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!