Writing Small, Thinking Big

Tiny pencil

Tiny but mighty: stand back—this is a sharpened word sword!

I had a tiny piece about the Las Vegas Hangover Heaven bus published in Draft magazine the other day. Draft is highest-circulating craft-beer magazine, with a frothy lineup of stories about breweries, industry personalities and innovations in the brewing world. My little article is just a whisper of words, but I’m still happy to have it published, for a number of writing reasons.

Many magazines today, from Smithsonian to Seventeen, have lots of small articles and light pieces in their brightly designed front (and sometimes back) pages. It speaks to the reading tastes of the Internet age: colorful and chunky. For writers, and especially ones trying to break in to a magazine, these areas (called “front of book” or FOB) can be a quick keyboarding to good money and wider opportunities.

Many magazine editors don’t have the time or patience to try out an unknown writer on a feature piece, but query them on a 200- or 300-word filler article, and they will more often acquiesce. And those appetizer articles are often a way to set the table for a full-meal article later.

In the case of Draft, I’d written a long feature piece on moonshining for them a while back, so I know the editor. I pitched the Hangover Heaven piece as a feature, but was still happy when the editor came back with the offer to make it a short FOB article. Happy because those articles often pay .50 to $1 a word (the case here), and more so because it kept me fresh in the mind of the editor. I’m about to query her with another feature pitch this week because I’m fresh in the magazine and fresh in her mind.

Short Articles Can Pay the Long Green

Short is also sweet in terms of demonstrating that you can consistently carry a certain kind of article to completion. I just wrote my fourth FOB piece for The American Scholar, for a section called Works in Progress. These articles have all been 250-word pieces, which again pay well. Better, after having written a few of these, the editor now inquires if I have any ideas for the next quarterly issue. I’m in good stead with that editor for stories to come—possibly longer stories to come—and potentially with editors of other good magazines, because the Scholar is a national magazine of high caliber, focusing on public affairs, literature, culture and more.

One other consideration on short pieces: you can often use the research done for a longer piece as the basis for another short article. I just wrote an article for Airstream Life magazine on Edward Tufte, the professor who is famous for his work in rendering complex information into a comprehensible whole. He also is a designer of very fanciful sculptures, among them one that uses an Airstream in a most improbable way. After I wrote the Airstream Life piece, I realized that some unused info and quotes from the interview could be shaped into a short piece for The American Scholar. Bingo, a twofer! (And I’m grateful that the editor of Airstream Life now brings potential stories to my attention as well, since I’ve written for him for years.)

So, don’t think writing small pieces for magazines diminishes their stature. If they are big enough for a byline, they are big enough to stand on their own. And they can lead to bigger things down the road.

9 thoughts on “Writing Small, Thinking Big

  1. 1. Tufte was either a genius or a whack or both. I like him.
    2. Airstreams will never stop being cool.
    3. I think I want to write magazine articles. You pique my interest.
    4. Nice bit on the hangover doctor.
    5. Nothing else. There is no #5.

  2. Joel, I think the professor is a cooly mad genius (or a mad cool genius), and both of those are fine things. Airstreams are always a yes for me (last night I was at a Trailer Park Troubadours concert, and they were supposed to have some Airstreams on stage, which I was going to photograph for an article on the Troubs, but they couldn’t manage to get the things on the stage.)

    I think you’d have a definite in on writing some magazine pieces. What about trying for a FOB section on Entrepreneur or Forbes or Fast Company? Your biz books should give you some cachet on being considered.

    I would like to try the hangover doctor’s treatment sometime, but I do so dislike a hangover. Wonder what it does to you when you’re not hung over? As for #5, there’s this:

  3. I think I’d be ecstatic to have something published in one of those mags.

    But really, I came to see what this #5 followed by a blank was. Obviously, I have a short memory.

  4. Joel, if you want to see some successful query letters that obtained assignments from major magazines (not my letters, but a couple of sets from various writers), let me know.

    As for that short-term memory thing, I was going to give you some advice, but I forgot what it was.

  5. Columba, the big thing is that if you don’t get a response from editors, just move on, and don’t take it personally. But (and forgive me for the obviousness), you won’t get any assignments without venturing a query.

    I get rejections (or hear nothing back) constantly, and for me, that just means move on to the next editor. Good things will happen—or, good things can ONLY happen—if you persevere.

    Thanks for the comment and keep writing!

  6. Joel, I’ll send you the queries. Nope, haven’t read “Resilience.” Sounds good, but I have so many ding-dang books piled up to read I don’t have the resilience to add another one. I’ll put it on the listing list.

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