How to query editors: A guide for freelancers

Note: I originally wrote this piece in 2010 on the Joomla version of my site. I think it’s still relevant today, and hope it helps new freelancers as they work their way into the creative field.

As an editor I regularly get queries across my desk. And because of the size of my company, I often play a deciding role in hiring a freelancer. So I’ve moved to the other side of the desk, figuratively, from being a freelancer trying to figure out what pitch is going to sell, to being the person being sold to. If that makes any sense. Anyway, I’ve seen good and bad queries. By “bad,” I mean that the freelancer didn’t just not get the nod to write for my company – he or she got roundfiled.

The number one reason a query gets roundfiled is it wastes my time. I’m really strict about this – and it kills the nice person deep inside my cold, cold editor’s shell – because I give the company 8 hours of my time every day, and I’ve got to cram a ton of objectives into those 8 hours. If I’m not disciplined about my time, those 8 hours stretch into 10, 12, all night.

So, how do you not get roundfiled? How do you get moved into my special green “I’ll think about it” folder, or even better, get the phone call from yours truly that almost always means you’ll get an assignment? Here’s a few tips on how to catch my interest and not waste my time.

  1. Target the publication precisely.
  2. Get right to the point.
  3. Keep it short.
  4. Don’t spam me.
  5. Phone calls are risky.
  6. Emails are preferable to snail mail.
  7. Be professional.

Let’s look at these tips in detail.

  1. Target the publication precisely. If you’ve written for any length of time you know that knowing your target market is critical to success. Writing is a business like any other, and if you want to make a sale, you’ve got to know your customers. Take the time, do your research, and when you find the publication you want to write for, get to know it inside and out. You don’t have to be a technology expert to write for my company, but you had better know that the online magazine is going to be focusing on, say, M2M communications exclusively during the next six months. You’d better know what M2M means. You’d better have a grasp of the topics we cover within that realm, and the overall focus of the topics covered. For example, if the publication covers network infrastructure issues, and your pitch is about the hottest cellphones for teenagers, you’re probably not making it past the roundfile.
  1. Get right to the point. What triggered this blog post is a query I received yesterday that started out promising and then just pissed me off. “Are you interested in an article on smart grid development in Europe?” the first line asked. Why, yes I was. But then the e-mail just immediately ground down into pap. Paragraph after paragraph of … I don’t know exactly what, because I just scanned it, trying to get to the end. I guarantee there was at least 3,000 words in that email. I never got to the end. I just hit “Trash.” Now, I don’t care what Writer’s Digest is telling people these days. Never write a query that’s longer than the maximum length of a publication’s articles. It’s a waste of your time and my time. Never write a query that’s longer than 3 paragraphs, and keep those paragraphs short. If I’m interested in what you are offering, I will contact you and ask for more information.
  2. Keep it short. A writer who has since become one of our regular correspondents was hired because of a 1-paragraph query. I’ll summarize how it happened. Tracy (name changed to protect the awesome) sent me a to-the-point email:

    Dear Ms. Bookman: I hope you are the right person to contact, but if not, please forward this to the appropriate person (aside: this is perfectly all right if the contact or query terms are not explicit on the site, which at my publication they are not). I noticed that your publication has gone online-only, and that you are increasing your focus on M2M communications. I’m a former analyst for (Analyst Firm X) specializing in B2B analysis of M2M trends. Would you be interested in an article on the recent regulatory changes the EU is considering for smart grid companies? Sincerely, Tracy

    That was it. To which my instant mental replies were, yes I am, yes, and yes. I immediately asked her to email writing samples and a CV, and forwarded them to the editor-in-chief. That was followed by a 30-minute conference call between us and Tracy during which she was given her first assignment. A week after publishing that short article, the editor-in-chief asked her to meet with him and the international desk chief while he was in London, where she was immediately tasked with writing regularly for us.

    I can tell you that the deciding factors in hiring Tracy were (a) that strong, to-the-point, blissfully short query, (b) her knowledge of our publication’s new direction – something that hadn’t yet been publicized and that only our site’s readers would know, and (c) the topic she proposed. The fact that she was an industry analyst was not at the top of our list; in fact, we fretted about how much she might charge us, based on her credentials.

  3. Don’t spam me. Do I need to explain how annoying this is? If a query is addressed to “Dear Sir or Madam,” it gets trashed. If a query is clearly being broadcast across the industry segment, not just specifically to my publication, it gets trashed. Don’t send the same query to me every day for two weeks. I won’t just trash your query, I’ll block your e-mail address.
  4. Phone calls are risky. It’s not that I don’t appreciate phone calls, it’s just that I have a mind like a sieve, I’m concentrating on five things at once, and I’m going to forget that you called. Use the phone call gambit as an information-gathering tool for yourself – but make it fast. I’m very happy to answer questions like, “who can I send a query to?” or “can you point me to your editorial guidelines?” But don’t make the initial query or sales pitch over the phone, and keep the call to under a minute.
  5. Emails are preferable to snail mail. In my early freelancing days I used to craft beautiful, targeted queries, print them out on expensive cotton-thread letterhead, and mail them in lovingly crafted, butter-soft, cream-colored envelopes. The last time I did this was in 1999. These days, unless a publication’s guidelines specifically require queries by mail, send your query by email. (Some online publications have query submission forms on their websites–even better.)
  6. Be professional. It’s hard sometimes, I know. You follow all of the above advice, plus a little more. You research the hell out of your targeted publication. You craft a query that is sure to get a response, and you e-mail it to the exact right person. And then… you hear nothing back. What went wrong? Was something wrong with the query? Is the person no longer at that company? Waiting for days and weeks is an agony. All that work, and for nothing!Well, maybe nothing. Any one of a hundred things could have conspired to keep that editor from replying to your query. Maybe your query did get roundfiled, which sucks. But maybe it got lost in a swamp of emails. Maybe the editor forgot. The most professional thing to do is wait a few days and re-query. Be sure to add a line at the beginning, along the lines of “I just wanted to follow up on my earlier query.” If you still get no response, wait a few more days and give it one more try with a third query. After that, move on to another opportunity. But don’t be angry or bitter about it, please. Most editors are not sitting at their desks cackling and lighting big fat cigars using printouts of queries. Some really did forget to respond; others don’t normally respond to queries at all – but that doesn’t mean they haven’t considered yours, and even placed it into their version of the big green “maybe” folder.As a freelancer, I’ve gotten calls from editors months after my query – usually they were saving my info for an upcoming assignment. Most were pretty darn good assignments, too – better than what I’d proposed. Be polite and professional, and don’t give them a piece of your mind thinking that’ll somehow teach them to not reply to your query.

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