An award-winning journalist breaks down the types of query letters at a freelance writer’s disposal and when to use each to land assignments.
Sometimes—and this is usually after you’ve sent out the first dozen query letters and received a couple of acceptances—you won’t need to send out pitch after pitch to solicit assignments.
You’ll still be proposing ideas and asking for work, of course, but the query letter itself changes with time and your level of experience.
It graduates from being a formal well thought-out proposal to an informal what-do-you-think discussion.
Let’s break down the types of query letters at a freelance writer’s disposal. Then we’ll look at when each pitch should be used to land assignments.
Quick word before we begin: There are no “rules” to this, just guidelines, so remember to always do a gut check. You’re a smart, intelligent professional (you are, I promise), so trust that you know what is best when you’re communicating with someone.
Here are the the types of query letters and why they work in different situations.
1. The short query letter
This is the email I send to editors I’m pitching for the first time. Because I write mostly newsy, fact-based stories, there’s not a lot to say until I’ve been out and done the reporting and I won’t be doing a sizeable chunk of that reporting until I’ve been assigned the story. This is the type of query in which the idea and slant are everything.
For instance, I once pitched a story to GlobalPost on how Scientology was entering India, not as a religion but as a business philosophy. The story came to me through a simple flier I received for a Scientology business seminar. I looked into it a bit I had myself a story. The pitch itself was about four sentences long because the slant was the most important thing. The rest would come once I started reporting (and it did).
(If you’d like to see the incredible difference good query letters can make to your career and how they helped me break into top publications such as The New York Times, TIME, and more, sign up for these free case studies. They’ll show you, in detail, how I broke into these two top publications, became a contributing editor at ELLE, and earned $10,000 from a single story. You can get them for free here.)
2. The long query letter
This is the query letter you’ll learn to write if you want to break into American women’s magazines, parenting magazines, or publications that run long-form stories, like Wired, The New Yorker, etc. You’ll need to do some reporting up front, quote experts, and read the latest data and news available on the topic. Be clear on the angle you’re taking and what makes it interesting.
Publications that want these long queries are also typically the most competitive, so you may have to spend some additional time on the pitch.
Many writers will pitch publications in this category for years before they break in, so if you’re interested in doing long-form writing and reporting, do yourself a favor and practice this style of query from the get-go.
3. The one-paragraph query letter
This is the type of pitch that’s usually sent to editors you’ve already worked with. I’ve written dozens of articles for certain publications, and their editors don’t need me to prove that I can deliver a strong story. So all I need to do is think up ideas, lay out why my story is different and interesting, and I have myself an assignment.
Once you’ve become familiar to an editor and her publication, I recommend you pitch in this way. Not only because it saves you time, but because it saves your editor time as well. It allows them to give you a quick yay or nay without either of you having put in a significant time investment. Crucially, it allows them to become a part of the shaping of the idea, which can be really helpful, especially for complicated story ideas.
4. The one-sentence query letter
If brevity is more your style. Always, always to editors you know, have met, or have worked with.
5. The multiple-idea query letter
I’ll typically only send multiple ideas only to editors I’ve previously worked with. That said, there’s no rule saying this type of query letter can’t be sent to editors who’ve asked for ideas or who you’ve been pitching for a while with no success.
My only concern about sending multiple ideas in one pitch is budget. If an editor has a limited budget and I send them four ideas, they may reject two or three for no reason other than there’s a limit to how many they can take. And I won’t be able to pitch these perfectly good ideas again. I’ve had this happen. An editor rejected an idea twice because of lack of space and budget, and by the third time, she was simply bored with it. It wasn’t new to her anymore.
If an editor is assigning for an entire year, however, then sure, go ahead and pitch quite a few.
6. The phone or in-person pitch
You know how business experts advise that you have an elevator pitch ready for your business? This is a 30-second summary of an idea that you could explain on an elevator ride.
It’s just as true in freelancing as it is in the startup world. You could find yourself on the phone with an editor who says, “What do you have for me?” and you don’t want to fumble and bumble your way around an answer. You want a sharp summary of a story idea ready to go.
So, if you happen to get yourself a meeting with an editor or are pitching something over the phone, practice refining your idea into a couple of sentences that make it sound intriguing, to-the-point, and of course, totally assignment worthy.
7. The essay pitch
Most publications will assign personal essays and humor based on the actual work, not a query letter, but some of the national magazines consider essay pitches, especially if you’ve worked with them before.
If you’re sending an essay in its entirety, a two-sentence introduction followed by the essay is absolutely fine. If you’re pitching it before it’s written, then query like you would any other piece—with a hook, a description of where the essay is going to take the reader, and what it’s about. And, of course, your writing credentials.
8. The Letter of Introduction
The Letter of Introduction is a one-page pitch, but the type of pitch that gives writers the most grief. Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s actually pretty easy to write. My trick is to write it in third person as if I’m introducing someone else and then go back and change the whole thing to first person before sending it.
Once it’s written, you can pretty much copy and paste it, and send to as many as potential clients as you like. The LOI is typically sent to trade magazine editors or business clients.
9. The social media pitch
Increasingly, writers are pitching editors and getting assignments on social media. The trick to a successful social media pitch is to keep it short and snappy, and offer to send more details over email.
Understanding the various types of query letters will help you save yourself some time and land plum assignments. And if you’re interested to see how I landed some of mine, go check out my free case studies in which I dish all the details.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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