Grow Your Business: The Three Elements of a Great Query Letter

Photo: bulldogza,

Photo: bulldogza,

So, you’ve built a solid prospect list and maybe you’ve even made a few cold calls. Perhaps you’ve promised a prospective editor that you’d have a few great story ideas in her inbox very soon. Good for you!

This week, we continue our Grow Your Business series with some helpful hints on how to write a great query (pitch) letter.

Here’s why you should write formal query letters.

I firmly believe that formal query letters get more attention and garner more business than one or two-sentence story idea descriptions embedded in the body of an email. The problem with firing off a short list of topics in an email message is that, just like lots of other content, your ideas are likely to get lost in the barrage of emails editors receive each day.

Instead, I prefer writing my queries in a separate word document and sending them as an attachment. I figure, if the editor or content manager is invested enough to open my document, she’s likely to sit with it for a while and read it all the way through.

When I first started writing, I had no idea how to structure query letters. But after doing a little research, I was able to begin writing them with success. My single, most beneficial, source was a little ebook by writer Linda Formichelli called “Query Letters that Rock,” which features examples of actual query letters that resulted in the writer of the letter getting the assignment. If you’re not sure where to start with regard to querying, you must get this book. I’ve modeled my query letters after the ones featured in Formichelli’s dynamo piece for the past three years and they’ve worked wonders for me.

“Query Letters that Rock,” or another book like it, will likely be your most important tool. However, to get you going, I want to list a few elements every successful query letter should have. Here goes:

1. A great query letter reads like a mini-story.

Begin with a catchy introduction or lede. Draw the reader in with a sentence or two explaining a recent experience you had or a problem you encountered that your story is likely to solve for readers. For example, if you want to write a story about the trend toward soda-fountain craft beverages, tell a story about how you came upon the trend. Were you walking through town and happened to spot signs advertising soda drinks everywhere? If you want to cover a vintage store that regularly supplies to big-name movies and TV shows, consider beginning with an anecdote about the proprietor helping to outfit one of the show’s main stars. Be interesting from the start, and your story idea will pique the editor’s interest, too.

2. A great query letter proves the story’s relevance.

If possible, provide links to other research, books or consumer media outlets, especially authorities on the subject or in the industry, that support your assertion that your idea is, indeed, worthy of a story. For example, in the aforementioned vintage clothing piece, track down pieces national affiliates or industry publications have written that feature similar businesses. The editor needs to know that your writing will either announce a current trend to a larger audience or introduce the reader to a new piece of research or product. Make sure you prove your idea is relevant and timely by showcasing other coverage in the area.

Note: If you find more than three pieces that have already been written on the subject matter you wish to cover (especially if all three of those pieces are in publications that cover a broad audience), it’s likely the trend has tipped, and is no longer worth announcing. When pitching stories, you’re looking for little-known but corroborated issues or story ideas, not stuff that people have been talking about for a while. As Sandra Rinomato of HGTV’s “Property Virgins” once said, “Think, up and coming, not been and gone.” It’s hard to strike this subtle balance, but do enough research and you’ll get the hang of it.

3. A great query letter marries the publication to the idea.

You may have the best story idea in the world up your sleeve, but if it’s not right for the outlet you’re pitching to, it won’t matter. At the end of your pitch, you’ll want to briefly explain exactly why your story belongs in your target publication. In our vintage-clothing store case, something as simple as, “I think your readers would be surprised and delighted to know that one of HBO’s most exciting and popular shows is being outfitted right here in our little town of Mayberry” is a great way to marry publication to idea. If you’re pitching to a local media outlet, your story must have a sense of place and local relevance, and a unique local spin, even if it describes a nationally-relevant idea. If the publication or Web site is national, or even worldwide, in scope, you must be able to show how your story is different from the other stories the publication has written in the past, or how it is a continuation of ideas the publication regularly covers. No matter what, you must be able to tell the editor why the story is the right fit for her publication.

Tell me about your querying process. What querying techniques have you used successfully? What didn’t work for you? Drop me a comment.

Grow Your Business: How to Approach a Potential Client


Photo: ponsulak,

Hi, there, writing pals. I hope you’re getting ready to release those overworked digits from the keyboard soon and embark on a truly fantastic Labor Day weekend. I know I am. But before I do, I promised you another post in my “Grow Your Business” series. So here it is!

Last week, we explored how to create a prospective client list. This week, we’re going to look  at how to actually approach those newly minted prospects.

I think most of us can agree that approaching anyone out of the blue is nerve-racking. After all, the person on the other end of the phone line is busy and absolutely not expecting your call. They’re not seeking you out (or at least they don’t think they are) and have no idea what services you have to offer or how those services will benefit them. And they don’t have that much time (if any time at all) to hear about it.

Thus, when you pick up the phone for a cold call, it may seem as if the odds are stacked against you from the start. However, I maintain that an introductory phone call, not an introductory email, is the best way to start a relationship with a potential editor. That’s because emails come fast and furious all day long, and your all-important “Hi, my name is _____ and I’d like to write for you” message is likely to get lost in the inbox shuffle. Another bonus: In the age of digital technology, introductory phone calls are becoming all the more rare; all the reason why yours is likely to be more memorable.

So, I say, make the call. But when you do, be sure to keep these rules in mind:


1. Keep it short and sweet.

When your prospect picks up the phone, introduce yourself right away. In one sentence, state your name, your company name (if you have one) and your specialty. In sentence two, explain why you’re calling. (Ex: “I found your company online and I’ve been researching your work and I think my services might be a great fit for you.”) In sentence three, ask if the company is currently accepting pitches / queries / story ideas from freelance writers. If the reply is “no,” followed by a reason, politely let your prospect go. If the “no” answer has to do with current budget constraints or something else that might change, make a note on your spreadsheet of this fact and plan to follow up again in an appropriate amount of time (several months, perhaps). If the reply is “no, never,” go ahead and cross the prospect off of the list.

2. If the editor is currently accepting queries, say [almost] no more.

Many editors have a revolving door policy for queries, meaning they’re always taking (and rejecting) them. Other editors only take queries during specific times of the year. Usually, the editor will specify this. Once you receive an answer to this question, end the call. Tell your prospect you’d be happy to work on some queries for them, and in the meantime, let them know that you’ll send them a few links to your online work samples or portfolio. Note: If your samples are still entirely on paper, consider finding a way to get them up online, possibly by creating an online portfolio. Most editorial prospects expect to be able to find you on the Web. Then, thank the editor for his or her time and say goodbye.

3. Send an email after, and only after, you’ve made your initial phone call.

After hanging up, send a follow-up email, briefly reiterating your specialty and how / why you believe that specialty fits with your target media outlet’s communications goals. You might want to mention a few other media outlets, similar to the one you’re prospecting, that you’ve already written for. Then, include your portfolio or work sample links, links to any social media you maintain, blogs you write (if applicable) and anything else you feel will help your prospect get to know you and your work better. Close your email by reminding them that you’ll be in touch within a short amount of time (I recommend 5 business days) with a list of queries for the outlet.

4. Start pitching!

Media outlets rarely hire new writers after visiting porftolio sites. In fact, your prospect may not even visit your portfolio site or look at your work samples until you’ve created and sent at least one query. Most don’t have time to investigate a new writer unless given a reason to do so. And that reason is often your compelling story idea. So don’t expect your prospect to think much about you until you follow up that phone call and email with the queries you promised to send. Instead, get to work on some fantastic story ideas for the publication and get ready to send them off.

Next week, I’ll tackle the querying process. (Don’t worry: When I started my freelance business, I had absolutely no idea how it worked.) In the meantime, I want to recommend that you visit Linda Formichelli’s Renegade Writer blog for more info on pitching. She’s the maven!

Have a wonderful, safe and memorable holiday weekend. I’ll be back with more in a few days.

Grow Your Business: Who do you want to write for?

Photo: pakorn,

Photo: pakorn,

Happy Friday, everybody!

I’m not writing from my air mattress today. We’re still living in an unfurnished house (our stuff arrives in another week and change). But since I last posted,we’ve found some lovely patio furniture and I’m outside. Turns out, California mornings are nice and cool and great for patio dwelling, even in the heat of August.

So, from the red Sunbrella couch comes the first post in my new “Grow Your Business” series:

Who do you want to write for?

Prospecting and courting potential writing clients is like any other sales process: It takes tons of time and perseverance. So, you don’t want to waste your time prospecting editors that aren’t a good fit for your strengths and areas of interest.

Here are my top tips for prospeting effectively:

1. Don’t get stuck in a content mill.

We’ve all seen them. Big, homogeneous Web sites, such as, and, designed primarily to pop up quickly in google searches. While it may be relatively easy to get a gig with these companies, they pay terribly low rates ($15 per article according to some recent reports) and eat up your time. Sure, you’ll be able to say you’re a “published writer,” but let’s be real: These sites are rarely, if ever, the most trusted sources out there for the subject matter you’re interested in writing about. Know what your time is worth and don’t settle for less.

Carol Tice, at Make A Living Writing, wrote a fantastic blog post on this topic, in which she featured lots of testimony from content-mill writers. It’s worth a read.

2. Aim high, but start in the middle.

If you’re relatively new to the industry, it’s important to structure your prospects accordingly. Many budding writers make the mistake of pitching only to small, local media outlets believing that larger national publications with broader readership are out of their reach. Make no mistake: If it’s a good idea, the big guys want it, too. However, if you don’t have lots of previous work to show a national editor, a national publication isn’t likely to take you on. You’ll need to establish some history first.

I suggest applying a two-pronged process when identifying prospects. Approach high-quality local publications in your physical area (an established city or regional magazine, for example). You can also approach midrange and top Web sites and blogs in your area of expertise. Begin pitching to those outlets right away. Choose a few more with national and global reach and begin establishing relationships with their editors at the same time. Once you build your portfolio base with high-quality work at the local and / or regional level and online, those national prospects will already be familiar with you and they’ll be more likely to give your pitch a second look.

3. Find good matches.

Don’t make your prospect pool too broad. Instead, make sure you’re targeting publications that specialize in content that also falls within your areas of expertise. Choose the subjects you’re most interested in and that you’re also most skilled at. The more you specialize, the easier it is to find good media matches.

For example, I specialize in family life, agricultural equipment, ecofriendly living, home decor and pet care. I’ve written extensively on solar technology for residential applications in the past. I’ve also done some work in the personal-finance area. When I prospect, I choose publications, blogs and Web sites that specialize in these types of content.

If you’re into emerging technology, vintage car restoration or triathlon training, don’t bother yourself with an article on makeup application or how to find the right pair of jeans for the price. You’ll be a better, more effective writer (and be likely to get more jobs) if you stick to what you love and what you know. Bonus: If you’re into something super esoteric (like residential solar) you’re probably one of few. Use that fact to your advantage!

4. Find your magic number. Then create a spreadsheet.

I get it. You’re not a spreadsheet person. You’re a writer. Why deal with the drudgery of organization and administration? The answer is, because getting clients requires a certain amount of hardcore sales and the sales process is built around method and repetition. Once you’ve done your research, decide on a master list of prospects you plan to approach. There’s no magic number. Rather, the number of people you contact will be based on the amount of time you can spend prospecting, the size of the pool of media outlets in your interest area, and the amount of time you plan to spend writing.

In my experience, for every ten editors I approach, I’m likely to start one good relatioinship. So a prospect list of 100 yields me about ten clients per year. While that sounds defeating, it’s really not. Ten clients per year can keep me working more than full-time.

Once I have my prospects identified, I create a spreadsheet, complete with contact names for each publication, phone numbers, emails and Web sites. I leave plenty of room in the sheet for entering in status updates every time I contact the potential client. It’s an ultra-methodical approach, I know. But it’s designed to keep me on top of my process and it works for me. Sure, there are other ways to do this, so if you don’t like the idea of a spreadsheet, feel free to work with some other sort of method. If you’re interested in the spreadsheet / 100 prospect model, you can read much more about it in The Wealthy Freelancer.

Note: I know the previous tip advises readers to hone in on a few areas of expertise and that can limit your prospect pool to less than 100. But I’ve found that, even with the few areas I cover, I’ve been able to discover at least 100 local and national outlets to target. There’s more media out there than you think!

Follow these four steps and I promise you’ll feel great about your prospecting plans. That’s all I’m going to cover for this week. Trust me: setting up your prospect list will take you at least a week if you do it carefully and thoughtfully. So good luck! And please let me know if you have any questions. I’m here for you.

I’d also love to hear your prospecting advice. What techniques have you used to plan your pitch list?

Have a fantastic weekend, everybody. I’ll be on the red Sunbrealla.

Greetings from my air mattress.


We up and did it!

It’s been quite the summer, what with my husband’s move to the West Coast in June (to start a new job) and my move last week, but I’m happy to report that my groom, both dogs and I are finally all back under the same sun-soaked roof in beautiful San Juan Capistrano, California.

The relocation has been slightly crazy, as most are. For starters, my old Honda, affectionately named Dirty Hairy, bit the dust somewhere outside Springfield, MO on the cross-country drive. The repairs were so extensive we had to junk the car and buy a new one on the spot. Upon arrival, there have been the usual tasks: setting up with what little stuff we have (for now), obtaining appliances and other large essentials, a multitude of big-box store runs and a couple of DMV trips. We’re not done yet: The bulk of our furniture and household goods is on a truck somewhere between Northern Virginia and Cali.

In fact, I’m writing to you from the only soft surface in our home right now: an air mattress.

In lieu of a chair and desk, it’s my current pop-up office space. Mentally, though, we’re all starting to settle in.

I’m telling you this because I made a promise two weeks ago to start on a series on the freelance sales process. And I haven’t delivered. I might have been too ambitious in thinking that, in between moving across the country and setting up house, I could write several thoughtful, helpful posts. Sorry about that.

With my feet firmly on California ground (Or, should we say, in the sand?) I’m ready to deliver on my promise. So, starting next week, I’ll begin with a piece on prospecting.

Until then, have you picked up your copy of The Wealthy Freelancer? As I’ve mentioned before, the book taught me almost everything I know about how to develop an effective client-prospecting program. That should get you going.

Yesterday, after 10 days in our new place, Jason, the dogs and I finally made it to the beach for a bit. This great spot, Doheny State Beach and Dana Point Harbor, is just down the road. I think I’m gonna need a paddle board.



The Query Process: How to Sell Your Story Ideas to Editors

Photo: Jeroen van Oostrom,

Photo: Jeroen van Oostrom,

In my former life as a city / regional magazine editor, I’d get phone calls at least once a week from eager freelance writers looking to get published.

Most would ask if we were accepting new writers and a few would send links to their online portfolios and writing samples. But that’s about as far as the conversation went.

We almost never accepted newbies into our fold.

This was partly because we were publishing at the beginning of the 2008 recession and our freelance budget was comparatively small. But it also had to do with our interest in taking on new writers during a stressed, busy time. With all we had to do to keep the magazine afloat, my publisher and I were concerned about the time that might need to be spent educating a writer on our editorial voice, the kinds of stories we accepted and the caliber of writing we expected. In short, we just didn’t have a ton of money or time to spend bringing in someone new.

Freelancers face an uphill battle. As independent contractors, we are unknowns.

New prospects are unfamiliar with our work, our processes and our editability. Editors may not need our services or be willing to shell out good money to find out how valuable we could end up being in the long run. They have no idea how we compare to the rest of our market (the quality of freelance writing, like every other consumer good or service out there, varies widely).

That’s why it’s important for us to fill in the gaps.

Shopping story ideas to media outlets is a sales process. And most of us are writers, not salespeople. This was one of the most important facts I learned as a new freelancer. And while I had plenty of ideas and writing chops, I had to educate myself on how to pursue, network with, and eventually acquire new clients in order to get those ideas published.

I found some great resources along the way that helped me piece together my current query plan, and I’d like to share that plan, and those resources, with you in the next few posts.

Here are the topics I’m going to cover:

1. Identifying your prospects.

2. How to approach a new editor.

2. Deciding on appropriate (and exciting!) story ideas.

3. Writing a great query letter (and where to find examples of query letters that resulted in jobs).

4. How to follow up with a perspective client without putting her off.

5. What to do when you land the gig.

6. Common pitfalls and challenges.

I’ll tackle one of these topics per week for the next six weeks. In the meantime, I want to share one of the most valuable books on freelancing I’ve ever read: The Wealthy Freelancer, by Steve Slaunwhite, Pete Savage and Ed Gandia. This book absolutely changed the way I view freelancing (it’s a business!) and I modeled my sales process after the one the authors of this book suggest. It was truly a game-changing read. Check out some previous coverage I’ve given to the book here, and please take out a copy today.

How did you develop your querying process? What advice could you offer budding freelance writers? What do you want to know about querying? Drop me a comment!

Crushing On: Herban Essentials Towlettes

Photo: Courtesy of Herban Essentials

Photo: Courtesy of Herban Essentials

I haven’t posted much in Work Healthy lately.

It’s not because I haven’t been prioritizing my work and health (I’ve been trying to do both.) Rather, it’s because I’m in transition and I don’t really have a healthy home, let alone office space, to call my own just yet, so the ideas haven’t been flowing as freely as usual.

Right now, my office is wherever I can find some quiet time; usually the local public library. I happen to love the local library. It’s newly renovated, light-filled and gorgeous.  But that doesn’t change the fact that it, like most public work spaces, can get well … germy.

That’s why I’m crushing on Herban Essentials towlettes.

Photo: Courtesy of Herban Essentials

Photo: Courtesy of Herban Essentials

They’re made with pure essential oil and therefore smell amazing, and also have antibacterial and antiseptic properties. For wiping down my work space pre- and post-session, my favorites are lemon and orange. They smell fresh and juicy without even a hint of sweetness, so they’re not perfume-y, just clean. And I love the lavender-scented and mint-scented towlettes for a post-lunch pick-me-up (mint) or stress reliever (lavender). I get mine at Whole Foods, but they’re available at a bunch of other locations, too. Locate your nearest retailer here.

Now, they’re pricier than non-natural versions, I’m not gonna lie. But I assure you, they’re so much better smelling and feeling than those strong, medicinal-smelling antibacterial hand wipes and sanitizers.

If the benefits don’t outweigh the cost for you, I get it. Check out this awesome recipe for homemade hand sanitizer at one of my favorite blog spots, DIY Natural. This one uses essential oils as well.

How do you “Work Healthy” away from home? Drop me a comment!

Hey, just a reminder: I don’t do paid endorsements on this blog. If I recommend something, it’s because I’ve used it and I love it. Simple as that.