These days my inbox is inundated with some of the worst query letters ever.
If you’re pitching article ideas but getting rejections (or not getting any responses at all), then this post is for you — so please pay attention!
Unless, of course, you don’t mind continual rejection.
Whether your goal is to get published in print or online, if the publication you’re pitching is a professional media outlet (versus a friend’s travel blog), then it behooves you to learn how to send a proper query letter (and yes, even though nearly 100% are done via email now, they’re still called “query letters”).
When you’re doing it wrong, you’re wasting not only your time, but also the time of the Editor who reads your pitch.
And in truth, doing it the right way is so easy……it’s not a complicated process…….it really boils down to just three steps.
Yes, it’s crucial to do your query letters correctly, but with only three steps, it’s not hard to master.
Step 1: READ the D*#%n Publication
Yes, you really, really, (I cannot stress this enough – really – ) NEED to actually spend time reading the publication (their website or magazine) to know what types of articles the outlet publishes, what ‘voice’, what POV, etc.
Because only then can you determine if you are capable of writing the same type of article. Can you offer your information using that POV? Can you write in that voice? If the answer is no, then don’t bother sending a pitch, find a different publication.
Also, can you offer something that is in line with their editorial choices but is still fresh?
For example, if they’ve already published a comprehensive article on cruising the Mediterranean within the past few months, then they are not likely to want another article about your trip cruising the Mediterranean. If you haven’t read their publication and don’t KNOW that they published said article, then your pitch will be perceived as ignorant.
That doesn’t mean you need to read every article they’ve ever published, but you DO need to:
- – Peruse their last few issues (or their website),
- – Scan the headlines to know what topics they’ve published recently, and
- – Read a few articles to get a sense of their preferred writing style and voice.
If it’s a website, search some very short phrases in line with what you want to pitch to see if they’ve published other content on the same topic recently (within a year).
SO you now have a good idea of what topics they publish, and what style/voice/POV they like, and think you have something to offer, right?
Okay, on to step 2.
Step 2: FIND their submission guidelines
Publications that accept submissions from freelance writers will have information available on how to submit queries, but you may have to hunt to find it – if they’re online, check out all of their navigation menus (header and footer) and/or their sitemap, sometimes it’s buried under a higher-level page such as “about us”, but DO seek it out. In print, it’s often within the masthead area or generally within the first couple of pages, although some publications put it in the back few pages.
(If you’ve spent time researching and are still at a loss to find their guidelines, then a very short email to their general contact address is fine – just a quick “Hi, do you accept submissions from freelance writers, and if so can you please point me to your guidelines?” is all that’s needed.)
Once you have found them, read them over very carefully. Read them twice (or more) if you need to in order to be sure you understand them.
Now that you’ve found — and read — their guidelines, then it’s on to step 3.
Step 3: FOLLOW their guidelines to the letter. Seriously. To. The. Letter.
There is absolutely no excuse for not following the process a publication has taken the time to develop, especially the first time (or first few times) that you’re pitching to them. NOT following their process is a SURE way to get a declination, or no response at all.
- DO follow their process. If you find it onerous, don’t be tempted to side-step their process….just find a different publication.
- DON’T assume you are exempt from following their process (you’re not).
- DO keep your pitch to a specific topic idea that is in line with their content. Pitching multiple article ideas in the same query tells an editor that you haven’t put any thought into any particular idea enough to flesh it out and ensure it’s a good fit for their publication.
- DON’T ( and I mean literally NEVER) use a canned query letter you found somewhere online or in some writer’s group or forum. You know those “hey I’ve read your (insert website here) website and I love it! Here’s a list of my articles that you might like to publish (insert list of your links here)“. Those are *intended* to be personalized, not copied and pasted verbatim.
Believe me, editors have seen enough to spot a blind query letter within the first sentence, and this alone will most often result in an immediate ‘delete’ key press. They reek of ignorance and amateurism. If you don’t care enough about your specific topic idea to write something personal, then an editor won’t care either.
- The length of your pitch isn’t nearly as important as how well it’s written. Roy Stevenson (a highly successful travel writer and a regular contributor here) advises breaking some travel writing ‘rules’, especially with how long your query letter should be – and his advice is sound – but avoid rambling at all costs. A longer query still needs to be focused and intriguing, otherwise an editor will get bored before finishing and that increases the likelihood of she or he pressing ‘delete’.
Remember, your goal is to get an article published. Develop an outline for an article that you think is perfect for their publication, and describe what makes you qualified to write it. Don’t stray from that focus with numerous ideas.
The only exception to the do’s and don’ts of this step come down the road, after you’ve developed a solid working relationship with an editor, enough to get a sense of what they like and how they respond. Then and only then can you reach out to him or her — outside of the normal process — with a few ideas and flesh them out together.
Okay, so you’ve crafted the perfect pitch following all of their guidelines and emailed it off…..now what?
Now you wait.
Hopefully not for too long, but DO be patient. With the downsizing in staff of so many publications, many editors these days are extremely busy, often doing jobs that were previously filled by several people.
There are so many reasons your pitch might go unacknowledged….everything from a broken submission process, your query letter wound up in a spam trap somewhere, or the editor or person responsible for responding took a (much needed!) vacation and is working on getting caught up…it literally could be anything, so as long as you’re SURE you followed their process then don’t assume the worst.
Because of this, it’s totally acceptable to follow up if you haven’t heard anything within two weeks of your initial pitch. FORWARD your original pitch with a new, short message (“…just following up on…” )…. and then be patient again for at least another week. Forwarding your initial message spares them from having to search for it, or asking you to resend it.
If you still haven’t heard back within 3 weeks after your initial query, then it’s time to move on, cross that publication off of your list, and keep right on pitching to the next one.
If you’re doing it right, the acceptances will come.