Back Page Break-Ins

The Smithsonian has one. So does Family Circle and the magazine you’re holding in your hands. It’s the back page article, a one-page piece that adds a touch of information, opinion or humor before the final close of the magazine’s cover.

     Back page articles provide excellent break-in opportunities for writers eager to place their work in major markets. Written with a slant towards entertainment or opinion, these last words are often the first published pieces for freelancers not (yet) listed on the magazine’s masthead.

Back Page Break-Ins by Barbara Neal Varma

     Like “shorts” which are mostly found in front, back-page pieces can be an overlooked opportunity to get published. The Smithsonian’s appropriately titled Back Page is humor with a genial tone according to its guidelines, a funny what-happened-to-me essay that relates to the writer’s own experiences. Family Circle’s Full Circle tells a first-hand story about the writer’s family life, such as “What Makes a Great Parent,” a father’s essay that appeared last year on page 180 out of 181.

     Self has Self Portrait, a first-person profile, often of someone with celebrity status. The Sun prints Sunbeams, readers’ written quotations grouped with more famous witticisms. And ByLine’s own End Piece showcases essays on the writing life.

     Writers often can find homes for their slice-of-life essays within the last few pages of publications. And unlike shorts, you get more words to express yourself: up to 800 words on average. Here are some tips to help you successfully navigate through the back page and into that major market.

Keep the theme alive

     Sometimes a back page topic seems to veer off the publication’s theme, but at second glance you’ll see it’s still connected to their core philosophy. Better Homes and Gardens, known for decorating tips and show-how pictures, recently printed “Snow Day,” a nostalgic essay tucked in back about the good old days when being snow bound was an opportunity for family fun. The BH and G profile in Writer’s Market might not mention that an essay on being stuck at home due to inclement weather would be acceptable to a magazine with headlines boasting the latest in garden trends, but the concept of home and hearth is important to Better Homes. So the story was still in sync with their theme.

     Research and read what your favorite markets are printing in back, then make a list of topics you might contribute. One of the best ways to find a magazine’s theme and target audience is through their ads. Are the advertisements parading new cars and other products of affluence? Are they promoting techno gadgets or do-it-yourself aids?

     I landed an anecdotal article about my 80-year-old mother’s decision not to drive—and the benefits thereof—in the back pages of a publication serving the senior community. Their ads ran heavy on healthy lifestyle products and alternate modes of travel (shuttle services, for example) making my article a seamless addition to their content. Had I offered this same piece to Car & Driver, no doubt, I wouldn’t have been so lucky.

Make a guest appearance

     You may notice that sometimes a back page piece is actually a recurring column that not only sticks to a theme but stays on topic such as Writer’s Digest’s “The Last Word,” an analysis of known writers and their styles. Jane’s “It Happened to Me” stories center on the writer’s unusual or life-changing experience.

     When that’s the case, check the byline to see if the magazine uses a rotation of contributing writers. Next, study the style, format and most importantly, the intent of the column. Then write a piece to add to the ongoing conversation. Balance your witty writing style with their editorial needs to keep the column on point; structure the length and format to fit, then send a sample column to the appropriate editor. Check your favorite market directory to see what your target market is looking for in columns open to freelancers, then offer to be their guest.

     Newspapers have many back pages to fill and are often dependant on contributors to add to the hundreds of articles run daily. The next time you’re reading your morning newspaper with that essential cup of tea, skip the front page news and flip towards the back. There you’ll find various “lifestyle” columns and op/ed pages that are filled with non-staffers providing copy. As with magazines, read to gain a sense of style and tone; note what the section editor has selected for publishing.

     Newspapers have editors assigned by section but each editor may have a slightly different mailing address. If the information isn’t listed, call to find out which editor handles submissions for your target section. Be prepared to describe your idea or essay if you’re fortunate enough to be asked, “What’s the article about?” Many articles have been sold with just a minute’s investment of a single phone call.

     Another good thing: Newspaper websites often provide a wealth of content information. So with Internet access you’re not limited to your neighborhood papers, although those are a good start. One of my articles appeared in back of a regional newspaper covering areas in and around Springfield , Missouri while my tea and I remained inSouthern California .

Write and go seek

     While back page articles offer good publishing opportunities, they’re often a hidden market just by their nature. There’s rarely a cover headline to announce their presence, nor will there be much reference to them in market directories beyond “accepts personal essays” or “columns open to freelancers.” While these hints are helpful to gauge a publication’s style, tone and distinction, the critical details are best discovered by having the magazine in hand.

     To cut costs, take advantage of perusing the stacks of magazines in your library or dentist’s office. Often a medical office will let you take the magazine if you request it, or photocopy an article for you. Also copy the magazine’s masthead to gather editors’ names.

     I subscribe to four magazines per year that I want to break into and then, after reading, exchange them for other magazines on display at my hair salon—with their permission, of course. Many magazines offer free issues if you’re willing to consider subscribing. However you can get your hands on an issue, turn toward the back and seek what treasures you can find. This is one time you will want to read the last page first.

Pitch, pitch, pitch

     Once you’ve studied the back pages, analyze the magazine’s theme and readership. Collect several sample articles, paper clip them to the magazine’s guidelines and study them for format, tone, and category (humor, op/ed, anecdotal, informative). Now you’re ready to target the publication with your own idea and polish the prose for public viewing.

     When ready to make your pitch, you can do the usual query routine, but since your submission is more than one page, you might want to send the complete piece with a catchy cover letter instead. Mention in the letter (keep it brief!) that you’ve noticed their publication often adds a personal essay or opinion piece and you think your offering might fit. You might suggest that your article would be right in line with a future topic you’ve seen on their editorial calendar—one of the best resources to gauge editorial needs. (Editorial calendars can often be found on a publication’s website. Check out the “media contact” page.) Jane’s calendar, for example, listed October 2006 as the “Music Issue.”

     Often a market’s guidelines say no unsolicited manuscript submissions but I’ve yet to be arrested for it and many editors will read these anyway. Who knows? She might even ask you to develop the idea into something a little more feature-sized. You just want your foot in the door—never mind that it’s the door in back.

Get clips

     A back-page item can become front-page news in your clips file. You’ll still be able to say “I’ve written for (mega magazine)” or “I’ve been published in (lofty literary journal).” Add that credit proudly to your website and make color copies for your clips pile. Your published one-pager is a valuable credit, and if anyone says, “It’s all the way in back, I nearly missed it!” just say, “Of course it is. They saved the best for last.”

Favorite Quotes:

Writing is telepathy.”
– Stephen King

Serious art is born from serious play.”
– Julia Cameron

Barbara Neal Varma is my favorite author.”
– Mom


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