Freelance Writers: How to Write a Query Letter in 2016 That Gets a Response (Also in 2016)

The query letter is the gatekeeper of publishing at higher-tier magazines and respected online journals and websites. It's also the bane of some writers' existences--because it's not quite writing, and yet it is.

The query letter is about pitching without sounding sales-y, representing yourself without coming off arrogant, and offering your unique touch and personality--but not too much.

It's you offering yourself, your ideas and your inspiration up for judgement. And it can be really terrifying.

I've coached writers who would rather write thousands of words and spend hours of time researching their article or manuscript than write 200 words to an editor explaining what they're up to. And sometimes, they never even write the query letter, because they're too scared of rejection.

Trust me, I've been there many times. I was actually there when I wrote this, in that I chose to write this article to help people rather than write a query letter for the piece I spent two weeks traveling around the country researching and immersing myself in. (At least I'm honest.)

In fact, I've been on both sides of things. As an editor for everything from quarterly print magazines to websites to weekly newspapers, I've deleted or not responded to more pitches than I can count. (Well, someone's counting, because since I became primarily an independent writer and entrepreneurial journalist, karma has returned the favor with handfuls of un-responded emails.)

Based on more than a decade of experience on both sides of the fence, I'm going to give you a simple formula--but not too formulaic--to write a query letter that gets read and responded to by editors. And by "letter," I mean "email," because 2016.

First things first: Where do you find the appropriate email address to send your query?

Depending on the magazine or website you're pitching, the actual editor may not even be reading your query letter. It never hurts to include their full name only if you know it's going to them. If it's just "," it's probably not going to be opened by that editor. A simple, "Good morning," can work just fine.

If your editor is so bristled that you didn't refer to them by name (after three interns opened it first), trust me, you probably don't want to be writing for them anyway. That being said, do not write, "Good evening, Editor," either. Just don't.

The email address you're looking for will be in one of these sections on the magazine's website:

  • Contact
  • FAQ
  • Write for Us
  • Submissions
  • About

...or something similar. Look at the very bottom of pages if you can't find it in the main menus up top.

When you find it, some magazines have very clear instructions (such as Pacific Standard); others, just an email address (like the Atlantic). If they give clear instructions, follow them. There's nothing that irks an editor more (and we are easily irked) than not following the directions they or their coworkers took the time to write.

For example, on Twine Magazine, of which I'm the editor-in-chief, it states:

If you'd like to contribute, we must tell you that we can't pay--but we would love to be the vessel to bring your art and message into the world. Rather than submitting a completed article, we prefer you send us a solid, thought-out pitch. Tell us why you're the person to write the article (i.e. you have access to sources, you've already done some interviews, you have great anecdotes already, etc). Demonstrate your style of writing through your query letter and tell us how your story fits our magazine. Email us at [email address].

One wannabe writer commented on an article: "Btw, how does one submit to Twine? There is nothing on the website about submissions and no emails to ask this question to."

Twine's website has only five clear pages--four are dedicated to sections and interviews in the magazine, and the fifth is an About page, where the above text is easily found.

I will let you figure out if I ever responded to her.

What to Include in Your Query Email and the General Order of Things

1. Your idea, from a precise, thought-out angle

The beautiful thing about writing in 2016 is that you can write about anything. Anything! As long as you have a captivating angle and, in my opinion, the ability to be emotionally resonant with your audience, that is.

Take these topics, for example: Sugar daddiesPeople who strive for Inbox Zero. Your pregnancy. All longform, gorgeous, hearty pieces.

There are plenty of ways to pitch these ideas poorly--and there are also so many ways to write well-researched and/or exquisitely written pieces from any of them.

We are so blessed with the amount of amazing publishing outlets in our era; you can dream up an idea purely from your imagination or passions, and as long as you fuse it with compelling writing (and often but not always, strong research), you can write about it! Which is so amazing that I pretty much said that twice.

Don't be vague. Don't write: "My article is about the marijuana industry." Keep being more and more specific until you almost can't anymore. "My article looks at how the marijuana industry's growth is affecting the new workforce." Nope, keep going. "My article looks at how the marijuana industry's growth is affecting the new workforce by giving location-independent workers the ability to farm-hop and cut marijuana for high pay." (This perhaps isn't true, this is just an example... but hey, run with it if you want.)

And yes, you can go the anecdotal route by starting out your idea/query with a vivid description the same way you would in a story. Just, don't go crazy and keep it minimal--if your lead is that good, you really only need to include 2-4 sentences to get the busy editor hooked to skip on down to your next paragraph. Which should be...

2. Why your piece is a great fit for their publication

Editors want to know you've more than thumbed through their magazine, and that you've read a number of articles in-depth. Perhaps even (though tread lightly here, as fake praise is a huge turn-off) their own articles.

Reference an article or two from their magazine with a similar style to your proposed piece. If you've really done your research, mention that this hasn't been written about in any capacity yet in their publication, but it would be a fabulous topic because XYZ.

In this section, feel free to write some sample eye-catching headlines. This is very publication-specific. An article might be titled:

  • "Mad Men: Marriage in the Mental Institution" (New York Times, perhaps)
  • "It Happened to Me: I Married a Mental Patient (And It's Amazing)" (xoJane, perhaps)
  • "15 Reasons Marrying a Certified Insane Man Was The Best Decision I Ever Made" (ThoughtCatalog, maybe)

My own judgments on clickbait headlines aside, every publication has a headline style. Research it, know it, then impress the editor with a similar style for your piece. They'll see it fitting right in.

3. Who you are and what you've written

I hate to break it to you, but editors don't much care about your degrees, your jobs, your speaking events, your status. They care about your writing ability, and if what you're writing about will make their readers happy.

If you've been an editor and journalist for 12 years, sure, go ahead and mention your status. But don't say that and not link to any of your writing--even if it's just on your own blog, if it's captivating, link to it.

No matter where the writing was published, if you can move something in an editor's heart with it, you have a very high chance of getting a response.

4. Why you're the one to write this article

This reasoning does not include "because I'm the only one thinking about this kind of thing!" or any other version of "I'm special."

This does, however, include:

  • mentioning sources you've already spoken to about the subject
  • naming experts who have agreed to talk to you about the piece
  • an example of compelling research you've uncovered
  • an example of the immersion you've already done for the sake of journalism

Editors want to feel like it would be effortless for them to assign this piece to you than to another reporter they know and trust. They wouldn't assign your story to someone else anyway, because other reporters have their own ideas, specialties and passions, but you want to make the case for yourself.

Do not, under any circumstances, claim "rights" to your idea or threaten the editor not to give your idea to someone else. Instant DELETE (or worse, your email could be passed around the office for hilarity and blacklisting... yes, this happens).

Be trusting, forthcoming and open, and you'll receive the same in return.

What Not to Include

From both my own experience as the writer ::shudder:: and the reader of such inquiries:

  1. Too many, many, many words: Keep queries under 250 words. Really. My query letter to Arianna Huffington was 212 words, including the dears and the thank yous. I got a response from her in two days and now write here for the Huffington Post.
  2. Any semblance of holier-than-thou syndrome: When I'd just graduated college, I repped my Baltimore Sun internship like nobody's business. I might've even used the phrase "with four solid years of experience in hard-hitting journalism," those four years being ones in which I sat around in my college newspaper office laughing with my fellow editors at how "pubic school" got published. When I came from this attitude, I didn't get many responses.
  3. A long list of all your publications and speaking events and blahblahblah... Editors skim over paragraphs the same way you do. Are you even reading this? Probably not. Keep things short and simple--as long as you link to your website, your bio page and your publications page is probably there, and trust me they know how to find it (remember you are pitching to journalists).

I'm certain there are endless things I can add to this list. If you need any additional help with writing or editing, I do both of those things like woah. See my Editing Manifesto & Services page if you want me to do it for you (respect), or see my Work With Me page and I'll teach you how to do it yourself (because fishing is fun).

Best of luck!