Why Your Query Letter Gets No Response: The Painful Truth

mailboxEvery freelance writer I know hates rejection. But there’s one thing that is even worse.

It’s when you send a query letter, and you never hear anything back.

No “thanks but no thanks,” no form “we received your query and will get back to you if we’re interested”…nothing. Ever.

Now, usually, when writers complain about this to me, I’m sympathetic and encouraging. I point out there are tons of logical reasons you might have never gotten a response that have nothing to do with how good your pitch was…such as:

  • The editor is on vacation
  • The editor gets too many pitches to respond
  • The editor is busy planning a special issue or section right now
  • The editor has your pitch in a ‘possibles’ stack but isn’t ready to pull the trigger yet
  • Your query went in their spam or got lost in the mail
  • They recently assigned an idea just like that
  • That editor just got fired but it hasn’t been announced yet
  • That editor’s role has changed and they’re not the right one anymore
  • That publication is being bought out and the focus is changing

You get the idea.

But today, we’re not going to dance around this subject. I’m not going to tell you to think positive. To keep pitching anyway and not be emotionally devastated that you didn’t get the gig.

Today, let’s confront the most-likely real reason that you heard nothing but crickets after you sent that query.

Your query sucked

I’m sorry to be the one to say it. But if you never hear a peep, it’s highly likely it’s because your pitch wasn’t even in the ballpark.

You’re not understanding how the query-letter game works. Your queries are not showing editors you’ve got a great idea, and that you are the right writer to assign this topic.

In fact, they may be hoping if they just don’t say anything, you’ll move on and not pitch them again.

As long as you get the big silence from editors, you are stuck.

You can’t get new publication clients and grow your income. You’re cruising the Craigslist ads or Elance or writing for content mills. The doors of higher-paying opportunity stay slammed shut in your face.

What’s going wrong

If you’re not getting positive rejections and some assignments from your queries, what can you do?

Learn more about how to write queries and get better at it. Until you start to get results.

Here are some common pitch errors I see:

  • Don’t proof. It’s amazing how much sloppy work there is out there.
  • Don’t follow instructions. Like one writer who pitched me for this blog recently, sending just a headline — that’s all. There was no outline or background on them or link to their site and they clearly hadn’t read my guidelines.
  • Don’t study the publication. Have you read this publication’s advertising guide and know who their reader is? Have you scanned back issues so you know what they’ve recently published? When you send a pitch that is just like an article they ran two issues ago — or one that isn’t remotely something their subscribers would want to read — the editor just moves on. You couldn’t be bothered to do your homework, so why should that editor take the time to write you?
  • Don’t have a ‘news hook.’ Your basic idea might be OK, but you haven’t given the editor any compelling reason this story needs to be published now. So it isn’t.
  • You sound desperate. Lines like “Please give me a chance” or offers to write a free article to get in the door just clue the editor in that you don’t understand how magazine publishing works. Oversharing tidbits like how you turned to freelancing out of desperation after getting laid off don’t make you sound excited about writing.

I could go on here, but I think you get the basic drift.

Querying is not something writers are born instinctively able to write. It’s not like breathing. Queries are a format you have to learn to master.

Good news is, you can learn it. It’s not that tough, once you know the fine points of what goes into a strong pitch.

How you’ll know when you’re getting the hang of it

How do you know when you’ve got the hang of pitching editors? Contrast that silence most queries get with what happens when you write a great query, but the editor doesn’t want that particular idea.

They write you back.

That’s right — even if they’re passing on that idea, they respond.

It’s happened to me bunches of times. At this point, I rarely get no response.

A truly well-written, standout query makes an editor stop what they’re doing to reach out. Because editors are always looking for fresh, talented writers to add to their stable. And most queries suck.

So when you write a great one, it stands out.

Then, instead of silence, you get something like this:

“This is great,” writes the editor, “but I just assigned something similar. Let’s definitely work on something together, though. Feel free to send me more ideas. I have a special issue on X coming up, so let me know if you have any ideas on that topic!”

I call this the positive rejection letter.

It’s no to this idea…but yes to you.

It’s your flashing indicator light that you’re on the right track. You understand how to write a query letter.

What you wrote was creative and on-target enough to make that editor like you and to start building a relationship that should lead to paying gigs. Even if that one idea didn’t fly.

And if you take that time to learn how to pitch, it’s like getting the key to a whole bunch of way better-paying doors as a writer.

Have you gotten a response to a pitch? Leave us a comment and tell us what you think made the sale.

 

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22 comments on “Why Your Query Letter Gets No Response: The Painful Truth
  1. Tarang Sinha says:

    Oh, very informative article and uplifting too. Sent some queries recently but haven’t received any reply yet. I have written (And published) some articles in magazines that accepts unsolicited articles.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Tarang Sinha recently posted…From ‘We’ Time To ‘Me’ TimeMy Profile

  2. Gabrielle Bauer says:

    Your point is well taken, but how do you explain the phenomenon of a seasoned writer with multiple national awards — one who has repeatedly been told that her pitches are standouts — getting the no-reply treatment? OK, I’m talking about myself here. In this case, what might account for the deafening silence?

    • Carol Tice says:

      Could be several different things, Gabrielle.

      Maybe you’re just hitting topics they’ve already got in the pipeline.

      It’s not a good fit of idea to market.

      The headline isn’t drawing them in, though the idea might be solid.

      I find if you’re close to there, you get the positive rejection comment back. Have you considered Freelance Writers Den? We have a query review forum and rarely find a query we can’t make better…and see a lot of assignments come from writers who take the time to work a little harder on their queries.

      Certainly, I’ve got awards as well, and don’t always get a response. But if you’re never getting one, something’s up. I’d recommend finding out what it is.

  3. Another thing I’d add is that your query sucking is not a completely bad thing. And it never stops happening. I’ve been doing this for a long time and been published in some pretty cool places, but my queries still suck… sometimes. When it’s a new publication that I haven’t looked through properly out of impatience, for instance, or when I’m so eager to sell a story that I don’t even stop to consider whether that editor will see it in the same way.

    For the life of me, I still can’t break into a parenting magazine, so I’m clearly doing something wrong (in the querying, not the parenting hopefully). I don’t know what yet, but part of the challenge is figuring it out. I’m looking at you, Parents. One of these days.

    I think far too many writers take it personally when they’re told that their query sucks. But I think we need to accept that the higher we go and the more we want to grow, there will be markets that we want to break into that we don’t quite understand. And to them, our queries suck.

    Ask the New Yorker. They still can’t be bothered to respond to mine.
    Mridu Khullar Relph recently posted…61 Ways to Be Productive When You Work From HomeMy Profile

  4. Bliss says:

    Thanks for posting such a helpful article, if we can get our excitement about our idea to come through in our approach, that should speak for itself 🙂
    Bliss recently posted…The Freaky-Deaky Is In All of Us!My Profile

  5. Hi Carol

    When I was student, everyone I knew on campus thought I was the laziest person on the planet.

    So they were astonished, when I graduated, that I found a full-time job more quickly than virtually everyone else.

    They were also surprised that I put so much effort into job applications.

    Why on earth would a lazy person put so much time into researching the company and the position he was applying for – and then spend a stack load of time individually tailoring the application for that position?

    Because I was lazy that’s why.

    I quickly realised doing it this way was actually LESS WORK than firing out applications like a mass direct mailing.

    The same applies to article pitching I’m pretty damn sure.
    Kevin Carlton recently posted…Help! No-one ever comments on my blog. What should I do?My Profile

  6. Great article, Carol! I must say that in the past 3 years that I’ve been freelancing I’ve seen that same curve. It’s astonishing to me now what my response rate is compared to what it used to be. Encouraging to hear your perspective, which means I’m on the right track!

    Best,

    EWM
    Emily McIntyre recently posted…In Which I Meet at Least His HarpMy Profile

  7. Carol,

    When I first started my online journey, I knew nothing about querying. I know a bit more now, thanks to the numerous articles I have read.

    When I pitched a possible guest post to you, I was intimidated. (Possible post here… What To Do When You Are Too Intimidated To Pitch An Editor… refined to Does Your Editor Intimidate You? Do These 5 Things!… um, needs work, this is off the top of my head…)

    Anywho, what I’m getting at here is that I am finding more confidence in myself and my writing “voice”. I no longer fear talking to you, sending an email or tweet, commenting on your blog, etc. That’s great, right? (Nope, not seeking validation, just pointing out that being brave takes time!)

    I think that the points you have made in this post hit a nerve with me since I have sent out a few guest post proposals to bloggers and have heard replies from those who have solicited them. I was even approved for two guest posts that were unsolicited!

    When I first pitched you a few weeks ago, I didn’t take the first pitch that seriously, until it was rejected. Then I got serious. I wanted approval, and so when I pitched the second time, I presented three ideas, hoping that you would like at least ONE of them! (A trick I learned from you and Linda, btw, which ended up working!)

    During our mini-convos, I felt less and less intimidated, which would make me the perfect person to write an article using an iteration of one of the aforementioned headlines!

    Then again, maybe I should have saved this idea for Pitch Clinic. *wink wink*
    However, I like the informal tone that leaving a comment here for you provides.
    Lorraine Reguly recently posted…Google+ Circles: The Unanswered Questions, Answered!My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Lorraine —

      One of the reasons I started taking guest posts was for the opportunity to provide a little mentoring on how the pitch process works, for my motivated readers.

      I feel sad that anyone feels scared to pitch me. ;-( Or really that anyone is held back from trying to be a freelance writer by their fears. I hate that! Which is why we have so many posts on that /tag/overcoming-fear over in that “We talk about” section!

      But hopefully everyone finds a starting point where they feel comfortable pitching, and takes it from there. Otherwise, you’re probably not writing for publications or blogging for a living.

  8. Love this! So many tips that are useful today and tomorrow. I especially like the reverse angle of it. It’s relatively easy to give tips “This is what to do.” Saying, “These are the errors I keep seeing” is tougher, but gets right to the point or root of the problem. So, here here! (I have a book with a chapter heading of, “When is Writing Good? When It’s Understood? No, When It Cannot be Misunderstood!”).

    It took me years to recognize that the follow-up letter I received (way back when) was a no-to-the-idea but a yes-to-me. At the time, I was devastated to receive the “no.” I was also only 22 and terrified of writing “wrong.”

    Jump forward 35 years. Today, a long road away from then, I’ve the courage to send LOIs (and brochures or postcards) offering my writing expertise to non-profit organizations. I get rejections, like everyone else, but they don’t lay me out on the floor now.
    D Kendra Francesco recently posted…Air, Our BreathMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think we’ve all probably made this mistake early on, where you just go away instead of pitching them again after the positive rejection. But lesson learned!

      And if you loved this, you’d love Pitch Clinic — our first training session is “11 Top Query Mistakes” 😉

  9. Cheryl Rhodes says:

    Back before the Internet and we had to send out SASEs with queries the magazine didn’t always respond. What a waste of stamps! Especially when you don’t live in the states and have to stock up on stamps during visits there to make sure you have enough postage to get a response. Some authors said they never enclose the SASE because if the editor really wants your article or your book they’ll get in touch with you.

    These days with most magazines accepting email queries I know some editors are flooded with queries and if I don’t get a response I just figure this is a magazine that only responds if they’re interested. In other words, most of the reasons you listed above!

    I will say that just about every trade magazine I query responds to me one way or the other. Consumer magazines seem more likely to respond if they want more information or a yes. And sure sometimes when its a no too.

    I agree that if a writer never ever gets a response one way or the other the query probably sucked and they have to work on improving it.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I too remember the good ol’ days of the SASE. Definitely something I love about the Internet!

      I do think trade-pub editors are a bit less snowed under, so they’re more likely to reply.

  10. Daryl says:

    Great points Carol!

    One of the main issues with pitching is not studying/knowing the publication! How can you pitch an idea when you truly don’t know what type of content that the editor is looking for (I’ve been guilty of this myself I might add!)

    I think that the better you know the publication, the better your chances of tailoring a pitch that is likely to be accepted.
    Daryl recently posted…Why I Hate Bid Sites Like Odesk and ElanceMy Profile

  11. Arbaz says:

    This might come in handy when writing a letter to someone.
    Also I might love to hear more about the Pitch Clinic. is it a course or something?
    Arbaz recently posted…The Best Installous Alternatives To Install IPA FilesMy Profile

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