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This week’s question comes from an aspiring freelance writer who wants to know how to write a query letter and what type of information she should include.
To find out, I turned to two of my favorite freelancers, who just happen to have different approaches to query letters.
Stacy Lipson, an independent journalist whose work has appeared in numerous national outlets, suggests starting off with an introduction for the editor. Include published clips, as well as clips that will be published in noteworthy publications.
Also, keep in mind the format of the outlet you are pitching. For example, a Web pitch should be written on the shorter side, while a print outlet can have a longer query letter.
Lipson also recommends double-checking for small grammatical errors, and keeping your notes as brief as possible. As for follow-up, wait 2-3 weeks, depending on the timeliness of the query.
Heidi Russell, a 20-year veteran journalist who wrote for The Associated Press and regional newspapers before breaking out on her own as a freelancer, takes a different, less-conventional approach.
“Most writers and editors will tell you to fully develop one idea (including data and even quotes from potential story sources, etc.) and then blow them away with your in-depth knowledge of the subject matter,” says Russell. “I go for the opposite approach.”
When approaching editors of a publication for the very first time, Russell puts her research hat on and makes a list of the stories the magazine has done in the past year. She also studies the regular sections of the magazine (advice columns, etc.) to see if there are opportunities to break in with those smaller write-ups first.
She then sends a letter of introduction, including her website link, and asks the editor if they would entertain story pitches.
“If I get a response to that letter, it indicates the person is open to new freelancers. If the letter is ignored, I move on,” she says. “There's no sense in working hard on a query if it won't even be read or considered.”
If she does get the green light, she then spends about eight hours doing nothing but researching 8-10 topics or issues that might interest the publication. She then sends a list of those story ideas, each about one paragraph.
“I call this my ‘spaghetti against the wall’ approach,” says Russell. “You know -- throw a wad of spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks. Sometimes more than one ‘noodle’ will stick.”
For example, this past February, she pitched an editor with about 20 story ideas. She broke them up in three different emails, doing lists of ideas for three different sections in the magazine.
“So far, I've received six from that time and effort,” says Russell. “I'd say that was worth it.”
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