I’ve written query letters and sent them to many magazines and other types of publications—some accepted, some not. In my past editorial positions for several regional magazines I had to read queries written by other writers and decide whether to accept them. In both roles, I’ve had a chance to see what works and what doesn’t.
If you want to write articles to become a freelance writer, promote your book with articles or just write for publication occasionally, you need to know how to write a good query letter. To land that first assignment and byline or your hundredth, foremost, you need to learn how to pitch. It’s the pitch that puts the ball in the mitt. In this case, the mitt symbolizes an editor’s hands. If the ball (your query) drops out of the mitt, that means you’ve lost the editor’s interest, and you’ll likely get a rejection note thrown back.
A Query Letter is More than a Pitch
There’s more to a query letter than the actual pitch. The pitch in a query letter equates to the first paragraph. Yet, it’s the whole letter that sells the article or story idea. Much like a book proposal, a query letter for a publication of any type serves as a marketing document. It’s a business tool used to show a publication editor that you:
- have a good idea
- can write
- know the market
- have angled the article idea for that market
- have the appropriate expertise and experience
- can do the job
When you put it all together—all the parts of a query, you get a complete or successful pitch.
The 6 Query Letter Writing Steps
To write a query letter for a publication, you need to complete the following six steps.
- Research your market. Find the best publication or publications to pitch. Take time to study different magazines or publications that cover the topic about which you want to write or who cover topics of interest to the readers you want to reach. Become familiar with those magazines, their readers, their advertisers, and their content. If possibly, read 12 months of back issues. In the process, locate the name of the correct and current editor to whom you should address your query. If you are unsure of which editor to select, check the magazine and the website and a resource like 2014 Writer’s Market. If the magazine has departments, find the editor responsible for that department. If you can’t find the correct editor, try an associate editor, who is more likely to give it some time and attention than a top editor. If all else fails, try one of the top editors (usually not the managing editor); they will have assistants to direct your query to the right place. Spell that person’s name correctly; Choose formality over informality (Ms. Amir vs. Nina). Find out the preferred method of communication (email or snail mail). Do not call.
- Angle your idea. Craft your article idea for that publication and its readers. I don’t recommend writing an article or essay first and then looking for a market; it’s harder to sell pieces that way.
- Write your query letter. Complete these five query letter sections:
- Pitch paragraph or lead—This must be your most compelling paragraph. It’s the actual pitch. You want the editor to catch the ball you throw and hang on to it. You don’t want it thrown back. You can use the actual lead to your article here; this often works very well. Here’s an example of the first paragraph of a query to Dance Spirit Magazine that landed me an assignment. It also became the lead to the article:
What happens when you combine the music of Charles Parker, one of the most influential musicians in jazz history, with the Emmy Award-winning choreography of tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith and the skill of three of the most talented female tappers in the world today? You get the most extraordinarily unique and intricate footwork put to the sounds of classic bee bop and executed by women who can get down, be bad, kick butt, and attack the choreography just like all the great male hoofers that preceded them—but who can do it with a feminine and sexy vibe to boot.
- Article description and detail—The second paragraph of your query letter should include the title of your article and all the details about how you will complete the assignment. Include the number of words you plan to turn in, keeping in mind the magazine’s requirements. Here is the second paragraph of my query for the Dance Spirit Magazine article:
I’d like to write an article for Dance Magazine on Jason Samuels Smith’s newest production, “Charlie’s Angels: A Tribute to Charlie Parker.” This 1,500-word article, called “The ‘Bad’ Women of Tap,” would focus on the phenomenal level of accomplishment female tappers have reached in the dance world today, the old stereotypes about female tappers they are breaking and the experience three women — Chloe Arnold, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Michelle Dorrance — have had performing in “Charlie’s Angels” to date. This new, female-only tap show set to Parker’s music and choreographed by Samuels Smith currently includes just five numbers, and all three women perform solos. For all three women, the experience of mastering such difficult choreography and performing it together has been a unique experience unlike performing in an all-women’s tap company, especially since the choreography and the music were both created by men. In addition, the level of dance required of the women makes their performance historic. This article would include information gleaned from interviews with Arnold, Sumbry-Edwards and Dorrance, as well as from Samuels Smith. If you prefer, as a sidebar to the story I could provide an interview with Samuels Smith focusing on how he came up with the idea for Charlie’s Angels, how he chose the first three women to perform the work, his plans for lengthening it into a full-length production, why he wanted to showcase women tappers, and his mission not only to show the relationship between dance and music but to show people “what music looks like” as well.
- Bio and credentials—Provide a brief bio including pertinent credentials, experience, links to work you’ve had published, etc. If you have any other information that might help land the writing gig, include it as well. Here’s my third paragraph for the same article query. (Please not that some of this information is now outdated; the article was published seven years ago.):
I am a journalist, author and editor with 28+ years of experience working for more than 40 different national, regional, and international magazines, newsletters and newspapers on both a freelance and full-time basis. If you would like to review my resumé or peruse some of my clips, please visit my website at www.ninaamir.com. The fact that I have been intricately involved in my son’s dance career for the last 10 years and am a lover of dance in general has given me a good working knowledge of this art form. Plus, I already have a relationship with both Arnold and Samuels Smith. Thus, the combination of my writing experience, knowledge of dance and connections in the tap world makes me uniquely suited to write this story for Dance Spirit Magazine. Also, if you recall, I contacted you previously. Some time ago, Jeni Tu from Dance Teacher magazine, a publication I have written for in the past, suggested we speak in conjunction with a book I’m writing about mentoring boys who want to become professional dancers.
- Conclusion and contact details—I like to end on a positive note. So I usually write a few sentences in a final paragraph saying I hope to hear from the editor and providing my contact information. Here’s the final paragraph to my Dance Spirit Magazine query:
Thank you for considering this query. I hope you agree that a story on these three amazing female tap dancers and the unique show in which they currently are performing would make interesting reading for your audience. I look forward to hearing from you. You can reach me at [email address] or at [phone number].
- Salutation—Keep it simply. “Sincerely” works well.
- Proofread and edit your query. You don’t want to have any mistakes. As with any type of query letter, you only get one chance to make a first impression. A typo—especially in the editor’s name or first paragraph—will get you a rejection.
- Send your query.
- Wait. Check the guidelines for the publication you chose online or in 2014 Writer’s Market. If the publication says it responds in two months, assume it takes at least three months. Don’t call before—or ever—to find out if the editor has made a decision. Just wait. If you get tired of waiting, send your query to a different publication.
If you follow these six steps, you’ll increase your chances of producing queries that sell. After all, pitching is simply about finding a target and hitting it. When that query letter lands on an editor’s desk, you want your words to hit hard!
photo credit: SteveNakatani via photopincc
Can you land a freelance magazine assignment without any clips?
If you’re new to freelancing and don’t have a lot of writing experience, it’s easy to think you can’t.
But it’s just not true.
About a year ago, I started at ground zero. I was pitching local newspapers and charity organizations. And I wasn’t getting anywhere. Not even low-paying gigs or pro bono work.
How was I ever going to land a magazine assignment without any clips?
Fortunately, Carol set me straight. “You need to learn how to pitch successfully,” she said.
Instead of chasing dead-end clients, I decided to go big and pitch a major magazine — the kind of magazine that has a massive readership, millions in ad revenue, and a freelance budget that pays pro rates.
And it worked. Pitch accepted.
Want to know how I did it? Here’s how you can land a major magazine assignment without any clips or experience.
Magazine markets for newbies
I stumbled across a few nuggets of information about magazine writing while I was reading Writer’s Marketabout how to develop story ideas and write query letters.
Some major magazines work with new writers. For example, I found out that The Atlantic works with new writers and assigns 50 percent of its content to freelancers.
Want to write for a popular magazine? Start here:
- Study Writer’s Market. If you want to write for a major magazine, this is the best place to find information on what editors are looking for, guidelines, pay rates, and where freelancers fit in.
- Hint: Save yourself some time, and use the online version that makes it easy to search for magazines in your niche that pay the best rates.
Was I convinced I could land a magazine assignment with The Atlantic, after reading the guidelines? No.
Finding a paying market was just the beginning of the process.
Do your homework
There was one other interesting fact I discovered about The Atlantic. This magazine likes to feature articles about Donald Trump. Just about every magazine has recurring topics and themes they like to cover, and you can find out what they are by doing your homework.
I studied the magazine. I read a ton of back issues and looked for articles on Donald Trump. I even studied The Atlantic’s website and FAQs, to understand it’s style, voice, and audience.
And a story idea with a fresh angle on the POTUS, and his success in business and real estate started to emerge.
- Got an article idea for a magazine? Before you start writing your pitch, take the time to really get to know the magazine. Look at things like sentence structure, word count, sources, style, voice, graphics, and photos. This step will help you get into the mind of the editor, think like a reader, and refine your idea.
Dig into research
Before I could send a query letter to the editor of The Atlantic, I needed to do some research on my topic. So I mapped out a timeline of Donald Trump’s successes and failures and identified key sources who influenced his decisions.
- You don’t need to know everything on a topic to write a pitch and land a magazine assignment. But it’s a mistake a lot of new writers make, including myself. You just need to know enough to convince an editor you have a good idea. Do your research, find expert sources, and move on to writing your pitch.
Write a query letter
With enough research on my topic, I sat down to write a query letter for The Atlantic. But I kept getting stuck on a problem that stops a lot of newbie freelancers from moving forward.
Editors receive dozens of queries and pitches each day. Hundreds each week. And for a magazine like The Atlantic, there might be just 100 magazine assignments for freelancers commissioned in a year.
- How do you make your query letter stand out? There’s more than one way to do this. As a newbie writer, I didn’t have any successful query letters of my own that I could model, so I:
- Combed through advice on writing queries in Writer’s Market
- Read a book called How to Sell Every Magazine Article You Write
- Studied resources in the Freelance Writers Den
And after a lot of self-doubt, editing, and rewriting, I submitted the following pitch to News Desk Editor Scott Stossel at The Atlantic:
Dear Mr. Stossel:
Would you be interested in an article on how President Trump reinvented himself at the age of 44 and how this critical period in his life led to his decision to ultimately seek the presidency?
The article will also cover the development of many of his highly personalized approaches to issues as well as his distinctive mannerisms.
This juicy article will be a great fit for your readers especially because of the wild, sometimes funny, sometimes sad but totally unique journey the author entails.
In December 1990 Trump was living a lavish life in Atlantic City. He was just starting to feel like he was making money with his casinos and many businesses when things turned sour and life threw him headfirst into a huge crisis. Having done what his father and family had expected of him for 30 years, and still ending up bankrupt, Trump decided to do his own thing.
The article covers meaningful aspects of his life during this eventful period, which are both sad and humorous.
Among the many episodes covered are:
– Trump reinvents himself after massive infusion of loans to keep his New York real estate business from failing
– Other influences from family members and associates including Ed Koch, Fred Trump and Roy Cohn
– How he developed a conviction he could become president based on his business success
– Early plans to develop his political background from his father and Roy Cohn
This article will comprehensively explain the reasons behind his business decision to reinvent his apartment lease policies and how this major change from his father’s business practices affected his plans for the rest of his life, including his drive to run for the presidency.
Comments and quotes from his peers, including Ed Koch, will spice the article. A photo section will add a pictorial dimension.
My background includes freelance journalist and patent paralegal.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Your first magazine assignment
A few days later, I heard back from Scott. My query seemed to come at the perfect time. And I scored my first paid assignment for a major magazine. Kind of crazy.
Here’s what I learned. You don’t need a pile of clips or years of experience to land your first magazine assignment. You just need to get started.
Work through the process to identify a market, study the magazine, research a topic for a story idea, and write a query letter. That’s what pro writers do, and it’s not really any different if you’re just beginning.
The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be signing your first contract.
Need help landing your first magazine assignment?Let’s discuss on Facebook.
Douglas Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas.
Tagged with: guest post, magazine writing, markets that pay, query letter, writer's guidelines