What Freelancers Need to Know About Writing for Consumer Magazines
A consumer magazine (often referred to as a "periodical") is sold to the general population. Consumer magazines are also called "glossies" (especially by those in the publishing world) because these magazines are usually printed on glossy paper. That's because advertisers (from Apple to Panasonic) pay hefty fees to showcase their products and they want ads to "jump off the page." You'll find these general interest publications at your local grocery store checkout area (including behemoths like Whole Foods), bookstores and newsstands.
New York Magazine, Oprah Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal are three examples. A consumer magazine should not be confused with a trade magazine which is a magazine produced with a specific "trade," career or type of business in mind.
Consumer magazines have a wide audience and a wide viewpoint. For example, Time magazine can be read by young people, the elderly and men, and women with equal interest because it is not a niche publication. Good Housekeeping (one of the oldest consumer publications which have been around for 138 years) reaches a huge audience, clocking in at 30+million each month. It's worth noting that while it falls in the consumer product category it relates specifically to the home and is therefore considered a "specialized" consumer magazine. People magazine (which also has a wide audience) specifically focuses on newsmakers (from celebrities to politicians) and is another example of a "specialized" consumer magazine.
There are thousands of consumer magazines produced in the United States each year and some of the major publications (like Vogue) have sister publications abroad (British Vogue). On the flip side, not all consumer magazines are national in scope. New York Magazine and Texas Monthly are targeted to a specific geographic area.
What Freelancers Need to Know
Freelancers interested in writing for a consumer magazine can easily get a sense of what kinds of articles (from features to small blurs) an editor is looking for by purchasing a hard copy or perusing a recent issue online. Freelancers either have a niche specialty (with the clips to prove it) when pitching an editor to get an assignment or they can be "generalists" with the ability to write about a broad range of topics. For example, a freelance writer with a niche specialty is someone who has significantly covered the world of politics and would be an excellent candidate to score a writing gig for People magazine. If a freelance writer has a specialty in automobiles they should approach Popular Mechanics for work.
For Freelancers Just Starting Out
If you want to start writing for a consumer magazine you should first identify what credentials you have to cover a particular topic. Do you have a background in fashion? Did you major in politics in college? Do you have samples of your work, even if it's from a school newspaper? If you don't have experience or previous work, try getting an assignment on spec (meaning, you write it first and then the editor decides if it's worthy of publication).
It may not feel good working for free but you have to start somewhere.