Sunday, September 17, 2006

How to Write for The New Yorker

Cracking the top national magazine market is tough.

Editors at the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and The New Yorker are like soldiers under siege. Everyone wants access to them – their old college acquaintances, friends of friends, neighbors down the hall, even family members. Writers know that any personal connection to an editor at a top magazine, however tenuous, increases their chances of publishing an article in the magazine.

Some writers spend years trying to get published. John McPhee, for example, famously queried the New Yorker for more than 10 years before one of his stories was accepted. Now he contributes regularly.

“It’s a bunker,” according to Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper’s. “Getting inside the bunker is the hardest park. Once you’re in ….” His thought trailed off, but he clearly was suggesting that once you’ve written for one of these magazines, entrĂ©e anywhere else is much easier.

Penetrating the walls of the nation’s premier magazines was the topic of an unusual conference this weekend at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Titled “East Meets West,” the conference brought editors of elite publications together with 55 accomplished writers. The event was co-sponsored by the American Society of Journalists and Authors – itself difficult to join – so the writers in attendance all held impressive publishing credentials.

Still, the news was hard to hear.

“You don’t find the New Yorker; the New Yorker finds you,” said Dana Goodyear, a poet and writer who became an editor after working as David Remnick’s assistant for three years.

While some writers can find their way into the magazine by writing “Talk of the Town” pieces, those short articles focus mainly on New York so it is difficult for freelancers to find suitable topics, she said. But writing a number of them is one of the few ways to get assigned a larger piece

Many writers get their first New Yorker bylines when the magazine publishes an excerpt of their book. (What? I heard some members of the audience grumble. You have to write a book first and then hope a short section can appear in the magazine?)

Or you can write for smaller publications and hope you are noticed. That’s what happened to Elif Batuman, a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. She wrote a few esoteric pieces for the new literary magazine N+1. Remnick read them, called her up, and invited her to New York to discuss ideas. She’s had two articles published so far in the New Yorker. Goodyear edited “Cool Heart,” a January 16, 2006 piece on the Thai kick-boxing trainer, Bunkerd Faphimal. Batuman’s voice and take on the subject was fresh and original – and that’s what the New Yorker is looking for, said Goodyear.

“Write for places where your voice can roam free,” suggested Goodyear.

Gerald Mazorati, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, suggested writers “know something really well and then know someone really well.” Find a topic that can become your specialty and give it a spin so unique that the top magazines can’t ignore your queries, he said.

The New York Times Magazine has about 30 writers under contract and only occasionally publishes work from writers outside its circle, said Mazorati. But it can be done. He suggested starting an e-mail correspondence with one of the magazine’s 8 assigning editors. Cultivate a relationship. Show them your work. Pitch them your ideas. With time, something might work out, he said.

The articles in Harpers, Atlantic, and Mother Jones are almost all written by free-lance writers. While each magazine has its own personality, the editors all crave well-written, unusual pitches. Bill Wasik at Harper’s said he likes “pitches with facts. Clunky, (meaning loaded with facts, not poorly written) detailed pitches.” Most new writers do shorter pieces to start. The editors have to known and trust a writer before they will assign them one of the longer articles that form the backbones of each magazine.

All the editors talked about the power of narrative. They want stories with a beginning, middle and an end, with well-developed characters. The New York Times Magazine needs article that are timely and linked to news events. The Atlantic specializes in big policy pieces. Harpers really prizes stories where reporters go undercover to expose a little-understood subculture.

While most magazine readers are women – and the women in the audience at the conference far outnumbered the men – most magazine articles are written by men. All of the editors said their magazines are not actively discriminating against female writers. They want more female writers. It’s just that most women write about issues central to their lives – marriage, parenthood, memoir -- and don’t do the big think pieces New York Times columnist Frank Rich calls the “bloviators.”

“We are a white male culture that may be intimidating to women,” said Scott Stossel, an editor at The Atlantic Monthly.

“It’s easier for women to sell an article on the sexy twist of work/life drama,” said Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffery. “It’s easier to sell. There are more magazines that would buy that rather than a big policy piece. There is a subtle way of steering women.”

If the editors were frank in suggesting that it is tough – although not impossible – to crack the top magazine markets, their appearances at Berkeley were encouraging in a less direct way. Without exception they were friendly and approachable and very human. Just hearing them talk about their magazines and the stories they are proud of stripped away some of the mystique of the New York publishing world. After all, somebody has to write those stories. And since when did saying “no” discourage any self-respecting reporter?


Fira Zainal said...
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dennis said...

This is a great, informative piece for the unpublished, like me. I was looking for Gerald Marzorati and your blog was just there waiting to be discovered. To think I have been trying to get published all these years and someone, more likely a better writer than me, waited 10 years to get published in The New Yorker. Anyway, I would like to know if I can quote you, if I do write a piece why I remain unpublished in the U.S. but published somewhere else, even if I live in the States. Is there a way I can get in touch with you in an email format? My email is

Anonymous said...

I love your blog! I too was searching for information on writing for the New Yorker. I have surfed a few blogs but this one is different. It has a nice feel to it. It's informative and personal without TMI(too much information).

Jaine said...

Thank you so much for this information. But I have a question. Would it be a joke to use the "submissions" page on the New Yorker website if I'm looking to get published?