For many people, the dream of being a writer includes the fantasy of writing articles for magazines.
If you’re really good at fantasizing, you might even imagine the part where you’re in the grocery store checkout line, and the lady in front of you is reading an article you wrote, and then she turns around and recognizes you because the magazine ran a headshot of you and — yeah.
Been there. Fantasized that.
Let’s figure out how to get you from where you are right now to the next best thing to that fantasy — depositing a big, fat check from the magazine into your bank account.
If you already know what a query letter is and you just want some quick advice on how to write one that gets you assignments, watch this 5-minute video. If you’d like a little more background and context, keep reading.
Do I Really Need a Query Letter?
You might be wondering, What exactly is a query letter, and why you need to write one. Can’t you just write an amazing article and send it off to a magazine?
Sending a query letter to a print magazine is a little bit different from pitching an idea or an article to a web site.
You can find thousands of online magazines, because basically anyone can start one. You don’t need a big budget or fancy offices, and most of the people who start online magazines don’t have those things.
They certainly can’t afford to pay $800 or $1000 or $2000 for an article.
The print magazines you see at the checkout line in the grocery store — Cosmo, Glamour, Parents — those magazines have bigger budgets, and they have a different way of doing things, a way that was established long before the casualness of the Internet.
(Yes. There was a whole world that existed before the Internet.)
Print magazines do not ever accept original articles that are written up and submitted by a new freelancer. They only work with query letters.
This is actually a good thing, because you don’t have to waste time writing an article you might not be able to sell. Instead of spending hours and hours researching and writing an article, you can put in the time to write a great query and send that. Then, if the article is assigned, you’ll know up front how much you’re being paid to write it.
Editors live and breathe their magazines. So they know exactly what their readers want — which means that they can tell you precisely what to focus on in your piece.
The editor might have a connection to a particular expert and want you to interview that person. She might have a book or a web site that needs to be referenced in the article. When she assigns you the article, she’ll give you these important details, which will make the article more appropriate for her readers.
Preparing to Write a Query Letter
If you’re not a big magazine reader, you might be tempted to lump, say, Redbook and Good Housekeeping together. You might think that those magazines are basically the same, and that an article could easily fit into either one.
When you start writing for magazines, however, you will quickly learn that each magazine has its own unique spin and flavor, and that while two or more magazines might cover the same TOPICS — like women, or health, or food, or whatever — they’re really, really different.
Each magazine looks for different slants. Each magazine has its own way of handling those topics, its own niche, if you will.
What will work for an article in one magazine won’t necessarily work for an article in another magazine.
Editors get a LOT of query letters. If you want to stack the deck in your favor, the very first thing you need to do is to read the freaking magazine you’re pitching.
In fact, you should really read at least the last six issues, and more if you can swing it.
BONUS: Whenever you sit down with a magazine, you can look your spouse in the eye and honestly say, “Honey, I’m working.”
How to Read a Magazine to Write a Query Letter
When you sit down to read a magazine that you want to write for, you have to read it differently from the average consumer who reads for pleasure.
If you really want to do your homework properly, head over to the library, take out a stack of back issues, and start to read. You’ll also want to take notes.
When you read a magazine with an eye towards writing a query, the ads are just as important as the articles, so don’t skip them. In fact, every time you get to an ad, write down what it’s for and who the advertiser is. What story do the ads tell you about the magazine’s readers?
For example, in a recent issue of Parents magazine, the Inside spread was for a Dodge minivan. The next ad was for low-end to mid-range photo printers. The next one was for Johnson & Johnson baby soap.
Parents is for moms and dads (DUH), who make a nice income — but are careful with their spending. They’re happy to spend money where it counts — on their kids’ safety, for example — but like to save a bit when they can. Parents isn’t advertising high-end luxury cars or super-high-end cameras or printers, but rather more budget-friendly versions.
Another example: an issue of Better Homes and Gardens had ads for Sure Fit Slipcovers, Riders Jeans, and The Home Depot with an ad for affordable Thomasville kitchen cabinetry — and the ad detailed financing options. Better Homes and Gardens is also playing to a budget-conscious audience.
The relationship between the advertising and editorial departments of most magazines is a lot tighter than many editors want to admit.
As you turn your practiced eye toward magazines that have entertained you for years, you will notice that in the same issue that just happens to have a small blurb featuring a hot new product is a gorgeous four-color spread advertising the very same product.
Your Query Letter Needs a Specific Slant
When you understand the magazine’s target audience, you can create a more specific slant for your query letter.
Better Homes and Gardens doesn’t want in-depth look at an extremely rare stone found only in one tiny part of Italy that you can buy for $157 a square foot for your grand foyer. But they might love something that explained how to create the very same look in your own entrance for under $1000.
When you write your query letter, you have to be as specific as possible. You don’t tell an editor that you want to write something about parenting twins. You have to come up with a specific slant about parenting twins that this particular magazine will want to cover.
Let’s say you’re thinking about yoga and pregnancy. Those are broad topics, and there’s nothing specific happening. You don’t pitch a TOPIC to a magazine. You have a very specific slant, and you pitch that to a magazine.
Remember, magazines like Good Housekeeping and Redbook have been around for a long time — and they’ve already published a lot of articles on yoga and pregnancy. So they’re looking for something super specific that will appeal to their readers.
In fact, Good Housekeeping recently ran a piece called “How Yoga Helped me Love My Body,” Redbook ran with “11 Brilliant Sex Tips from Yoga Instructors.”
Those are two wildly different articles, and each one is very specifically targeted to a different set of readers.
Your query needs to be super specific and super targeted to the magazine you want to write for, so you really have to read the magazine and know it well before you send a query.
Query Letter Dos and Don’ts
Don’t send your query letter to Dear Editor and don’t send it to a general email address.
There are plenty of ways to find out who the actual person is that you want to connect with — and to figure out that person’s email address.
Look at the magazine’s masthead, where all the editors are listed. Use Google, use Writer’s Market, use LinkedIn.
You can even call the magazine and say, “If I’m pitching a piece on [your topic], who do I want to send that to? Okay, and what’s her email address?”
Do send your query to a specific person at her specific email address.
Don’t use a subject line that will make the editor roll her eyes and delete your message.
You don’t want to sound like a PR rep pitching a product or a source for an article, and you don’t want to sound like you’re a reader sending fan mail.
So don’t send your email with a subject like Amazing new thing, or Query or Your Magazine or even a generic subject like Query for your magazine. BE SPECIFIC.
Do give your email a specific subject, such as Query: [your article title].
Don’t open your query letter by introducing yourself.
You have nanoseconds to catch the editor’s attention before she trashes your email. So don’t waste that time with something like, “Hi, I’m Abbi, and I’m a freelance writer” or “I LOVE YOUR MAGAZINE.”
Do open your query with a hook — with two or three sentences that could be the first few sentences of your article.
Don’t tell the editor you have no experience.
Writing for magazines takes skill, but it’s not rocket science. You can do this. There’s no reason for you to tell the editor why she shouldn’t hire you by saying things like, “I’ve never done this before,” or “I’m not really sure if…”
Do be confident, so that the editor can hire you with confidence.
How to Write a Query Letter
Now that you have a solid understanding of what a query letter is and why you need one, here’s a simple formula you can use to write winning queries again and again.
Open with a hook.
Start your query with a paragraph that could double as the first paragraph of the article you’re pitching. Those sentences could be a compelling quote, a fascinating statistic, or an anecdote that immediately draws the reader into the story.
Think of the first paragraph of your query as a place to show the editor how great the article will be if she assigns it to you. You have three to five sentences where you must capture her attention — or she’ll toss your query into the trash.
If you’ve done a bit of research for this piece, use it. Quote an expert. If you’ve done an interview, include the BEST sound bite, the BEST quote you have.
Outline the article.
In the second paragraph, briefly outline the article. Keep it short — describe what you want to do in a few sentences, and include one or two proposed sources.
If you have proposed subheadings, you can use those.
Don’t say, “I’m going to interview some top sources, like university professors and renowned pediatricians, for this article.”
Be specific. Name the sources you want to speak to, or at least refer to a new book that’s just been published on the topic.
Propose a title.
Give your proposed article a title — that makes it easier for the editor to discuss it at an editorial meeting. “What about ‘Is My Baby a Bully?’” sounds like it’s already an article. “What about that proposed piece on toddlers and aggressive behavior?” sounds clunkier — not as close to being a finished piece.
How do you come up with a title for your piece? Study the magazine. Look at the titles they feature.
Do they use numbers? Alliteration? Humor? Make your title sound like it fits in.
If you can’t come up with a potential title for what you want to write, then you probably sill need to refine your idea.
State your qualifications.
Here’s where you convince the editor that you’re the right person to write the article. Mention your special experience or expertise, and note any previous writing credits.
If your only previous writing credits are for your own blog, include one or two of your best posts — or create a sample.
Most importantly, tell the editor why you’re an awesome person to write this story. This is where you can say, I have five kids, and I have seen my kids on the giving and receiving ends of blows that left me wincing — and in one case even prompted an emergency room visit.
I’ve been blogging daily about this topic for two years.
I’ve worked as a writer for the last year.
I’ve read everything written on this topic in the last 15 years.
Find the thing that makes YOU the person who should write this particular article — and use that.
Ask for the assignment.
Now it’s time to close the sale. Demonstrate your confidence and ask the editor to assign you the piece.
Flat out say, “I would love to write this piece for you. If you’re interested in showing your readers how they can [do whatever the article teaches], please contact me. I look forward to discussing this article with you.”
Now, let’s be clear: This isn’t the only way to write a query. But it’s a way that I know works — and it can work for you, too. It’s simple and straightforward, and you really can put together a query in under an hour if you work at it. Use this method and add magazine writing to your stable of freelance writing tricks.