Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Get Started as a Freelance Writer—Part Two, Query Letters

Last week I posted an overview on starting your freelance writing career. This week we’ll delve more deeply into the strategies and skills you need to earn money. The first skill you need to develop is the ability to write a compelling query.

How to Query
This simple concept has caused more anguish for writers than anything else around. But it’s a necessary evil. Your queries may find their way to the editor's desk in hard copy format or email, but the principles are the same.

It may seem unfair that your writing ability is judged on a single letter or email, but that is the hard truth in this industry. And, having sat behind the editor’s desk, I now understand why. Invariably a poorly written query previews major problems in the writer’s submitted work. I have rarely found this to be the exception. But rather the rule.

The query letter serves two equally important purposes:
  • Get the assignment.
  • Showcase your writing ability. 

The Parts of the Query 
  • Salutation. Make certain you get a name – not Dear Editor. If you can’t find the name listed anywhere, call the office, just don’t let them connect you to the editor. Also, check the spelling and the GENDER. You don’t want to use the wrong pronoun.
  • First Paragraph. You should start with your hook. Don’t use anything corny, “Don’t miss out on this opportunity.” Instead, it should be a legitimate hook. You also need to reference what part of the magazine/website you’re pitching. Don’t say something like, “This idea would work well anywhere in your magazine.” This signals to the editor that you’re an amateur. Also give the approximate word count.
  • Second Paragraph. This is where you pitch your idea. It’s good to include specifics—even bullet points—here.
  • Third Paragraph. This is your bio, your credentials for writing this article. Be honest, but don’t over inflate your merits. As editors, we've seen it all and can spot a fake from a mile away. Also don’t criticize or run down yourself. “I don’t have any writing credits, but I’m willing to learn.”
Here are the basics you need to achieve these goals:
  • Keep it short. Your query letter/email should NOT exceed one page…ever!
  • Use a standard font. Times New Roman 12 point font.
  • Use standard formatting. For an e-query use block formatting (no paragraph indentions, single spaced, double space between paragraphs). For hard copy use traditional letter formatting (indented paragraphs, single spacing, no extra lines between paragraphs).

Here are some red flags to look for:
  • Too long.
  • Strange fonts.
  • Improper or mixed formatting.

Also, it’s vitally important not to waste time when sending a query. By this I don’t mean hurry to send it off, but rather, get to the point. Don’t waste the editor’s time with things that are understood (just say the word and I’ll send you the article) or have no bearing on the article you’re pitching.

There are a lot of good resources on writing queries out there. The best I’ve ever seen is a screen cast by Alton Gansky. He goes through an actual e-query and explains what works in it and why.

There is also a free e-book, How to Write a Great Query, by Noah Lukeman (You may remember another book he wrote, The First Five Pages). In this book he deals with queries for agents regarding book length manuscripts, but a lot of the tips are also relevant for freelancers—particularly the section on non-fiction books.

Now it's your turn. What experience have you had with queries? What questions do you have?
Don't forget to join the conversation!


  1. Is it best to send a query via e-mail or standard (snail) mail? Or does it depend on the magazine? Do the writing guidelines let you know or is it best to call?

  2. The writers guidelines should say. It's rare if they don't, but if not, ask someone you may know who has submitted to that particular place. I'd only call about that as a last resort.
    Blessings - E

  3. You make it all so simple. Thank you for your heart for helping others!

  4. Edie,

    Good information that's worth passing on to others. You've offered some excellent stuff here at "The Write Conversation."


  5. Thanks Vonda - you know me - I have to keep it simple or I don't get it!
    Tom, I appreciate your reference very much - thanks!
    Blessings all - E

  6. This is so good. Thanks for the concise and easy format. I'm gonna' try! :)

  7. I know I am going to have to get good at queries soon. I have changed my major to technical writing at Anderson University. However, currently I do not have a working printer. Is there a way you would be willing to send me a copy?

    Also, how do internship/job queries differ from traditional queries?

  8. I know I am late to see this post but I just wanted to comment. The video, by Alton Gansky on queries, is one of the most informative and helpful pieces I have seen. If anyone is struggling with how to write a query, this is a clear and perfect example! Thanks for directing us Edie!