I’m a writer who also works on the other side of the desk—I started my career by working at magazines, and I still edit as a freelancer. My role varies depending on the project. Sometimes, it’s my job to consider queries from freelancers and assign stories…and to write rejection letters for pitches that don’t make the cut.
It’s never fun to say “no,” but often “no” is the only option. Sometimes a story isn’t suitable for reasons beyond a writer’s control—for example, the publication has a similar story in the works, or a competing magazine just covered the same topic. Other times, it’s because a writer hasn’t convinced the editor that her idea is a strong and timely one, or that she can do the bang-up job that the editor needs her to do. Query letters say a lot about a writer—what do yours say about you?
It may sound obvious, but doing your homework raises your chances of success. Before pitching a new publication, study a year’s worth of back issues. What kinds of stories does the magazine publish? How long are the articles? How does the publication differ from its competition in terms of tone and story packaging? Compare the bylines to the masthead to see which sections are freelancer-written and which are done in-house. Find out which editor handles which section and address your pitches accordingly. Visit the magazine’s website and look for writers’ guidelines. Think it through: Why is your story the right one, right now, for this magazine, and why are you the right person to write it?
The query letter is your first impression, so put in the time and effort to get it right. As an editor, I’ve received letters with no phone number or email address. I’ve seen at least two pitches in which the writers got the name of the publication wrong—one was addressed to a competing magazine. Lousy spelling, grammar and punctuation are rampant. I’ve been addressed as “Jacklyn Law” and “Jacqueline Law” and “To whom it may concern.” Details matter—if you can’t get my name right, how can I trust you to handle a whole story?
Get more advice on querying and working with editors at “Getting to Yes: How to Pitch Stories to Editors,” PWAC Toronto Chapter’s professional development seminar on Wednesday, Oct. 12, moderated by yours truly. Sign up today—seating is limited!
One final note: Writing query letters gets easier with practice. Two books well worth the investment (or a trip to the library) are Query Letters That Rock by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell, and How To Write Irresistible Query Letters by Lisa Collier Cool. Both contain plenty of tips and examples to help you polish your queries and land more writing gigs.