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. Laurie Stone

    Great idea. That FOB story is a great way to get the editor’s ear and win their trust, especially for a big publication. I’ll put that on my writing to-do list. Thanks for the advice.

    • Tom Bentley

      Laurie, and one of those unsung benefits is that you can then put a big-name publication on your site’s publication list (or your “as seen on” list). Even if it’s a 200-word piece on the rising popularity of scented cat collars, if the Wall Street Journal printed it, you are a Wall Street Journal writer. (Well, maybe not a *regular* WSJ writer, but it could be a stepping-stone to that.)

  2. Mark Lilly

    This is great info, Tom. The idea of knocking these types of articles out is often less daunting than full-length feature pieces. The culture has definitely shifted to preferring more bite-sized bits of information overall, and I can’t help but notice I lean more toward writing that way now, too.

    • Tom Bentley

      Mark, it seems to me as well that there’s never been more of an appetite for quickly digested articles. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be meaty or helpful or interesting.

      I go both ways in my reading though: I enjoy those sections of magazines that have the range of FOB materials: quick info bits, diversions, impressionistic pieces (and of course I enjoy writing them too). But I also like to write long, essay-style pieces as well—and read them too.

    • Carol Tice

      Totally agree — our attention spans seem to be so bite-sized these days!

      And I’ve written quite a few roundup stories that I crammed into 300 words. People shouldn’t think FOBs can be light on useful info, they should still be packed!

  3. Charlene Oldham

    I have also found that the query for FOB pieces also takes care of most of the writing and research. If you have a fleshed-out query, the article is practically written.

    • Carol Tice

      I also know writers who just write it up and send it in with FOBs, since the pitch would be about as long as the article!

    • Tom Bentley

      So true. It’s the case that if you write the lead paragraph (or “lede” for journo-speak) of your query as the opening of your article, which is a persuasive way to show the article’s direction and tone, you might have written all or most of your actual article already. Good approach for short and long articles alike.

  4. Rob

    I recently pitched an idea for a 1200 word article and got a 200 word assignment. It took about half an hour to write, so I made more per hour on it than on a longer article. It was fun and a refreshing change, too. May write the longer one later. They just happened to need a filler piece in their ezine.

  5. Peterson Teixeira

    Interesting. Good and objective approach. I’ll try this for sure.
    Thanks Tom, great post!

    • Tom Bentley

      Peterson, hope it works for you. By the way, you can always Google something like “what publications buy short articles” or something similar to get a head start on your queries, or to develop a list of potentials.

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