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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