It might be that it just won’t fit into the puzzle right then. So, send it someplace else.
Editors love to get fresh ideas from writers—but we always consider them with that “puzzle” in mind. We think long and hard about where a piece that intrigues us might best reside or how it might be tweaked to fit well into a specific department. In addition, editors on a staff themselves generate ideas for stories for particular departments and then, in turn, assign those ideas to writers they know.
So, when you sit down to study a publication, think about which department, specifically, you’d like to write for and target your story to that.
The more laser-focused you are in constructing your piece, the more likely it is you’ll sell it.