Checklist: How to Write a Query Letter That Doesn’t Suck

query writing checklist
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Are your pitches the reason you’re not getting freelancing work?

Pitches or query letters are often the scariest part of freelancing for both new and experienced freelance writers.

But master the art of the pitch, and your freelancing life suddenly gets a whole lot simpler.

One of the best ways to do it is to stop thinking of your pitches as a creativity showcase and start thinking of them as sales tools instead.

How?

Every time you finish writing a query letter or pitch, run it through this quick checklist to make sure all your i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.

1. The basics

Since this is a checklist, after all, let’s get the basics out of the way first to make sure you’re not making obvious mistakes.

  • Is the editor’s name spelled correctly?
  • If you’ve mentioned the name of the publication, is it accurate?
  • Did you check spelling and grammar?
  • Does your signature have your website URL in it?

2. Call to action

Yes, your query letter is a showcase of your skill and your ideas, but in the end, it’s also a piece of marketing. Most writers will forget that and focus far too much on the story idea and the actual writing in the query letter.

Remember, all good marketing ends with a call to action.

That doesn’t mean that you have to reach out to an editor at The New York Times with an email that says, “Buy now!”

But I do recommend closing with something that requires the editor to respond to you.

“I’d love to chat over the phone; let me know if that’s something you’d be open to,” is a sentence I’ve used in my pitches.

“Would you like to see some clips?” is another one that can get you an immediate response.

If you prefer to keep it simple, “please let me know at your earliest convenience,” is a good way to close, too.

3. Subject line

Increasingly, a good subject line can be the difference between whether your email gets opened and read right away or delegated to that “later” folder that never gets looked at.

It used to be that if you were writing for the web you had to focus a lot on headlines, but if you were writing for traditional media (or their websites), you could get away without much effort. That doesn’t work any more.

New media, old media, run by a corporation or a solopreneur, we’re all competing for the same attention spans. No matter who you’re pitching, it’s almost imperative you look at the way they handle their headlines so you can package your own story idea cleverly in a format that will fit into that publication’s lineup.

One way to do this is with a double-whammy headline — using a two-part headline to grab a busy editor’s attention and tell him or her right away why you must write this article.

The good news is if you write interesting headlines, you almost guarantee yourself quick responses to your pitches. So it’s definitely worth putting some thought and effort into them.

For fantastic examples of subject lines (and headlines) that work for news and feature stories, I recommend visiting Mother Jones to see how they tackle some serious issues with clever headlines.

4. Your first sentence

Here’s where journalists win out over bloggers every time: Journalists have it stamped on their brains that the first sentence of their story has to lay out pretty much everything. We live for that perfect sentence and — no exaggeration — will spend hours getting it right.

But in the end, it comes down to this: Does your opening line captivate me? Does it make me smile? Does it make me want to read on?

That’s a lot of pressure to put on one little sentence, so I typically give my students a bit of leeway: Start with one interesting paragraph. Does it make the editor want to read the next one?

Here’s an example from one of my own query letters:

Over her husband’s funeral pyre six years ago, Heena Patel, then 21, was informed by her in-laws that he had died of AIDS.

Don’t you want to know what happened next? That’s what an effective first line should make you want to do.

5. Your bio

If you’re like most writers I know, you have a catch-all bio that you copy and paste into an email every time someone asks you for one. Don’t make this mistake.

When you’re pitching, you need to highlight your strengths and minimize your weaknesses in regards to the particular publication or editor.

So if, for instance, you’re pitching a technology website, you would highlight your degree in information technology — and perhaps not mention that you quit your tech job after two months because you hated the industry, instead starting your own small business.

But if you were pitching an entrepreneurship blog, that’s exactly the story you’d want to highlight.

Do away with those generic bios that you’ve been cutting and pasting into everything and start personalizing each pitch. It can be the difference between the editor thinking you’re perfect for the job, or passing on your pitch.

6. Timeliness

One of the easiest ways to make sure your pitches get quicker responses is to make them timely.

Editors are notorious for sitting on ideas for months on end, so make your pitches time-sensitive by giving editors a reason they need to publish your work now.

You can do this by tying your pitch into a current event, an anniversary or a promotion. It won’t work for everything you write, but a time-sensitive angle can fast-track your query process.

7. The short story

Have you made sure your story idea is sound, sliced thinly, and can be expressed in a single sentence?

The one thing missing in most pitches, and probably the top reason most queries get rejected, is clarity. If you don’t clearly know the angle, the purpose, and the gist of your story, how do you expect the editor to get it?

The clarity in your pitch has to be both about the idea and the execution of that idea. Or simply, what do you want to say — and how are you going to say it? You need to be able to answer both those questions in a single sentence each.

For instance, for my first story for The New York Times, I pitched a story on how plastic roads in India were solving the problem of both the battered and damaged roads, as well as improperly disposed waste plastic. That quick summary tells you pretty much everything you need to know about that story.

New writers who have trouble selling ideas have often overburdened one poor article to do too many things. You need to able to define your story idea in one single (short!) sentence. Coming up with a good headline, as discussed above, can help you achieve this clarity.

Remember, querying is not creative writing. In trying so hard to write well, we forget that in essence:

A query letter is as much about showing off your writing prowess as it is about making a sale. Click To Tweet

Your queries, basically, are sales tools. They’re a means for marketing.

And with the checklist above, you’ll be well on your way to making that sale.

What works for you for you when you’re pitching your ideas and stories? If there’s a specific tip that has boosted your response rate, we’d love to hear about it. Share it in the comments!

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Mridu Khullar Relph has written for The New York Times, TIME, CNN, ABC News, and dozens of other “big name” publications, and now teaches writers how to do the same. Download her free report .

The International Freelancer | @mridukhullar

Mridu Khullar Relph
James Chartrand

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Comments

  1. Sound advice, Mridu. I am amazed at the number of times I have been about to press “Send” on an email that I have slaved over for ages, only to discover that I have left out a word or used the name of the editor I last pitched! Sometimes it is the little things that trip us up.

    • Hi Aoife, thanks for the comment! I have to say that I don’t often slave over pitches and don’t recommend that you do either. I refine the idea, certainly, but then I just get it out there as soon as I can. I’m a big fan of the “send a query a day” approach, in fact, and show my students how to do so.

      Good to know this resonated!

  2. Nice advice. I hadn’t really thought too much about point # 2, the call to action, but it makes perfect sense. We’re more likely to respond to an email if it asks something specific.

  3. Sounds advice, Mridu! I can definitely attest to the query being more of a sales letter than a short story. Great checklist to remind me to get back out to the pitching circus for the new year.

    Now, to strive for the pitch-a-day system you subscribe to.

    Cheers!

  4. Lucille Joyner says:

    Should one look for an agent? If so, how do you find a good one?

  5. D. Rex sumaxton says:

    Everything you all said sound nice and helpful.

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