Pitching science to non-science magazines

In this economy, science writers are looking for new outlets to write for. This was apparent as an overflow crowd heard editors talk on what they're looking for in potential writers at the session "Pitching Science to Non-Science Magazines" at ScienceWriters 2009 in Austin.

 

In this economy, science writers are looking for new outlets to write for. This was apparent as an overflow crowd heard editors talk on what they're looking for in potential writers at the session "Pitching Science to Non-Science Magazines" at ScienceWriters 2009 in Austin.

The panel was moderated by Adam Rogers of Wired. Panelists were James Gibney, deputy managing editor, The Atlantic, Chris Suellentrop, senior editor, The New York Times Magazine, Terence Samuel, editor, The Root and Jake Silverstein, senior editor, Texas Monthly.

The panelists said that freelance budgets are less, but, they still use freelancers and the bottom line is that if you're a good writer and can meet deadlines you will do well.

Samuel said "I'm not interested in new products. I'm looking for writers who can tell how these products will affect the way we live."

Silverstein said that the most common pitching mistakes include writers not knowing the magazine and pitches for articles that have been done before. "We are called Texas Monthly for a reason. The story has to be tied to Texas and work being done here."

Silverstein instructed prospective contributors to pitch a story, not a subject. "A science story, like any story, needs a narrative. Don't tell me you want to write about NASA. Give me a fresh angle and a story that will be of interest to our readers."

Suellentrop said that the average length of a New York Times Magazine story is 5,000 words. It is unlikely, he said, that he would take a chance on an unknown writer and suggested that newbie's first pitch shorter articles for existing sections. He said that's an opportunity to show an editor you can meet a deadline and deliver a story.

Gibney said The Atlantic has been covering less science than in times past when, for example, they devoted two cover stories to James Watson's "The Double Helix." "But, it was a great science story. It was interesting and character driven."

He likes to pair stories that combine fields such as a biology story tied to economics or a physics story tied to sociology. Recent examples of science stories in The Atlantic include why vaccines may not be as effective as people think, and why NASA does not take the threat of asteroid strikes seriously.

The audience asked about the rates paid freelancers, kill fees, and whether editors answer pitches from new writers.

The New York Times pays $2 a word, The Atlantic $1.50 for new writers, Texas Monthly a $1 word and Root 50 cents a word. The reason for the disparities: A New York Times Magazine piece requires a significant investment of time and several rewrites. Root is web-driven and web publications pay less because pieces are shorter and require less investment.

The panelists said they answered queries, but rarely as timely as writers would like. They advise patience and asked that writers not send them a note the day after submitting a query.

As for kill fees, they noted that writing for magazines was a business and this was part of the equation.

As for whether freelancers have a chance to write for national magazines, Suellentrop said: "It's like the lottery. You will get turned down a lot, but at some point you will get an assignment. Editors are judged on the stories and talent we bring to our bosses. We are looking for good writers. Your job is to pitch us good stories."

David Levine, a freelance writer in New York, NY., writes about health and medical topics. He is co-president of Science Writers in New York. He has written for Good Housekeeping and other national magazines and was most recently Senior Director, Communications at the NYC Health and Hospital Corporation and Director of Media Relations at the American Cancer Society.

Oct. 22, 2009