The Freelance Writing Trenches: Query Away

Monday, January 23, 2012
The morning started with a county-wide power outage. By the time the power was back up, it was snowing and it hasn't stopped yet. As the hours tick by, the snow's intensity grows. Currently, the far shore of the lake and even the ice house in the middle of lake have disappeared in asnowy whiteout. It seems like a good day to spend in front of the wood stove, drinking cocoa and planning next year's garden.
But as much as the wood stove beckons, after running my latest batch of receipts through QuickBooks, it appears that my time would be better spent sending some queries out. Time to up the income levels at Of Woods and Words!
Oh queries. A pain in the arse really. Yet without the query letter, where would any of us freelance writers of be?

There may be editors out there just dying to give you some work, but unless you specifically and articulately ask for that work, they're going to give the work to another writer who they already know exists. The query letter is our chance to both announce and prove ourselves. When starting out, query letters often seem like time-consuming missives sent off into the ether, but you really do need to query if you want paying gigs. The more you query, the more writing credentials you earn and with more writing credentials, the greater success you'll achieve with your query letters.

Moral of the story: just send out some query letters already!

Even though I now have a much higher rate of success with my query letters then when I started out three years ago, the truth is I don't query as much as I should. I find it easy to get overwhelmed by the process, even though I've done it many times.

Here's the basic process of how to write a query letter:

1) Research the publication you'd like to query.
2) Determine if the publication's a good fit for your writing. Be honest about this. Trying to get a square peg into a round hole really is a waste of time.
3) Come up with a brilliant article idea for the publication. Make sure this idea is fairly original and truly a fit for the publication. (You don't want to come off like Hugh Grant in Notting Hill, interviewing Julia Roberts for Horse and Hound.) You'll also need to check the archives to make sure the magazine hasn't recently published something similar.
4) Carefully outline your article idea. This means you need to use specifics - who you plan to interview, how you plan to organize the article, etc. Sell yourself as the best person to do the job by listing your credentials and highlighting anything else that might make you an especially good choice for writing this particular article. 
5) Submit - making sure you've addressed everything to the appropriate editor, have a completely error-free letter/email that make it sound like you actually know what you're talking about.

There are many, many how-to books devoted to the subject of query letters. My favorite remains Michael Perry's Handbook to Freelance Writing.

On average, a good query letter should take you at least an hour to complete. It's time consuming, which is why I like to procrastinate with them.

Happy querying!


  1. Good luck and well-wishes for your own job/query search!

    We have had no snow here! Last year this time, we were buried! Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to not have to deal with that since so much of my commute is spent outside waiting for buses.

    An idea, perhaps? I'd be happy to be the subject or addendum to an article about living outside of one's home country. Because, really, I'm self-centered like that.

  2. love this! i realize i'm going to have to start doing this more, outside of work. harrowing, but totally worth it! good luck with the queries!

  3. Great tips, thanks! I'm starting to become convinced that I'm too lazy to ever make this freelancing thing work out. I just have to do it. I have to stop procrastinating, stop making excuses, and make this thing happen.

    You're my kick in the butt. You have knowledge and advice, and it helps me a ton. Thanks for that.

  4. Thanks for the tips! I've never sent a real query letter out, it sounds daunting but this is a cheat sheet. I appreciate it.

  5. Thanks, Ada--timely information. I feel overwhelmed trying to ... you know... do anything to get paid as a writer.

  6. I admire your profession and think that you are very brave to live in the woods and to write for a living.

  7. This wood burning stove! Reminds me of my childhood! A hot cocoa and a burning fire and I would be right in your shoes. procrastinating whatever would need to be done!
    Not a writer here but then this way of approaching a topic is so very necessary. Not only to get a proper query letter but nearly any proposal done. It always helps me to actually analyze and clarify my wishy-washy idea.

    Just in case you care for some indulgence during this query writing:
    4 oz chocolate (min 70% cacao)
    3 tablespoon sugar (or Truvia, personally I dont add any sweetener)
    1/2 gallon milk
    1/4 cup water

    Grate the chocolate. Put sugar, grated chocolate, water in a pot and SLOWLY heat till chocolate melts. in a second pot boil the milk. Add the boiled milk to the chocolate mixture, keep heating, avoid boiling, wisk a bit and remove from stove. Blend on high speed till the hot chocolate gets all foamy. Enjoy. I love topping with some dried lavender buds. Do I hear you moan about the "work' involved? Try it once!
    Ok, I simply copied from my current blog post.
    Which funnily enough is about hot cocoa and writing too.


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