How to Write a Query/Pitch
Many talented freelance writers today are brimming with unusual, exciting and excellent ideas for articles, but struggle to get these out in print for the world to read. One valuable way to remedy the situation is to learn to craft effective query letters. These are essentially sales letters or pitches, and are designed to convince magazine or newspaper editors why they should consider publishing a proposed article. Find out below more about what should go into a query letter, what to avoid writing about, and how to present it in a way that makes it instantly appealing to an editor.
What is a Query/Pitch?
Freelance writers write query letters to magazine editors with the aim of selling an article, or the idea for one, because they believe it will benefit readers. Whether in electronic email format or via a traditional letter, through such sales letters the writer is also selling themselves, trying to convince a publication that they are the best person to write about the chosen topic, have the right credentials, and possess top-notch writing skills and experience. These days a query letter or sales pitch is the only opportunity a freelancer has to make a desirable impression on a potential publication, and its composition therefore requires careful attention.
Why are Queries/Pitches Important for Freelancers?
Why are query letters important to freelance writers? Query letters should prove that you can effectively communicate your idea. Your idea is so great, original, unusual or fresh that editors would have to be insane to pass it up – this is the message you need to convey in the space of one page. Editors are always on the look-out for interesting and creative ideas, as well as new writing talent; after all, these help to sell their publication.
Through queries, editors can quickly determine a number of factors about a writer. Factors they will be trying to identify within the query include:
Whether the writer can write well
Whether they read the specific magazine
Whether they are professional in how they communicates an idea
Whether they have the necessary experience
Whether they can put together an idea that fits the requirements of the magazine
Queries are also time-savers for writers. This is one way to find out whether an idea is acceptable for publication, and if it is worth spending time and energy on. An editor’s decision to not accept your article idea might be informed by factors other then quality; maybe the magazine has similar articles on file, or someone else has been assigned to write a similar piece. In addition, editors who are impressed with your idea, style or credentials might decide to offer you an opportunity to write on something else.
Moreover, quality writing usually makes a good impression on editors. So, even if you lack experience and credentials, these should not deter you from sending a query or pitch.
Steps to Follow when Writing a Query/Pitch
When preparing to compose a query letter, some background work needs to be taken care of. Firstly, it would be wise to familiarise yourself with the magazine/s you wish to send query letters to. Read and study a couple of the magazines to get a sense of the topics they cover, and make sure your article idea hasn’t been published yet. It’s also the best way to pick up information about magazine style, voice and tone; this way you know how to craft your article so it matches these requirements.
Familiarise yourself with the publication’s submission guidelines, noting formatting, style, and word count requirements. Editors might also stipulate whether they prefer queries via mail or email. It’s also important to find the name, address and contact information of the current editor.
Remember, editors are busy people, so keep the query letter short, preferably no longer than a page. Anything longer is likely to go to the bottom of the pile (the ‘slush’ pile) or get ignored.
What Information should go into the Query/Pitch?
1. Use customary header information, and address your letter to the editor responsible for queries and manuscripts.
2. Your opening sentence, or ‘hook,’ should immediately interest the editor; write a brief statement introducing your idea in such a way that the editor would want to continue reading to the end.
3. Follow up with the pitch, usually starting in the second paragraph, explaining in detail what your article is going to be about. In about 2-4 short paragraphs, sell your idea so that the editor will have a clear understanding of what you are offering. Include a working title that grabs their attention. In trying to be as convincing as possible, think about why the editor should show an interest in your proposed article, and how it will benefit readers of the magazine.
4. Next, tell the editor why you are the ideal person to write this article. Mention credentials – previous writing experience, professional experience, past interviews with notable or interesting people, or even academic or teaching experience in the subject. If you have a unique angle to the story, or the person to be interviewed promised you an exclusive story, be sure to mention this.
5. Add your contact details – where you are easily reachable – in plain sight; include a website address if you have one.
6. Finish by thanking the editor for taking the time to read your proposal. Also, specify a time-estimate by when you would have the article ready should the editor be interested. Be realistic with this and remember that editors won’t necessarily be impressed by a quick turnaround; they might even question the quality of the work if your turnaround is too tight.
How you present the query is as important as its content, so be sure to include:
A standard, respectable letterhead – your name, address, additional contact details – should be printed at the top of the letter in simple, yet elegant font
A formal salutation – even if you know the editor’s first name, it’s best to keep it formal
If you are using snail mail, be sure to include a self-addressed stamped envelope with adequate postage
Proofread the query thoroughly before mailing it, even after using a spellchecker.
Possible Effective Query Openings or Hooks
The first line of the pitch should hook the editor’s attention and demonstrate that you are a skilled writer who knows the specific market the publication caters for. Here are some examples of good hooks:
The Attention-Grabber – the aim is to make the reader take notice instantly; you want the editor to close the door to the office, take the phone off the hook, or put the mobile phone on silent because they want to read the letter to the end without interruption.
The Information Hook – presents unusual, rare or fresh statistics or facts about a topic that’s of interest to the publications’ audience.
The Problem-Solution Hook – highlights a situation or problem that most magazine readers struggle with, and your article suggests a solution. It’s useful to start off the query by asking a related question like, “Did you know …?”
The Don’ts of Writing a Query/Pitch
Be careful when composing the query that you don’t inadvertently or consciously include some or all of the following. Any of these won’t impress an editor:
No demands or negotiating – refrain from making demands such as by when you would like to receive feedback from an editor, or stipulating how much you expect to be paid if your idea gets accepted. Such information is usually in the submission guidelines, and also shows that you haven’t read, or respected, what’s required of you.
No anecdotal or sentimental information – it makes you look unprofessional and can give the impression that you’re a desperate amateur. The fact that you might be a divorced mother with 3 kids badly needing the money and exposure to ward off starvation belongs in Hollywood movie scripts, not on an editor’s desk.
Don’t beseech an editor to accept your idea – or say that you will take your idea elsewhere if they don’t respond favorably by a specific time.
Don’t come across as being impatient – usually publications take about a month to respond, so resist the urge to send follow-up email reminders or make phone calls.
Don’t come across as ‘the perfect writer’ – refrain from saying things like, “Your readers need this article” or what a wonderful asset you will be for the publication. Even if you are highly experienced, it’s best not to say this outright; let the query show this rather than you spelling it out.
Don’t say you’re an amateur, even if you are – editors tend to cringe when you point out that you’re new to writing, or that someone else suggested you approach the magazine with your idea. Also, don’t let on that you send the same query to 10 or 20 other publications.
It’s important that freelancers understand that editors are keen on fresh, excellent ideas wrapped in talented, flawless, quality writing. Some editors may insist on credentials, experience, or a long list of previous publications. However, most go for exceptional ideas they know would stir high excitement among existing readers, and thereby increasing the pool of potential audiences in the market.
The query letter is the freelance writer’s opportunity to make the desired impression, so it’s vital to get it right!