A well-written query letter can work like a magic wand for freelance writers, opening the door to the great-paying article assignments you desire.
Unfortunately, most query letters don’t get a response, even ones to publications that pay $100 an article, much less the ones that pay $1,000.
And yes, there are still $1-a-word article markets. Loads of ’em.
Lately, I’ve had a lot of comments here on the blog from writers who complain they’ve queried and queried and never had so much as a nibble.
That means something’s going wrong. Fortunately, most query errors are fairly simple to fix.
Here are the most common slip-ups I’ve seen reviewing query letters:
Your query has no headline
You’d think it would be a no-brainer to include a strong proposed headline for your story idea in a query letter, so the editor can quickly scan through and immediately grasp the gist of your story idea. But I’d say the majority of queries I’ve reviewed lack one.
Writing a headline for your story idea is also highly recommended because it will help you focus your idea. If you can’t put it into a concise headline — that’s written in the style of that publication — your idea probably needs more work before it’s ready for a query.
You didn’t study the publication
I see a lot of writers trying to shoehorn a topic they’re dying to write about into a publication that doesn’t accept articles on that topic, or in that format.
For instance, you query that you want to write about a single breakthrough medical procedure you learned about — but for a magazine that only runs medical roundup stories with five or more breakthroughs per story. Or you’re proposing a 3,000-word narrative feature for a publication that mostly runs short, list-driven “listicle” type pieces.
Trying to convince an editor to break the mold of their publication and make an exception because your idea is super-marvelous doesn’t usually work. Instead, analyze the magazine and see what types of articles they run…then, feed them an idea that fits right into one of their regular departments.
Your topic is too broad
Editors fear assigning topics that aren’t well-defined. It’s too risky. You might end up turning in a rambling mess.
Yet many writers feed this fear by pitching topics that are too general. They’re big enough that you could easily write a full-length book on the topic. If your idea could be a book, it’s not niched enough to be a good article pitch.
For instance, I recently heard from one writer who said an editor had liked her ideas enough to start up a conversation on email. But she didn’t assign her any right off — instead, the editor asked her to submit ideas that were “more thinly sliced.”
“What does she mean?” the writer asked me.
Translation: Your article idea needs to be narrow and clear enough that the editor can easily see you’ll be able to address that topic in the (usually short) word length you’re given.
Let’s slice a topic here just for practice. For instance, the writer who got the “thin-sliced” comment from her editor mentioned she had pitched writing an article about “dealing with divorce after 40.”
That, people, is a book topic.
An article topic in this neighborhood might be, “Dealing with divorce after 40 — when you have young kids.” Or you’re disabled. Or you live in a rural area. Or your kids are special needs. Or your ex is a stalker.
See the difference?
Serve up a thin slice of story and your editor sees your topic is doable in a short wordcount.
You don’t show your research
There are two kinds of research that are good to show in a pitch — your research into the publication, and your research into your story idea.
You should do both kinds before you query, especially if you’re a new writer.
Even if you don’t have any clips, if you write a really strong query, you could find yourself with an assignment from a great-paying market. It does happen.
But to make it happen, you have to show your stuff. Say which department your piece is for. Say what’s revealed by the interesting research you’ve about this issue. Throw in a quote from an expert you’ve already interviewed.
Writers hesitate to put this much work in for the query, because they fear it will be a waste of time. Then, you never get the gig because your query doesn’t give the editor confidence you can execute your piece.
It’s all about you
New writers often spend half their query letter talking about themselves. Worse yet, what they have to say is frequently negative. Here are a few gems I’ve seen:
“I just graduated college.”
“I’m a brand-new freelancer.”
“I couldn’t find a job, so I turned to freelancing out of desperation.”
This is not making the sale for you.
Remember, don’t tell an editor what you don’t know or can’t do.
A pro-sounding resume line goes like this:
“I am a Chicago-based writer specializing in healthcare topics. My work has appeared in ___ and ___ magazines.” (And omit that second line if you have no previous credits.)
That’s it. Give them a link to your writer website to solidify the idea that you’re a pro, and you’re done.
You never pitch good-paying publications
Sadly, this is probably the most common reason I see for not earning more.
Writers are trapped in fears they’re not good enough to earn that sort of money, and avoid approaching elite publications altogether…sometimes even if they’ve been getting published in lower-paying publications for years and years.
Remember, nobody will move your career up a notch except you.
The main thing to know is if you don’t pitch up to great publications, those juicy, fat $1,000 or $2,000 article checks are never going to come.
CONTEST: What’s keeping YOU from earning $1 a word? Tell us in the comments for a chance to win a FREE ticket to the 4-Week Journalism School class that’s starting May 8. Most fascinating insight whose author has the most RTs for this post will be declared the winner on Monday’s post, so leave us your Twitter handle with your comment. Good luck all!