Why your query letter should be ‘pitch-er’ perfect

Excerpt from Everything You Wanted to Know About Freelance Writing and from Business of Freelance Writing: How to Develop Article Ideas and Sell Them to Newspapers and Magazines

If you ran a business manufacturing widgets and wanted Sears to buy your widgets, you would pitch the benefits of your product to an appropriate product buyer at Sears. If you baked pies and wanted to sell them to consumers, you would open a storefront and promote your pie business. The query letter pitch and the follow-up are your sales and marketing tools. Without using them, you will be hard-pressed to become a freelance writer.

Overall, I favour the e-mail (or mail) query for three reasons:

  1. It is what most editors expect from freelance writers.
  2. Many editors will not look at unsolicited manuscripts—a query is shorter, easier to read, and demonstrates the writer’s knowledge of the topic and their ability to write.
  3. It takes work to write a query letter but it takes more work to write an article; I want to know that I will be paid to write an article before I do the work.

New writers are often concerned that editors may not buy their ideas because they have limited or no writing experience. By submitting the full article, the writer hopes the editor will like and buy it. More often than not, however, the article is too long, too short, not focused enough, or not focused on what the editor would have wanted. Or simply does not get read.

Why would you research and write an article, and then submit it not knowing if the editor wants it? The query letter, on the other hand, is your calling card. It is proof you have done some thinking and research and can write. It gives you the chance to sell your idea and yourself. It is where the business of freelance writing starts.

Query: Pitch-er perfect

Your query letter must be focused on the idea and flawless—no spelling or grammatical errors—in execution, reflecting the detailed care you will give your article. For newspaper or magazine articles, a query letter addressed to the editor will outline the following:

  • Your article idea—the focus of the article or what the article is all about.
  • The sources, or potential sources, of information.
  • Why readers (of the target publication) would want to read the article (demonstrating your knowledge of the magazine’s readership).
  • Why the article should be written now.
  • Why you should be the one to write the article, i.e., a paragraph about you (which your ME cluster should help you write).

Your writing must be impressive—tight and creative, but not far-out and wacky (unless you are writing for a far-out and wacky publication). Even then, you want to be professional. You want to intrigue the editor and tickle his or her curiosity.

Also, your central idea must seem like something the publication’s readers would be interested in or benefit from, and it must be credible. If you propose to profile or interview the president or prime minister, for example, and you have no political experience or no obvious access to that person, the idea will not appear to be credible. It will appear to be beyond your reach, unless you explain exactly how you will accomplish what you propose to do.

Query opening example

Allow me to show you an example of a query subject line and lead (opening) I consider about as close to perfect as you can get.

Subject: Article Query: Show your true love

Dear <Editor’s Name>:

The same bunch of roses that says “I love you” to a mother or “I’m sorry” to a lover could mean long-term illness in communities where they were grown. Doctors studying the issue in Ecuador have revealed the thorny side of the cut-rose industry as they work toward a fairer flower.

The predominantly young workers who toil in the cut-flower industry do not always notice they have medical problems, which tend to manifest later in life. Others, like one young mother I met while attending a community clinic held by the Centre for Studies and Consultation in Health (CSCH), cannot hold a pen straight and exhibits other disorders. But she continues working with cut flowers to make ends meet.

Dr. Jaime Breilh of the CSCH says they first thought poisoning through acute pesticide exposure was making cut-flower workers ill. As they studied the issue, however, they learned low-dose chronic exposure to pesticides caused the problems.

Of course the query goes on from there, as you will see from other examples in the book. But what I want you to do here is imagine this query with the above subject line landing in the editor’s in-box before Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. The editor might think it is a query for another typical “love” article but would open it to check it out because, after all, the editor is looking to run love-oriented articles around Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. He just hopes they go beyond the usual clichés and perhaps offer a bit of fresh insight.

Imagine, now, as the editor gets to the end of the first paragraph: suddenly, everything Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day stands for has been stood on its head. The flowers we send to show our love could be making people sick? If this is something the editor did not know, then this information captures the attention of the editor and causes the editor to read on.

As the editor reads on, he sees a well-written, well-structured query letter. He learns that the author, having been to Ecuador, has first-hand knowledge of the situation and has sources she can contact when writing the article, which means this is a credible issue.

In short, the editor is interested and intrigued and experiences an attitude adjustment. Expecting another “show your love” query, the editor discovers a powerful story.

That is what you have to do in your queries: capture the attention of the editor, hold the editor’s interest, and influence attitude. If you can do that, you will dramatically increase your chances of closing the sale. 

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One thought on “Why your query letter should be ‘pitch-er’ perfect

  1. Pingback: 15 Tips for Getting Started in Freelance Writing – Meghan J. Ward

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