Why Super-Short Articles Can Build a Big Writing Career

Editor

Short article writing can be a lucrative way to break into magazines.Short article writing can be refreshing — like ice in your underwear.

It’s also a practical way to build a writing career.

Many magazines today, from Smithsonian to Seventeen, have lots of small articles and light pieces in their brightly designed front pages. It speaks to the reading tastes of the Internet age: colorful and chunky.

For writers — especially ones trying to break in to a magazine — these areas (called “front of book” or FOB) can be a quick source of good money and wider opportunities. Here’s how:

Why short pieces work

For example, I had a tiny piece about the Las Vegas Hangover Heaven bus published in Draft magazine. Draft is the 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 magazine editors don’t have the time or patience to try an unknown writer on a feature piece. But query them on a 200- or 300-word filler article, and they will more often give you a shot. 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. FOB articles often pay .50 to $1 a word.

Writing that piece kept me fresh in the mind of the editor, so I may be able to sell a new article idea. Once you’ve caught an editor’s ear, your subsequent queries don’t have to be as loud — they know you can deliver the goods.

Short article writing can be long term

Short is also sweet in terms of demonstrating that you can consistently carry a certain kind of article to completion. I recently wrote my 10th 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, word-wise.

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 ones — 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.

Make FOBs do double duty

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 wrote an article for Airstream Life magazine on Edward Tufte, the professor 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 as a spacecraft.

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.)

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.

Have you used FOBs to break into bigger writing opportunities? Tell us in the comments below.

Tom Bentley is a business writer and editor, fiction writer, and essayist. His new book, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See is now available at Amazon.

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40 Comments

  1. Claus Martin

    I look at it from the point of a reader.

    When I read, to get information, I like, if the text is as short as possible, just giving the needed information. I have to read a lot every day and it is a waste of time, if the text is too redundant.

    It is different with arts, because then I can enjoy, if a poet masters the language. But even then I prefer shorter texts like short stories or novels.

  2. WK

    Tom, if you’re pitching a short article from an idea used in a longer article, do you use the longer article on the same subject as a clip? I’m unclear if it’s good or bad to use articles of the same or similar subject as the one being pitched.

    • Carol Tice

      I’m not Tom…but I’ll say I *definitely* do that. They want to see you know your topic!

    • WK

      Thanks, Carol. Great to know! I was always confused if it would show knowledge or look like you might repeat yourself. Thanks!

  3. Lynn

    So,what’s the best way to get an FOB assignment?
    Make a pitch for a story? Or write a general LOI to the editor saying that I would be interested in writing FOBs?
    Thanks for any suggestions you can provide.

    • Tom Bentley

      Hi Lynn. If you read through the comments you’ll see some thoughts on getting assignments. As I said, Googling something like “Publications that publish short articles” (or variants on that wording) will supply you with some thoughts. So will going to a store that has a broad range of magazines, where you can flip through their FOB sections.

      A LOI might be overkill for an FOB, but of course it’s a great way to introduce yourself to an editor, so I wouldn’t discount it (and you could break in for a range of assignments that way as well, or at least get clarification on guidelines or what they are looking for). As discussed by several commenters, the story pitch could be the bulk of the story itself, if we are talking about pieces in the 200- to 400-word range. Good luck!

    • Lynn

      Thank you again Tom. I’ll follow up on your suggestions and the ones from the readers.

  4. Andrew Langerman

    One other question: When sending the query/entire FOB article, what subject line would I use in the email subject line? Do I want to somehow signal the editor that this is a FOB piece.

    Subject: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (hint hint FOB wink wink know what I mean)?

    • Tom Bentley

      Andrew, my subject lines for queries are often what I conceive to be the headline for the piece, often preceded by “Query: …” I haven’t put FOB in the subject line, because I often suggest where a piece could go in the magazine by section (that telling you it’s good policy to know the magazine’s section headings), and by default, the editor would know it’s a short piece.

      Magazine guidelines (always try to see if there are some) sometimes suggest that the writer include the section for which the article was intended, which helps you narrow your focus. However, I don’t think it could hurt to put “FOB” in parentheses at the end of the subject line.

      I’m going the opposite direction today: I was waiting to hear back from an in-flight mag editor I know a bit about an article I queried a short while ago that he was only vaguely interested in, and I’m going to suggest it might make a good FOB too. Better than nothing, for sure.

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