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Editors, when it comes right down to it, are looking for one most critical thing from any article a freelancer submits: They want an idea they know their readers will latch onto. 

If you can deliver that, you’ll sell your articles

The challenge, of course, is to do so. 

But there are a few easy, straightforward ways you can increase your chances of success. 

First, cozy up to a publication by reading both its writer’s guidelines and some back issues. The guidelines you should read carefully. The issues… you don’t have to read every word on every page. But you do need to get familiar with what they do and how they do it.

I suggest this for two reasons. 

  1. You have to gain a firm understanding about whom, exactly, reads this publication. 
  2. You need to make sure your idea isn’t a topic the publication recently covered. 

When editors are deciding whether they want a particular article or not, the question they’re asking is, “Does this make sense for us?” And what they mean by that is, “Will my reader find this interesting, useful, engaging, and/or relevant?”

Ultimately, it’s all about the reader. 

At International Living, for instance, where I am the Executive Editor, the bulk of our readers are Baby Boomers. They’re already retired or thinking seriously about retirement. 

So when we get a pitch from a freelancer offering us a story about how to travel internationally for six months with toddlers in tow… we eliminate it on the grounds that it will not be relevant to most of our readers. 

Now, by contrast, if that same freelancer had pitched us a story about how to plan a successful international trip with a multi-generational angle… maybe how to travel well with your grandkids or maybe something like three great destinations in Latin America ideal for a multi-generational getaway… articles like that we would at least keep in the “discuss this” pile. 

Again, it comes down to the reader. So you need to think carefully about that reader when you’re defining your story ideas. 

You can find writer’s guidelines on most publications’ websites. If they’re not there, email to request them. And pay attention to what the guidelines say. They’re like a cheat sheet for freelancers. They’ll tell you not only who the publication’s readers are, but what, specifically, the editors like to receive.  

The other thing that will most often kill your story with an editor—even if you have the right audience in mind—is if the publication recently covered more-or-less the story you’re proposing (even if you’re suggesting a slightly different angle). 

That’s one reason it’s important to read some back issues. In addition to perusing recent coverage, search on a publication’s website for the story you’re thinking about and see what comes up. 

The results can help inform the way you cast your own story. 

What’s more, by reading some back issues, you begin to get a sense for the style and language the editors prefer, along with practical matters like how long stories tend to run or which section the story you’re thinking about might fit into. 

An editor can tell when a writer hasn’t done any homework about his or her publication. And somebody who hasn’t taken the time up front, all editors know from experience, is not likely to give it in the production of an article either. 

So do yourself a favor: Show the editor you care enough to come up with an idea that clearly reflects a publication’s readership and which will feel fresh and interesting. When you do that… you’ll find by-lines easy to come by.

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