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.
Let’s break down the different types of query letters at a freelance writer’s disposal. Then we’ll look at when each query should be used to land assignments.
Sometimes– and this is usually after you’ve sent out the first dozen or so letters and received a couple of acceptances– you won’t need to send out query after query 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.
In this post, I’ll outline the different types of query letters and which ones you should use and when.
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 do know what is best when you’re communicating with someone.
Here are the the different types of query letters and why they work in different situations.
1. The short query letter
This is the query letter I typically send to a new-to-me editor. 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 obviously, I won’t be doing a large chunk of that reporting until I’ve been assigned the story. This is the type of query in which the idea and slant is 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 and voila, I had myself a story. The pitch itself was about four sentences long because the angle and 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 I’ve written that will 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’re going to have to learn to write if you want to break into American women’s magazines, parenting magazines, or high brow publications like Wired, The New Yorker, etc. You’re going to have to do a bit of reporting up front, quote experts, and read the latest data and news available on the topic you’re pitching and the angle you’re taking.
The publications that require these long queries are also typically the publications that are the hardest to break into, so you’re going to have to expend a lot of energy on the pitch. Some writers pitch magazines in this category for years before they’re able to break in, so do yourself a favor and start practicing 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 worked with before. I’ve written dozens of articles for certain publications and their editors don’t need me to prove that I can deliver on what I’m promising. In fact, if I kept on doing that I’d annoy them. So all I need to do is think up a unique idea and the way I’m going to report (and write) it and I have myself an assignment.
I recommend that once you’ve become familiar to an editor and her publication, you start pitching in this way. Not only because it saves you time, but because it saves your editor time as well. It allows her to either give you a quick yay or nay without either of you having put in a significant time investment, but more crucially, it allows her to become a part of the shaping of the idea, which can be really beneficial before you’ve invested hours in the idea.
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 typically send multiple ideas only to editors I’ve worked with. There’s no rule that says this type of query letter couldn’t work for editors who’ve been asking 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 that I worry an editor is not going to have the budget to buy four ideas in one go. He’s going to reject some of my pitches for no reason other than there’s a limit to how many he can take. Next time I won’t be able to pitch these perfectly good ideas again. This has actually happened to me. An editor rejected an idea twice because of lack of space and budget, and by the third time, she was simply bored of it. It wasn’t new to her any more.
But if an editor is assigning for a whole year, for instance, then sure, go ahead and pitch quite a few.
6. The phone or in-person pitch
Of all the different types of query, this is the one I suck at. I’m really bad and should probably practice more because experts say (and I believe them) that you always need to have an elevator pitch ready for your business—a 30-second summary of an idea that you could explain in an elevator ride.
In freelancing terms, you might find yourself on the phone with an editor who says, “What do you have for me?” and you don’t want to have to fumble and bumble your way around an answer. You want a sharp summary of a story idea ready to go.
So if you do 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 magazines (and now websites) will assign essays and humor based on the actual work, not a query letter, but some of the national magazines do still consider essay pitches as well, 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, and if you’re querying for it, 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 credentials.
8. The letter of introduction
This is one of the things that gives writers the most grief. It’s actually not that hard to write, but you do need to find the right balance between showing you’ve got experience and writing chops and not coming across as a self-absorbed prick.
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. I send LOIs to trade magazine editors and new-to-me magazines that don’t specify rates or what they’re looking for, and I’ve been incredibly successful with them.
9. The social media pitch
Increasingly, writers are pitching editors and getting assignments on social media. Personally, I find it tacky to pitch on Twitter and Facebook but LinkedIn exists for the sole purpose of professional networking, so use it whenever you can. Remember, no one has the time or energy to wade through thousands of words of your resume on social media, so keep it simple, keep it short, and keep it casual.
Understanding the different types of query letter 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 here in which I dish out all the details.
How to Pitch: Pitching guidelines for 200+ publications
We know that finding markets to pitch your story ideas, understanding what they’re looking for, and making sure they pay an amount you’re comfortable with can be the most time-consuming and frustrating part of the job. So we’ve tried to make it easier for you.
Here’s a list of publications, organized by subject and with a note of their pay rates, each with a link to their guidelines.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Publisher, 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 publisher 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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