Breaking into freelance writing has a few hoops. One of those hoops is how to write a query letter. As an editor, I regularly receive pitches like the following:
I know a mover and shaker in the dairy farm industry. How about a story about dairy farming?
Because this guy told me he is a college student looking for work, I explained to him a little about how to pitch an idea. But if I received this pitch from a professional freelancer, it would be deleted, without delay.
Does that sound harsh to you? Let me explain.
My first question is, “What about dairy farming?” Do you want to write about the history of dairy farming? New technology used in dairy farming? The consequences of the latest laws in the area for dairy farmers?
See what I mean?
Since I don’t know what this guy really wanted to write about, I had to respond and ask. That response prompted many back and forth emails hammering out exactly what he wanted to write, the points he wanted to include and who his sources were. What happened is, I spent over an hour of the magazine’s time helping this guy formulate his ideas and pitch so that we both understood what the story was about. The reality is, the small start-up regional publication I work for cannot afford for me to spend my time doing this kind of hand-holding.
The reality for most magazines is that they cannot afford for their editors to spend their time doing this kind of hand-holding.
So, if your queries are getting no response, keep reading.
How to write a query letter
There are five main parts to a query letter. They include:
- Advance planning
- The hook
- The pitch
- The outline
- Your credentials
- A call to action
Let’s take a look at these five parts a little closer.
While you may not want to put a lot of time into your story before you know it has a paying home, it does pay to do a little advance planning. If you are not an expert on the subject, do a little research to familiarize yourself with what you want the story to say. Gather some facts and statistics. Ferret out the experts in the field and secure an interview with one. In other words, know what the heck you are talking about before you approach your editor.
This is your introductory paragraph. Write it as compelling as the lead to your story. This is where you capture the editor’s attention so he doesn’t get bored and delete you.
The pitch paragraph tells the editor what you want to write about. For example, “Did you know that John Smith of Milky Way Farms uses no less than three phone apps to help him run his dairy farm? One of those apps alerts him when there is a power outage. A power outage to his holding tanks means his milk goes bad. This handy app lets him know to check and make sure his automatic generator kicks on. The second app enables him to place feed and supply orders while he is in the barn. Before the supplier launched this app, John frequently lost the lists he would make and would have to go back and take inventory a second time. There are others. In fact, there are so many apps available for farmers with smart phones or tablets that I want to write about them. How about The Top Ten Apps for Dairy Farmers for your spring issue?”
Now that you told your editor what you want to write about, spell it out for him. Give him your three key points, how long your story will be, what you will include in a sidebar and who you plan to interview.
A lot of new writers get hung up at this point if they do not have any published clips to share. If you don’t have any, don’t mention it. If you do, share what is appropriate. Also share any life skills or experiences that make you the best person to write the story. For instance, when I pitch parenting magazines, I always tell them I have six kids. That little tidbit makes me look like I know what I’m talking about.
A call to action
Ask for the assignment. Short and sweet: “Would you like this piece for your spring issue? I can have it to you by September.”
Want some more help? Get a free copy of my eight-page tip sheet “How to Write the Query Letter that Sells.” In there I share in more detail each step of the process with examples from query letters that I’ve used to get paying assignments. Simply click the button below to get your copy.