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!