Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Learn How to Earn a Living as a Freelance Writer, Part Two—Query Letters & Emails

Last week I posted Part One of Learn How to Earn a Living as a FreelanceWriter. I gave you some of the basics you need to start your freelance writing career. This week, and in those to come, we’ll delve more deeply into the strategies and skills you need to earn money. 

The first skill you'll need to develop is the ability to write a compelling queryA query is basically a written pitch. As you advance as a freelance writer, you'll have to write less and less of these, because you'll have editors coming to you with assignments. But believe me, the skill you develop writing these will stand you in good stead.

Query Letter Anquish
How to Query
This simple concept has caused more anguish for writers than anything else around. But in the freelance world, 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. 

Put the pieces together for success
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. Here's a post I wrote about the Importance of a Name for more details.
  • First Paragraph. You should start with your hook. Don’t use anything corny like, “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.” It's a neon sign that screams 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 by saying something like, “I don’t have any writing credits, but I’m willing to learn.”
NOTE: If you don't have any writing credits, include experience you have that would make you a good fit for writing this article. Are you pitching an article about how to get kids ready for to go back to school? It would be important for the editor to know you have six kids in school or that you're a teacher.

Here are the basics you need to achieve these goals:
  • Keep it short. Your query letter/email should NOT exceed one page…ever! If you're not sure what one page would look like in an email, write it in a word document first. Then copy and paste it into the email.
  • 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). 

Avoid Red Flags
Here are some red flags to avoid:
  • Too long.
  • Strange fonts.
  • Improper or mixed formatting. 

Also, it’s vitally important not to waste time when sending a query. 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, or have no bearing on the article you’re pitching.

Here are a couple of examples:
  • Just say the word and I’ll send you the article. (I really doubt you'd be pitching something and then not agree to send it)
  • I've spent hours researching this subject. (I would hope so) 

There are a lot of good resources on writing queries out there. The best I’ve ever seen is a screen cast,Anatomy of an pitch 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. Great tips, Edie. Question: Can you pitch the same article to more than one magazine? How does that work? I know that Chip MacGregor talks about reusing/republishing the same basic article over and over again. What's the etiquette there?

    1. If you pitch the same article idea at the same time, you have to let them know it's a simultaneous submission. If it's the same idea, rewritten you need to change the article about 50-60%, then you can resell it as a new article. And, depending on what rights you sold the first time, you can usually sell an article as a reprint. There are lots of ways to repurpose articles/ideas and I have several posts scheduled that give details about it. Thanks for dropping by! Blessings, E

  2. Great advice, Edie. Another bookmark :) A while back, I found a couple of sites with sample query letters and wrote a template for myself. I save it tweak as needed.

    Thanks for the suggestions of Alton and Noah Lukeman. I need to find those!

  3. Susan, saving a query letter template for yourself is a great idea. Thanks for sharing! Blessings, E

  4. Ummm, yeah. I made that editor confirmation call and got connected to her. Readers, take note!

    Thanks for the great info, Edie!

    1. Kristi, no worries, that's happened to several people I know. Thanks for stopping by! Blessings, E

  5. Great info! Sure wish you had this blog when I was starting out and trying to figure out what all this meant! :-)

    1. Vonda, I think we both wished for a roadmap. You've got some great info about articles on your blog today, too! Blessings, E

  6. Great advice, Edie, I probably need to begin working on a query.