Query letter: how to sell your article ideas to editors

Excerpt from Everything You Wanted to Know About Freelance Writing – Find, Price, Manage Corporate Writing Assignments & Develop Article Ideas and Sell Them to Newspapers and Magazines

Note: See link to Query Letter Video at end of blog post

You become a freelance writer when you start selling ideas to editors who pay you. To sell your ideas to editors, you need to pitch them using the query letter…

Many freelance writers have difficulty with the idea of sales and marketing. Perhaps because they see writing as a creative or artistic process, they feel marketing sullies the art. Although I see writing as a creative process, I see freelance writing as a business—one that involves sales and marketing—as well as the creative process….

When pitching ideas, I target my markets. It is better to send a few queries tailored to publications you know publish articles like the ones you are proposing, than to send a generic ‘are you looking for writers?’ query to 20 or more magazines in the hope one might bite….

It is best to send an email query letter and let the editor review it when he or she has time. It is also easier to follow up on a query by phone than it is to pitch an idea by phone, but more on follow-up later. Overall, I favour the email (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….

When you think of your query as your basic marketing tool—a sales letter customized to solicit business from a very targeted market (one editor)—it all begins to make sense.

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)….

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.

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….

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. Again, there will be much more on writing queries in the book. But I wanted to set the stage for you here.

An important part of the query letter is you: why should you be the one to write the article? You tell the editor about you in a brief paragraph towards the end of your query. As you pitch different publications or companies in different sectors (for corporate work), adjust your bio to reflect your strengths in relation to the article idea, the type of publication, or the company you are pitching….

Here is a query letter template:

Person’s Name
Position (usually Editor)
Publication Name

Dear Mr./Ms. Last Name:

Opening Paragraph. Make it read as if it might be the lead of the article. Or pose an intriguing question. Or outline a startling new trend.

Support Paragraph. Build on the introduction of the central idea and put your opening paragraph in context. Maybe include some statistics or trend information. Or discuss the economic, political, legal, environmental, or social/cultural reasons behind, or implications of, the person/subject/concept you are proposing to write about. Also, demonstrate a reason why the article would be of interest to the readers of the publication.

Source Paragraph. Demonstrate you have done some research and have access to sources that can comment on, or otherwise contribute to, your article. The higher placed the sources are, the more convincing you have to be about your ability to reach the appropriate sources.

Ask For The Order Paragraph. Literally, ask if the editor is interested in the article. If it is a time-sensitive topic, give a deadline.

About You Paragraph. This is where you add something about you and why you are the right person to write such an article. Be sure to include your contact information: phone, email, and website (if you have one).

Your Signature
Your Typed Name
Encl.: Clippings

Query letter for style
This query letter that I concocted is presented for style only. Having said that, since creating this query, I’ve seen several articles addressing the theme of “an apple a day” and the impact that fresh fruits and vegetables have on health. So you never know what you can turn into an article.

Dear <Name>:

Is there any truth to the expression ‘an apple a day keeps the Doctor away’? Yes, and here’s the proof.

According to the Nutritional Institute of Canada, one apple a day contains the daily recommended dose of vitamins X, Y, and Z. Apples are also an excellent source of roughage, contain no fat and very few calories. Apples make great snacks for kids. Baked or turned into applesauce, they can be used as a side dish for main meals or as scrumptious dessert.

The readers of (Magazine Name) are health-conscious individuals who are concerned about nutrition and diet. Would you be interested in a feature story on the healthy habit of eating an apple a day?

Along with verified health and nutritional facts about apples, my article will include an interview with the noted apple authority, Johnny Appleseed. I can also provide several of his favourite apple recipes.

I spent three years working in an apple orchard and have written short articles on apples for my community newspaper and church newsletter. Samples of my writing are enclosed. If this article is of interest, please feel free to contact me at (xxx) xxx-xxxx or email@mydomain.com.

Your Signature
Your Typed Name
Encl.: Clippings

Query letter video: sell your article ideas
In this 10-minute video, Paul Lima discusses how to sell your article ideas to newspaper and magazine editors using the query letter. He looks at how to structure and write query letters to pitch your article ideas.

For e-courses on writing and the business of freelance writing, visit:  paullima.com/ecourses/.

Excerpt from Everything You Wanted to Know About Freelance Writing – Find, Price, Manage Corporate Writing Assignments & Develop Article Ideas and Sell Them to Newspapers and Magazines


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