Are You Under-Researching Your Queries? Here are 4 Ways to Create Queries That Get Assignments

By Linda Formichelli

After critiquing hundreds of queries through my Write for Magazines e-course — and after receiving many unsuccessful pitches from would-be Renegade Writer guest posts — I’ve pinpointed the one mistake most writers make that doom their queries:

They don’t do nearly enough research.

For example, I received a pitch from a guest poster who told me she would talk about the top five ways to beat procrastination.

Now that I’m wearing the editor hat, I can see what kind of conundrum a pitch like this causes. What are these ways, I wondered? Should I accept this idea and take a chance that the tips will be stale or inappropriate for my audience? Or should I just send a rejection?

Often, it’s easiest — and safest — to just send the rejection.

Now, if this writer had shown me what she planned to do, by describing what 2-3 of those tips would be, I would have a better idea of whether the post would work for The Renegade Writer.

I also critique queries from writers who say they plan to interview sources X, Y, and Z — but they never contacted the sources to get quotes that would liven up the pitch, or even just to make sure the sources would agree to an interview if the writer sold the idea.

Queries that lack key information come off as lazy and half-baked.

Writers always ask me, “Isn’t it a waste of time to do all that research on a query that may never be accepted””

But here’s the thing: If you toss off a half-assed pitch with no research, you almost certainly won’t get an assignment. If you do your research, your chances are much higher. Also, when you land the assignment, a lot of your research will already be done.

So: Here are my tips for writing well-researched queries that land assignments:

1. Interview at least a couple of your sources.

Quotes from sources show the editor so much:

  • You have appropriate sources in mind.
  • The sources have agreed to be interviewed — no last-minute AWOL experts!
  • The sources have something important to say about the topic.
  • You know how to get good quotes.

You don’t need to do full-on interviews for the query: Just ask each source if you can have 10 minutes of his time to get a few quotes for your query, and tell him you’ll be back in touch if you get the assignment.

2. Write a lede that mimics an article lede you’d see in your target magazine.

There’s that pesky research again: You need to know what kinds of ledes your target market uses.

The good news is, many magazines of the same genre use the same types of ledes so you don’t have to totally rewrite the pitch for each different market. For example, for a women’s or parenting magazine, you pretty much can’t go wrong with a personal anecdote or an anecdote from a woman- or mom-on-the-street. In which case you need to do even more research, as you’ll have to find someone who experienced the situation you want to write about.

3. Get stats that prove your idea is relevant to readers.

A major reason a query may be rejected is that your topic is relevant to only a small portion of the magazine’s readers. For example, many writers want to write articles on little-known diseases that affect only like one percent of the population.

Your job is to show the editor that a good portion of the mag’s audience will want to read your article. For example, when I pitched Redbook an article on tics in kids, I told the editor that although Tourette’s is relatively rare, 10 or more percent of school-age kids will develop a transient tic. The idea sold.

Ask your sources (since you’ll be interviewing them, right?) for stats you can include, or search for studies or stats online.

4. Show the editor what you plan to do — don’t just tell her.

This is the mistake the person who wanted to guest post about procrastination made: She told me what she wanted to do instead of showing me through examples.

An editor doesn’t want to give an assignment to a writer, not knowing whether she really has the goods. That’s why you need, in the body of your query, to give the editor examples of what you plan to do, written in the style of the magazine.

That means if you’re writing a pitch for an article that will offer health tips, you give the editor three of those tips, with subheds and quotes — just as they would appear in the magazine.

How about you…do you write researched pitches, or prefer to sketch out an idea and see if it sticks? Let us know in the Comments below!

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11 comments… add one
  • This is a great suggestion, Linda. When I worked as an editor it was so obvious to me when freelancers had under-researched their pitches. And you’re right: it’s way easier to say “no” than to ask extra questions.

    • Thank you, Daphne! I love hearing the perspective of someone who’s been in the trenches as an editor.

  • A lot of the newbie writers who take my freelance writing class are scared to death of doing interviews (“you mean I actually have to call someone I don’t know?”) so including quotes would help set them apart from those who think it’s acceptable to quote another article instead of getting fresh quotes. Occasionally, though, I find a student who has gone overboard on the research and spends so much time perfecting his/her query that it’s hard to hit send and move onto the next idea, and you need to be an idea machine rather than getting stuck on one idea in order to succeed as a freelancer.

    • I agree, Susan…being one of those writers who goes the extra mile to get quotes would really make his pitch stand out. And over-researching – yeah. I get a lot of mentoring clients with this problem, and i challenge them to just hit send. 🙂

  • I always learn from things I read here. I had previously read conflicting things when it came to interviewing and whether to wait until you got the assignment or contact them first. Thanks for clarifying that aspect. It makes sense that you can contact them briefly,to get enough to send the letter and then contact them again when you get the go ahead. Thanks!

    • Thanks for your comment, Peter! Also thank you for helping spread the word about my posts on LinkedIn!

  • Hi Linda,

    Good tips for writing queries.

    Many writers try to get out a large number of queries in a short amount of time, thinking that they are improving their chances of getting a gig–but that’s not really the best strategy.

    • Thank you, Laura! There’s something to be said for being fast and getting a lot of queries out there — but if you skimp on those queries, it can backfire on you.

  • I like your tip of including quotes from experts in your query. I’ve never had trouble interviewing professionals but I’ve always wondered how to approach them before an assignment but now I know! Thanks.

    • Thanks for your comment, and welcome to the blog, Christina! I’m glad you found the post helpful.

  • Joe LaMarr

    This really is a fantastic A to Z walkthrough – no information left out! Thanks so much, this was super helpful! 🙂


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