Freelancing Tips: How to Write a Query Letter

One of the things I enjoy the most about freelance work is the thrill of the chase. I might have a great idea for an article, but unless I’m willing to get out there and sell my wares, those ideas don’t amount to much. That’s where a good query letter comes in handy.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of how to write a query letter, we need to talk about a very important item: Does the publication you want to write for accept submissions from freelancers?  If they don’t, you’ll be wasting you time, as well as the editor’s, if you send them a pitch.  Most publications have information on their websites about the submissions process.  You should also be able to find out if the publication pays for submissions, and what their standard pay rate is.  So be sure to look on the website before you draft the letter.

Think of your query letter as a sales pitch. You are essentially selling your skills to a potential buyer. You will need to capture the person’s attention, pitch what you are selling, and give the buyer a sense that you’re the most qualified person to be selling this product. Here’s a basic outline that will help you sell your ideas.

1. Know your audience. This goes without saying, but you should be familiar with the publication that you want to write for. Curve and The Advocate are both LGBTQ magazines, but they have different target audiences, and they also have a different flavor in their writing style. Go to your library and get some old copies of the publication you intend to query, get a feel for their style, and then keep this in mind as you write your pitch.

2. Write a headline that grabs the readers’ attention. The headline for your pitch really depends on the publication that you’re soliciting.  For example, I wrote an article about a woman’s guide to buying a car for Queercents, but I also pitched a different version of that article to Curve Magazine.  For Queercents, the title was very straightforward: What Does Gender Have to Do With Buying a Car?  Since Curve tends to be a little more edgy than Queercents, I gave the title a dash of sass: Does This Stick Shift Make My Ass Look Fat? How Gender Influences Your Car Buying Experience.  Make sure your headline is specific, but also make sure that it fits the tone of your prospective audience.

3. Give a good summary. Even if a story is already written, you don’t need to send the entire article in your query letter.  But make sure that your pitch gives the editor a good taste of what the article will be about.  Let’s use the pitch I sent for my article about buying a car as an example:

The federal government is offering tax credits to consumers who purchase a new vehicle this year in hopes that this will stimulate the flailing auto industry. However, men and women have very different experiences when it comes to buying a car. When a woman walks into a dealership, she needs to be prepared. Do your research ahead of time and be ready to negotiate like a mafia boss when you get to the dealership. I’ve got 5 tips that will help you haggle your way into a sweet deal on a brand new car. And none of them involves pinch hitting for the other team.

It’s very clear from this summary that the article will be in a list format. It’s also got the element of timeliness, since this pitch was sent during the Cash for Clunkers time period. And the editor also gets a taste for my sense of humor. Your query letter should do the same.

4. Sell yourself. Your final paragraph of the query letter should summarize your qualifications – but those qualifications need to be relevant to the topic you are pitching. Why are you the best person to write this article? Do you have writing clips that are similar to the article you are pitching? Be specific, but don’t be long winded.

Writer John Hewitt has some great tips for crafty in strong query letter on his site Poewar. Here are his tips for writing a strong headline and giving yourself the credit you deserve. John’s site is a great resource for freelancers, because the job board is updated frequently, and there are fun writing exercises, like the 30 Poems in 30 Days challenge. Be sure to check it out.

Do you have suggestions for writing a strong query letter? How do you pitch your ideas? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

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