Often the articles you see in newspapers, magazines and on websites aren’t written by journalists that work full-time at that publication at all. In fact, they’re the words of talented freelance writers, who have delivered a convincing and developed query letter to the commissioning editor. So to help with your freelance career, we’ve put together this full guide on how to write a journalism query letter.
So if all of this happens electronically, how do you know what to do if you’re just starting out? And more importantly, what makes a brilliant query letter?
You’ve only got one shot to make someone believe in an idea as much as you do, and crucially, it demonstrates your ability to get straight to the point, your excellent writing skills, and ability to convince people that you know a lot about what you’re talking about (which of course, you do!).
The idea itself is only half of the work; if you can’t communicate it in a short email, it’s never going to get commissioned. So this is intended to be a step-by-step guide to the query letter process, from brainstorming ideas, to putting your plan into print, and what to write in an email to make your pitch really stand out.
Our one ask is that after this, you pitch someone. Follow the steps, consider each one carefully, but do actually get a pitch out the door. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t succeed – in fact, it probably won’t (even with this course completed), as very few first pitches land as you expect them to ( it took me three tries with the same editor to get my first national newspaper commission – ed. ). But pitching well takes knowledge, which you’ll find here, and practice, and confidence, which you have to gain yourself.
So before you dive in, stop and consider – which stories do you want to tell?
And then, to discover how to move your idea from your head to the published page, read on…
Good luck pitching!
Step 1: The Publication
We’ll start by looking at how to mould your idea into a real story an editor can believe in. Your pitch is 100% dependent on a publication to succeed – so it’s in your interest to make sure that you’re approaching the right one. Finding the best outlet for your work should be a substantial part of your query letter prep time, and after this stage is complete you should know exactly where you’ll be pitching and why. Should this come so early in the process? Actually, we think it should – your idea will almost certainly require considerable revision to fit with the publication, rather than the other way around. So invest a lot at this stage, and reap the rewards later.
Types of Publication
Your first stop will be deciding what type of publication your work should appear in. Print or online? Local or national? Newspaper or magazine? Freesheet, mid-market or quality? You’ll generally have an idea of the type of outlet which will run articles like the one you want to write – but it’s a good idea to build an audience profile to help sanity-check your assumption before you pitch.
To do this, consider the person you believe will enjoy reading your article the most.
- Are they male or female?
- What age range?
- Are they single or married?
- Are they rich or poor?
- What do they like to do in their free time?
Write the answers to these questions down, and form an image of the individual in your mind. Now, consider what publication they’re likely to read. Get your hands on a copy if you can, or find the website online. Read no fewer than five full articles published in that outlet and take note of the topics covered and the tone and subtext of the writing. What identified the article as belonging to that publication? What do you think your ideal reader would make of the articles you’ve read? And what do you think they would make of the subject of the article you’re pitching?
The Anatomy Technique
Once you have a publication in mind, you’ll need to get more focused, and make the leap between knowing the right publication for the audience, and knowing the right style for the article.
Once you’ve completed the ‘dissection’ for your intended publication, consider which part of it your article would be best placed to run in. There’s no point pitching a 2000 word article if it is more likely to be picked up as a 150 word news snippet. Websites can have different sections like ‘news’, ‘entertainment’, ‘culture’. These sections will have their own editors and different tones.
Don’t send your pitch unless you’re sure the publication might be interested and you have a strong idea of where your piece might sit within its pages – you may want to pitch to that publication later down the line and no one likes an email that hasn’t been well thought out or well-directed.
Finding The Right Tone for The Publication
Bearing the above in mind, think about the tone of your piece before you even start writing. For example, generally women’s magazines will be more chatty, but if your writing is for a news website it should be more factual.
Top Tip: Twitter is a great way of checking out the tone of publications. Nearly all magazines and newspapers will have a Twitter page and cramming information into 140 characters while making their target audience want to click on it is an important skill.
Presidential hopefuls take on Baltimore violence as Paul jabs Clinton on crime http://t.co/Fl0lvgislv — The Guardian (@guardian) April 29, 2015
Trying to eat clean? This recipe is perfect for a healthy dinner that will also fill you up! http://t.co/50OyXjWUPm pic.twitter.com/HBXCazjKnx — Woman’s Own (@WomansOwn) April 29, 2015
Notice the difference between chatty and direct?
Tailoring your tone to suit the publication doesn’t mean you’re ‘selling out’ or losing your own voice. It means you’ve thought carefully about the type of tone that’s required. In the same way that you change your voice and what you say when you talk to your boss or a close friend, you have to do this with writing too. There is no correct or incorrect way to write, so it all depends on the tone of that particular publication.
Once you’ve pinned down who you want to pitch to and considered which of the tenets of newsworthiness will make your pitch attractive, always ask the publication for pitching guidelines. This is the final step to discovering whether you and this publication can really do business.
Many publications will highlight the following information in their pitching guidelines, so make sure to look out for it and consider whether your pitch still hits the publication’s sweet spot.
- Best contact route
- Preferred query letter format (email, telephone, fax)
- Preferred pitch length
- Likely pay
- Estimated pitch review time
- Where to find pitching guidelines
Google is your friend, people!
Google is your best bet to begin with – search for “publication name freelancer pitch guidelines” or “publication name story submission guide” or “publication name query letter contact”.
If the answer isn’t immediately forthcoming, there are some handy sites which collate pitching guidelines, the most useful of which is the FreelanceWriting.com Writer’s Guidelines Database .
Finally, if you can’t find anything online, you could call the publication and ask if they can send any.
Finalising the Idea
After all this work, it’s important to brainstorm and re-think the original idea. The first idea you think of is often not the best so don’t get too attached, maybe your second or third idea is better. Think critically, and remember what your research into the publication has told you. According to Jessica Reed of Guardian US in this great guide , the idea is one of the most important parts of the pitch:
I will usually know within the first paragraph of your email whether your idea grabs me. So make it good… I want to know what you already know about the story you have in mind, what you don’t know yet, and who you want to talk to to find out. I want to know, most of all, why you’re interested in the topic at hand.Jessica Reed, Guardian US
Often your first idea can be developed and made more specific, so that it is unique and not just another story about the World Cup in Brazil which could be published in any publication. Editors will receive hundreds of emails like this. Putting a unique spin on the story which ties up nicely with something you know the publication is interested in (something like: ‘Football in Rio’s poorest favelas’ for The Guardian, for instance) is something that gets less coverage and is away from the typical glitzy view of the World Cup, making it maybe more interesting.
A useful tip is to consider what question you’ll be answering for the reader when they’ve finished your piece. If you’re writing about a place, it could be as simple as outlining why should they visit. If you’re writing about a person, the reader will probably want to know what have they done to merit the attention. Fundamentally, understand why the reader will be richer for reading the piece, which will help you to understand how to sell it to the editor.
OK, by now you should have a target publication, the slot you want your article to be published in, and a rough idea of what tone you should take. But a key component of a pitch is that it’s ‘newsworthy’ – your article is unlikely to be commissioned if it’s something only you will be interested in, as editors have to strive for broad appeal to their total readership.
This is a hard thing to learn – after all, editors spend years honing the skill of selecting the right stories for inclusion in their outlet. But a couple of common threads connect most stories published the world over – here, we’ll call them the ‘tenets of newsworthiness’. Which of them are applicable to your story?
For many journalists starting out, this is the best aspect to begin with.
That means, when the editor is reading your pitch they’re thinking ‘why now?’ If you can anticipate what magazines are going to want to cover in the future or right now, you have a better chance of getting your article published. For example, the Olympics in Brazil are next year, maybe there’s a unique spin you can put on a story rooted in Rio. People are more likely to read the story because there is already interest in the media, but it’s important to make your story stand out.
When considering timeliness, always consider the publication’s editorial requirements. For instance, it’s not uncommon for magazines to have their editorial calendars mapped out a year in advance, and they will likely know which specific events they’ll need coverage for, even if they don’t know who’ll be writing it. A newspaper will normally plan four to six months out, and will likely be open to you suggesting articles up to about two or three months ahead of a major event.
Here, you’re relying on the broad appeal of something else to make your story interesting. An example could be a celebrity visit to a certain place, or the popularity of a certain TV show. If something or someone has profile already, editors will often consider them newsworthy enough to write about.
Brands often have considerable profile – consider the thousands of stories that are written about Apple every year. If your story can shed new light on a high-profile brand, you could be on to a winner.
Publications exist to tell stories, and good stories involve protagonists and antagonists. This about your story – does it involve the triump of good over evil, or strong over weak (the classic David and Goliath, for instance)?
Using conflict in an idea allows editors to buy into it emotionally.
Ideas that involve huge numbers of people tend to stand out to editors, because they have a duty to pay attention to such matters. So if a computer bug will affect millions, or a crime ring operates across vast swathes of a country, editors will consider whether they should cover the matter in the public interest.
Almost the inverse of scale, some publications have coverage of a specific area as their remit. A story about a murder investigation in a backwater town may not hold much interest at a national level, but a regional newspaper may well want to cover it, because their readership will find it interesting and may be able to relate to the places, characters or developments.
Shock, oddity, extremity or uniqueness
The world’s tallest, smallest, farthest, longest, coldest, warmest place etc etc. Well told, these make excellent stories, because they tap our natural curiosity. Of course, there are limits – most of these would also need to tick one of the other tenets above to warrant coverage, but they’re still interesting ones to use. Be careful with shock – some publications such as the National Inquirer have made their name through these kinds of stories, but some editors will run a mile from them. You’ll need to consider the balance of public interest and journalistic ethics carefully!
Step 2: The Editor
An editor: a person who knows precisely what he wants – but isn’t quite sure.Walter Davenport
When you’re looking for the right individual, look for titles such as section editor, features editor, senior editor or commissioning editor – they’re all likely to be commissioners. Just make sure that they’re relevant for what you’re pitching – if necessary, ring the publication’s switchboard and ask for the name of the editor who manages the section you’re looking for. In general, commissioning editors will sit between two and four rungs lower than the editor in most medium-to-large sized publications.
Top Tip: Very few editors like to receive pitches by phone, so our advice would be to avoid being put through. They like it even less if you phone at the wrong time – a busy editor who’s on deadline (generally Wednesday to Friday for weekend supplements and late afternoon for for dailies) will resent being interrupted for a low-priority call.
Always send your query letter to a person, not a fill-in-box on a website or a generic ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ address. Not only are those awful online forms disheartening, they’re also impersonal and finding someone’s email is a good way to show you’ve gone to the effort of tracking down the right contact.
Using Social Media
LinkedIn is a great way to search people, and many people have their emails on their LinkedIn profile.
Search first for the name of the person you’re looking for, and if that doesn’t yield results, try searching for the subject and publication title (e.g. travel New York Times).
If you’re active on Twitter, you may also have success in tweeting to editors, saying you have a story and the best way to get in touch:
Twitter-friendly editors may like this approach, and it serves a useful function of highlighting that your pitch is coming before it actually arrives, meaning they’ll be primed to receive it.
Using Your Network
Not everyone will be able to do this, obviously, but if you have friends or acquaintances who have written for the publication you’re targeting in the past, it’s time to call in a favor. An introduction can work wonders if they’re on good terms with the commissioning editor, but in most cases it’ll be useful to just confirm who your pitch should be directed to.
Step 3: The Email
OK, so you know who you’re writing to, which is half the battle. Build a picture of them in your mind’s eye. They’re likely busy, juggling several tasks at once, and they’re likely already fielding several pitches from eager freelancers. Now, it’s time to make sure your communication sticks in their head, by crafting the perfect query letter that will capture their attention.
If you’re sending a cold email, introduce who you are and explain why it’s you that should be the one to write this story. Make it like a mini-resume of what you’ve done. For example, if you’ve written for publications like ‘Fishing world’ and your pitch is on fishing, put this in! You should use an online portfolio service such as clippings.me to showcase the breadth of your work – add 10-20 of your best clippings to your portfolio and ensure they’re categorized in a way which makes sense to editors (for example, by beat or article type). Managing clips this way is far easier for both you and the editor than pasting a series of URLs into every pitch email that you send.
Commissioning editors are looking for experts in their fields to write top-quality stories, tell them (briefly!) why it should be you. Critically, make sure it’s evident that this query letter has been written with this editor in mind – doing anything else is a terrible idea, according Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel over at Perceptive Travel .
All Queries Should be Custom Queries – I have met a few writers over the years who swear by the multiple submissions strategy, of sending out the same idea to a bunch of editors and see who bites. In general I think this is a terrible idea. It’s the same principle behind pop-up subscription boxes, junk mail, and telemarketing: bug a lot of people in order to find a small percentage who will say yes. But if you’re going to do it, at least take the extra five minutes per e-mail to put in their name and say a little something about why this story would be right for them.Tim Leffel, Author, Travel Writing 2.0
Exercise: spend some time thinking about what you can cover credibly. Then find some journalists in the same field and check out their online presence – how do they highlight their credibility?
Make it publication-specific: explain why you think this idea would fit well with the publication. Taking an interest in the publication you’re pitching to is a must, so refer to some articles that already exist that you think it could be similar to. According to Sarah Riches, deputy editor of Where London and former Time Out deputy editor ( @healthy_holiday ), establishing these credentials up top are absolutely critical:
The freelancer needs to say why they should write the story, why now and why for my publication. They need to keep the pitch to a few lines, clarify it’s exclusive and whether they can source high resolution images (ideally they should).Sarah Riches, Deputy Editor, Where London
Establishing relevance clearly shows you have your own ideas, but you’ve seen what type of articles the magazine publishes and you can tailor your ideas to them – while referencing the type of reader it would appeal to. It should be easy – because you’ve already dissected the publication, right?
It’s important to set out your pitch in a way that the editor can relate to it
It’s important to set out your pitch in a way that the editor can relate to it, and so it’s worth drafting a head and sell (even if you choose not to use the head in the pitch itself). If you don’t know what these are, this website is quite a good resource for journalist lingo. There’s a lot on here that you won’t need, but it’s good to get acquainted with the correct terms.
The head and sell are basically the headline, which is the biggest text on the page, used to grab attention, and the sell is the words underneath it used to give a bit more explanation to what the piece is about. For example:
[HEAD] SUNSHINE STATE OF MIND
[SELL] Whether it’s the golden coastlines, miles of scenic driving or world-famous theme parks, Florida has something to suit all tastes, says Katie Gatens From BA High Life magazine April 2015
Or how about this one?
[HEAD] VILNIUS: BALTIC ESCAPEFrom The National October 2011
[SELL] Macabre museums and blackly comedic theme parks are as much a feature of a visit to this former Soviet state as its impressive historical landmarks, finds Nicholas Holmes
Obviously, you can write more for the sell than just the one-liners we’ve provided above. But it’s important to pay attention to the structure of this part, as editors will scan it in seconds. If it reads like something that would appear in their publication, you’re in a good place.
The key piece of advice here is to make it short – no more than two paragraphs, and ideally one. If you can’t capture the idea in that, it’s too complex (or you can’t be succinct, which is arguably worse).
It’s also adviseable to start with a hook. It can surprise the editor, it can scare them, it can make them laugh, it can even anger them (although it’s a high risk strategy), but it needs to capture their interest immediately. If you’ve followed the points above, the editor has bought into your ability to deliver and the format you’re proposing. So don’t let them down with a boring first sentence – bring it to life straight away.
Make sure you write with colour in this part (though not with actual colours, obviously). If you’re a talented journalist, you should be able to write anything with the flair and fluidity you’ll bring to the piece you’re hoping to have published. So pay attention to your cadence, your voice and your choice of words. The atmosphere you create in these sentences should leave an editor wanting more.
Remember, don’t be prescriptive. Often, good articles start off with a totally different pitch which is then shaped into something else by the editor and the journalist – and that’s fine. So try not to give the impression that this is the story you absolutely must tell, because the editor may want to take a different path. That said, do include good ideas – so if you want to make it a first person piece, you have great sources for pictures or you have a killer interviewee lined up, do mention them.
Finally, keep it tight and rational. Editors don’t need to hear the whole story, but they do need to understand the structure of what you’re proposing. Allude to the themes you’re considering to make it clear that this isn’t a half-baked idea, but don’t let your thoughts run away with you. To get an example of how this looks in practice, read the blurb on the back of a few book jackets. Think of the story pitch as a beautifully-crafted wireframe you’ll hang the whole piece off, complete with a beginning, middle and end.
Finish with a courteous, professional sign-off such as:
“If this sounds interesting to you, I’d be delighted to discuss further at your convenience.”
“Please let me know if you think this article would work for your publication.”
“If you feel this article would be a fit, I’d be delighted to discuss this idea further via phone or email.”
Ensure that your signature includes your full name, a professional email address (so not “email@example.com”) and a telephone number, and potentially a link to your portfolio.
Spell check your email
An obvious one, but if there’s a spelling mistake in your email it could be a deal-breaker. Get a friend or family member to look over your email. Also don’t make it too long – most people think that good writing is writing a lot. It isn’t. It’s writing a short amount, well, and piquing interest.
Step 4: The Agreement
Though it’s best not to mention this kind of stuff in a first query letter, eventually you’ll need to decide with the editor how you wish to work together. When starting out, it’s common for freelancers in the US to have to send an unsolicited submission, while freelancers in the UK can expect to write ‘on spec’. Both methods carry risk, so your overarching aim should be to get some kind of commitment from the editor that they’ll read your work before you write it.
Unsolicited submissions generally involve you writing your article and sending it in. It’s a high-risk strategy, as you’ll know very little about the demand for your piece of work — but nonetheless, it’s the standard way of pitching many publications in the US, especially for op-ed pieces in national and regional publications.
More specialist publications and sections may be more amenable to a pitch – my advice would be to try to strike up a relationship with the editor in some form (even if it’s just on social media) before writing the piece.
‘On Spec’ essentially means that the editor has agreed to read your piece of work because they’re interested in the idea, but hasn’t committed to doing anything with it. This form of agreement is very common when you’re starting out in journalism, as it’s a low-risk way for the editor to explore your ability and idea. Having the open channel of communication necessitated by an on-spec agreement is far preferable to an unsolicited submission, and if you’re totally unknown to the editor, it can be a enough to tip the balance in your favour.
On Spec agreements are a good deal all round – and after accepting a few on-spec articles from a writer, editors will normally offer more solid commissions.
The Holy Grail for a journalist is a commission – an agreement from an editor that they will publish the piece once it’s written. Try to get the commission in writing, as it will make arranging everything (from interviews to travel) far easier.
Deliver what you promise
It’s difficult to overstate this point, but we’ll try anyway. If you’ve got this far, it’s incredibly important that you know that you’re going to deliver what you promise. Commissioning editors often have just hours to process and edit an article before it’s due for publication – if there is something missing or you’ve underdelivered, you’ve left them with a significant hole which they may not be able to fill.
Common examples of failing to deliver include:
- Coming in over wordcount – likely the most common sin, and especially frustrating if you’re dealing with a publication without a huge team of subeditors. If your editor needs to start chopping words because you haven’t provided what they asked for, they’re unlikely to use you again.
- Coming in under wordcount – less common, but arguably more serious. It’s very unlikely the editor is going to pad the article themselves, so they’re more likely to spike it altogether, meaning your piece won’t be published. Failing to include other agreed-upon materials, such as location details or images
It can be frustrating when people don’t get back to you, but it’s nothing personal, editors and commissioning editors receive hundreds of emails every day and there’s just not enough time to reply to everyone. There’s no right or wrong answer to following up, but I would call the person you’ve emailed two to three weeks after initially sending the email and ask if they have a spare few minutes to listen to your pitch, explaining that you sent them an email but know they’re very busy. If they say no, ask if there’s a better time to call back, or if you could email them again, checking you’ve got the right email address. Do it all with patience and a smile.
Step 5: Organization
We’d be remiss to not mention something about organization here, as it’s one of the most important aspects of freelancing and it’s key to following up at the right time. When you’ve finished this guide, hopefully the first thing you’ll want to do is go out and pitch someone – but make sure that you’re able to keep track of all of your query letters and projects in one place. Trust me, there is nothing more frustrating as an editor than to have a freelancer miss a deadline or go quiet because they’ve forgotten about your agreement.
In our view, you only need a simple tools to manage your pitch pipeline properly – what’s key is that you have a record of who you’re pitching, what you’re pitching, and what stage that pitch is at. Fortunately, there are free online tools which can help – we’d recommend one of the options below.
Make a copy of our pitch tracker by clicking here .
Arguably the lowest-friction way to manage your workload, Google Sheets is a free online version of Microsoft Office’s classic spreadsheet program, Excel. The difference is that it’s online, so you’ll never lose the sheet and you can access it from anywhere, including mobiles and tablets.
Set up a blank sheet with different columns, including starting with the pitch ‘concept’, then editor, publication, proposed article title, date the query letter was sent, date of follow-up, status, and notes. Be sure to fill in everything you can when you first send out a pitch, so you’ve got a log of exactly when you pitched and to whom. Change the status column when you hear back (approved/under consideration/rejected) and add in helpful notes so that you remember why editors made the decision that they did (“August is the wrong time of year to pitch Europe stories”).
Trello’s process-based boards are a handy way of logging pitches from idea to commission. Create boards for the phases of the pitch, which could look something like:
- Pitches (unsent)
- Pitches (sent)
- Under Review
Each pitch to an editor then gets its own card, which moves through the boards as you progress it with editors. Usefully, Trello allows you to add media such as pitches and lengthly notes onto cards, so you could even attach the pitch or supporting materials to the card from the outset if you want to be reminded later on of what your idea was.
Conclusion: Try again?
If at first you don’t succeed… Don’t be disheartened, other publications might be interested and you should try pitching elsewhere. The key thing to remember is to tailor your query letter to other publications. No one wants to read something that is generic and impersonal – impress commissioning editors with how much you know about their publication, and why YOUR article should be in it.
Remember that your ultimate goal here is to build a sustainable source of writing revenue
Remember that your ultimate goal here is to build a sustainable source of writing revenue – so be gracious with both acceptances and rejections, because journalism is a small world. Always be friendly, polite and thank editors for their time (either way). Finally, if you have the chance to meet them in person, take advantage of it. Not only is it an excellent chance to understand more about their likes and dislikes in a less restrictive format than email, it helps them to put a name to the face and may mean that any pitch you send in the future stands out from the crowd.
Finally, keep smiling. Freelancing can be hard work, and it can be tough to deal with rejections when they come so often and seem so personal. But in reality, they’re not personal and freelancing is just a different type of business, with its own success and failure rate. Car salespeople don’t sell to every customer, and market traders don’t sell to every passer-by, so don’t feel like your query letters should have a 100% success rate. Just be positive, confident and enthusiastic with every pitch – and soon you’ll have opened the door to one of the most rewarding careers out there.
Katie Gatens is Entertainment Assistant at British Airways High Life magazine.