Linda Formichelli and I met in an online freelancers group in 2001, I think. She had been in freelancing for a few years, but I was impressed by her eagerness to learn more about the business and with her willingness to share what she had discovered. More than that, I was impressed with her clips. (Once I flipped through a glossy women’s magazine in the grocery checkout and squealed out loud when I saw Linda’s name in the table of contents.) One reason she was landing such great assignments was her pitches. And when it came time for me to send out my first query to a big magazine, she answered my call for help. Moments after my snail-mailed letter reached the editor’s desk, I got a call with an offer. I was squealing on the phone with Linda a few moments later.
Two years later, Linda had published her seminal book The Renegade Writer with Diana Burrell. After that came Query Letters That Rock, which was updated later under a new title: From Pitched to Published: How to Sell Your Article Ideas to Magazines. Since then, she and Diana have written several more books and Linda has taught dozens of online courses on managing a freelance writing business and querying editors.
This is all to say: Linda is a master pitch writer, and she’s also super generous with her advice. And so I reached out to her for updated tips in this new age of magazine writing; naturally she was generous with her time and expertise.
In my estimation, things have changed quite a bit [in publishing], and I wanted to talk to you about where things are.
Everybody is always saying, “Oh, everything has changed so much. How am I going to break into magazines?” But actually, as much as the industry has changed and we’re seeing everything online, and we’re seeing print magazines trying to figure out how to make the transition and get advertising dollars, the pitching process has stayed the same. And I think it’s even more effective now.
When I started in 1997, there wasn’t a whole lot of competition, because you were printing out your queries and sending them out in the mail. There was a barrier to entry. Now, everybody can just email something off to an editor. So now there are a lot of people who really shouldn’t be doing this, who are sending out bad queries because it’s so easy. There’s a lot more noise these days, but you will rise to the top if you learn the process of writing a proper, well written, well researched query.
The first big piece I ever sold, the query was a page-and-a-half. Are they longer now?
The thing about query letters is that they need to be as long as you need them to be. I don’t want people to be afraid to go long if they need to fully flesh out their idea, show their research, and prove that they’re the right person to write it. That said, sometimes you might write a pitch that’s a paragraph long. Maybe you know the editor and they’re comfortable with your work and you want to just jot down a quick idea. That’s fine too. You just need to go with your gut in that situation. But the main point is, if you hook them with your headline and your lede, it doesn’t matter how long you go, as long as they keep reading. Don’t overanalyze the length.
So what’s your advice about the lede of a pitch? Should it be the lede of the story? Should you start with a scene?
Yeah, it does depend. There are many different ways you can do it, as long as it will grab the editor. But the biggest mistake I see is writers who start out with a really weak, “Oh. I’d really like to write for you, and my name is such-and-such, and I’m writing to pitch you a story on X.” You want to jump right into the story or start with a compelling quote or a surprising fact or a question, just something that’s going to make them want to keep reading. Start out with a bang; don’t be wishy-washy about it.
How do you send the pitch itself?
I recommend pasting the query right in the body of the email, and having the name of your article as the subject line. I usually write something like “Pitch from Writer” and then the title of the article that I’m proposing, and then my last name, which makes it easy [for the editor] to search [in their inbox].
In the body of the email, I often see another big mistake: people paste from Word and then when they send it out it looks all messed up. I would paste it in as text or turn it into text [after pasting] and then do the formatting right there in the body of the email.
How click-baity does the headline need to be? How clever do we need to be?
I don’t think you need to be clever. You want to show right off the bat that you have a great idea and that at the same time you’re professional. But you don’t have to go out of your way to get a chuckle out of the editor with the subject line if it doesn’t fit your proposed idea.
What else are you putting the query itself?
Something that Kelly K. James [ASJA member and author of Six Figure Freelancer and Writer for Hire] called the “why I’m so great paragraph,” where you tell the editor why you’re the best person to write the article. I’ve learned that you don’t want to go overly long with this paragraph because it makes you look like you have something to prove. Just say, I’m a freelance writer who lives in Raleigh, N.C., I’ve written for XYZ, let me know if you’d like to see clips. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t want to attach clips, because the editor might not open your email since they’re afraid of viruses. But you could include links to a couple of your favorite clips that are online or on your website.
What about the body of the pitch, where you describe your idea?
A lot of people don’t give enough detail for the editor to make a good decision. They say, “I will tell readers this,” and “I will give surprising information about that.” That’s a huge problem. An editor who doesn’t know you doesn’t know if you’re going to be able to deliver on your promises. If I say I’m going to have 10 tips in my article, I’ll offer two or three of them. I’ll often go and interview someone quickly to get some good quotes and show that I’ve got the research. If you say, “I’m going to give you the surprising reason for X,” the editor will want to know what that surprising reason is. They’re not the reader. They don’t want to be surprised later. They want to know what it is they’re paying for.
Let’s talk about the person who gets it, and how you track down the email address.
If you go to their website, it might say, “Send to email@example.com,” and when you do that your query gets lost in a black hole. There are lots of ways to find and verify editors’ email addresses these days. My favorite is a free service, Hunter.io. You put in the URL and it pulls out every address it can find at that URL. Then you can enter in a person’s name, and it’ll say, “This is what we think their email is” with a percentage of the likelihood. You can also click “verify,” and it will verify any email address it came up with to see if it’s operable.
There’s another website, Verify-email.org. Sometimes you can guess at an editor’s email address and put it in there, and it will ping the server to see if it’s a deliverable address.
The traditional advice is not to call editors you don’t have a relationship with. Is that still true?
I hate that advice. I actually have gotten assignments by calling magazines. For example, I once called a custom publication editor and left a message: “My name is Linda Formichelli, and I was wondering if you use writers. I’ve worked for X, Y, and Z.” A month later, she emailed me with a dollar-a-word assignment.
Writers can query in different ways: spending a great deal of time
developing a pitch for one particular market or taking a scatter shot approach, sending a pitch to several different markets. What are your thoughts on that?
Whichever way works for you. It also depends on the type of magazines you’re pitching. Some magazines like to say they’re totally different from all the others, but they’re kidding themselves. So you can send the same pitch to a lot of different magazines, though you’d obviously tweak it a little for each publication. In one magazine, the department I’m pitching might be 500 words and in another it might be 800 words, for example.
The caveat is that if you have a relationship with a particular editor or you really want to break in to a particular magazine, you should give them first dibs. If they pass on it, you can send it to everyone else on your list. That’s because what often happens is that the fastest markets to respond are the ones who pay the least or the ones you’re not that into.
So you do simultaneously submit then?
I do it much less these days, because I have so many relationships with editors now. But there was a time when I did, because I needed to make a living. If editors are not going to respond—which happens two-thirds of the time, in my experience—or take six months to get back to you, you literally cannot afford to wait.
Even experienced writers can have a fear of rejections—especially when we’re moving into new markets or genres. Have any advice for us?
Maybe I’m stupid or something, but I never cared when I got rejected. Maybe it was because I pitched a lot of markets at once, so when I got rejected at one, I had 10 others still out there. But if you’ve got that one perfect piece for that one perfect market, and they reject it, that can hurt. So if you’ve got that “fear of rejection” problem, maybe that’s where you think about submitting to other places at the same time. I’ve been rejected hundreds of times, and here I still stand. Having a thick skin to rejection is an incredibly awesome skill to have in all areas of life, whether it’s dating or looking for a job or pitching yourself as a speaker. And remember that all writers are going through this, even the famous ones. It’s not just you. And it’s not personal.
Laura Laing is the publications chair and a board member of ASJA. She is currently working on a fractured memoir of mathematics and young love, while seeking an MFA in creative nonfiction at Goucher College. Her recent essays can be seen in The Rumpus, Full Grown People, and upcoming issues of Consequence and Creative Nonfiction.