How to Find Writing Work: Pitching and Querying 101

Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

Pitching is not my favorite. I don’t know any writers who love the pitching process. Pitching is a lot of work — in fact, researching, crafting and sending out an effective pitch can take more time and effort than actually writing the article you’re trying to sell. Pitching also takes confidence, which is something a lot of new writers lack. Heck, many writers have to fight that battle at every stage of their career.

Nevertheless, pitching is a necessary skill for freelance writers, and it’s the fastest and most effective way to land paying work and fill your portfolio with professional writing clips.

Before we proceed, I want you to know that I’m on this journey beside you. While I’ve got some experience with pitching, and doing so successfully, it’s something I’ve avoided as much as possible throughout my career. But I’ve reached a point where I need to just suck it up and do it if I want to grow my income and advance in my career. If in the process I can help you get good at it here at the start of your own career, so much the better. That will help keep me motivated.

So let’s dive in.

What is Pitching?

Pitching is, in its simplest terms, your sales pitch to publications or prospective clients. You might have heard the terms pitching and querying — in freelance writing, these terms are pretty much interchangeable, although if you want to get technical, your pitch is the presentation of your idea or service, and a query is the e-mail in which you present it.

In freelance writing, there are basically two kinds of pitches:

  1. Pitching article ideas to publications
  2. Pitching services to prospective clients

For now, we’re going to be focusing on the first kind, because that is what will be the most effective at getting you started as a professional freelancer and getting you clips that can help you land clients and better paying work.

A “clip,” by the way, is another word for writing sample — an article or other piece of writing you can point someone to that will accurately demonstrate your writing ability.

Why You Need to Know How to Pitch

Whether you’re trying to get articles published, trying to get new clients or trying to get a steady writing job, pitching is all part of the process. It’s basically how writers apply for work. Eventually, if you stick with it, you’ll start getting assignments handed to you, but probably not frequently enough to render pitching totally unnecessary.

Even if you’re not interested in freelance writing and simply want to publish your own writing, you’ll still need to learn the art of the pitch if you want to convince people to read your stuff.

But on the freelancing side, pitching is about more than trying to land work. It’s how you introduce yourself to the people you want to work with, get a foot in the door, and start building relationships. The more you pitch to a particular publication or editor, the more likely they’ll be to remember you, and to eventually give you a chance and see what you can do for them.

Steps to Pitching

Generating a pitch can be done a couple of ways:

  1. You decide you want to write for a certain publication, and then you research that publication and come up with appropriate ideas they haven’t already covered, or a new spin on a topic that they have covered.
  2. You come up with an idea for an article, and then you research which publications might be interested in that article and make a list of who you’ll query.

Whether the idea or the target for your pitch comes first, here are the general steps involved in pitching:

  1. Come up with a good idea.
  2. Research and decide which publication(s) you want to pitch it to. Look up querying and submission guidelines, what type of content they’re looking for from freelancers, pay rates, and the name and e-mail address of the person in charge of submissions. You’ll also want to research the publication’s audience, topics they’ve covered over the last year, their overall tone and style, etc.
  3. Make a list of publications you’ll query with this idea, in order of preference.
  4. Write and send your query letter.
  5. If it’s accepted, celebrate with a happy dance or a fizzy beverage, give yourself a high-five, and write your article.
  6. If the pitch is rejected, thank them for their time and move on to the next publication on your list, tweaking your query as needed.

Finding Publications to Pitch

We’ll go deeper on this topic in the future, but for now, here are a few places to start your search for paying publications:

  • Magazines, blogs or websites you enjoy reading — search for their writers’ guidelines, or look at the masthead
  • Hobby publications, professional organizations you belong to, alumni magazines
  • Google keywords related to your idea to see who’s publishing on those topics

Protip: if you can’t find the name or email address of the editor you should pitch, try searching for the publication on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Query Letter Template and Samples

Here’s the general template I follow on my own queries:

  1. Subject line: “Query: Catchy headline”
  2. Salutation: The most important thing here is to make sure you’ve spelled the name right. Whether to use Mr., Ms., first name, last name, or just a first name is up to you, although I generally avoid using just a first name until after I’ve established contact with someone. Don’t agonize over this. If your idea is good, an editor won’t reject it because they’re offended you didn’t address them correctly.
  3. Your hook — this will basically be the first paragraph of your article, or a close approximation of it. Generally, I find it best to get straight to the point and launch right into the pitch without any preamble, and introduce myself afterwards. But if your pitch is more than a few paragraphs, it won’t hurt to briefly introduce yourself first.
  4. Summary and outline — expand on the idea introduced in your hook paragraph and how you plan to present it.
  5. Planned sources, if applicable — i.e., people you plan to interview or quote, studies you’ll refer to, sources you’ll cite, etc.
  6. Estimated word count and turnaround time from the date of the assignment
  7. Who you are and why you’re qualified to write this article
  8. Thank them for their time and sign off

Sample Query

It’s been over 20 years since I wrote the query that landed me my first article. I can’t remember it exactly, but I believe this is a close approximation, and is a good example of how to handle not having any professional writing experience or samples:

Dear [Name of assignments editor],

My name is Jean Bauhaus, and I’m a full-time administrative assistant at a Fortune 500 company, serving a department of about 40 people. I’ve held this position for about three years now. I also have ADHD.

As I’m sure you’re aware, this disorder can make it extremely difficult to hold down a job, let alone perform successfully in it. My article, How to Keep Attention Deficit Disorder from Creating Workplace Disorder, will teach your readers tips and tricks I’ve learned that have helped me succeed in my job. Here are a few tips I’ll include:

[Bulleted outline of tips]

This article will run about 1,000 words, and I can turn it around within a week from the assignment date. If you like, I can also include a sidebar listing online resources that I have found to be indispensable, as I’m sure will your readers who suffer from this disorder.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to your response.

All the best,

Jean Bauhaus

So how did I handle not having experience or clips? I simply didn’t mention it, and they never asked. The letter itself was well written enough to demonstrate my writing ability, and the fact that I had overcome ADD in the workplace qualified me to write on that topic.

That’s an important thing to remember — your credentials and qualifications aren’t limited to how much you’ve written or for whom. You can mine your life for relevant experience and qualifications. If you’re a homeschool mom wanting to write for a homeschool magazine, mention your homeschooling experience. If you keep bees, you’re more qualified to write about beekeeping than a Pulitzer prize winner who’s never given a thought to where the honey in her tea comes from.

Mention your degree, where you went to school, topics you’ve studied, fields you’ve worked in, experiences you’ve lived, hardships you’ve overcome, etc., if they’re relevant to the article you’re pitching.

Tips and Best Practices for Querying

  • It’s not rocket science. Don’t let the process intimidate you.
  • Be professional and personable. Don’t be afraid to let your personality shine. Don’t shy away from humor, but don’t be overly casual, either.
  • Research, research, research!
  • Be crystal clear on your idea — what you want to say, why you want to say it, why it matters to the publication’s audience, and why you’re the best person to write it.
  • Line up your sources, if applicable, and include them in your pitch.
  • Communicate your idea clearly and concisely. Let your writing voice and style shine, but also be mindful of matching the publication’s voice and tone.
  • Have a backup pitch ready for if they reject your idea but invite you to try again.
  • If your article hinges on an interview, check with interviewees first to make sure they’re willing and available, to save yourself the embarrassment of having to tell an editor you can’t complete an assignment because your subject doesn’t want to be interviewed.
  • Don’t mention your rates up front. Research what they pay beforehand to make sure they’re within your acceptable pay threshold. Once you’ve established an ongoing working relationship, or you’re established in your career, then you’ll have room to negotiate better rates.
  • Hint: A great resource to research what publications pay is Who Pays Writers— just keep in mind that rates are self-reported by writers who’ve written for these publications, and rates can vary widely depending on experience, professional relationships, negotiating abilities, etc. A brand new writer trying to break into Forbe’s isn’t going to command the same rate as someone who’s written a dozen articles for them.
  • Don’t draw attention to your inexperience. If you don’t have any writing samples, don’t mention it unless asked, and if they do, be honest and simply state that you’re just starting out and don’t have any yet (although, hopefully you’ve followed my previous advice and at the very least can link them to a well-written blog post or Medium article). Resist the urge to make excuses or explain. Make your pitch and query letter so well written that they won’t doubt your writing ability, and include non-writing credentials if relevant.
  • Re-read your letter to tighten and polish before you send it. Run it through a tool like Grammarly or ProWritingAid to help catch errors.
  • Practice, practice, practice! Be grateful when an editor gives you a specific reason for rejecting your pitch and use that feedback to improve your future pitches.
  • Study successful query letters and pitches to learn how the pros are landing work. Here are a few links to real-life query samples you can study:
  • https://www.makealivingwriting.com/guest-post-pitches-that-got-the-gig/
  • https://thewritelife.com/real-freelance-writing-pitches/
  • https://www.clearvoice.com/blog/the-pitching-game-4-freelance-pitch-examples-pitching-template-free-download/

Lastly, don’t let the process intimidate you. Never forget that the number one purpose of pitching is to get your foot in the door and start building relationships with editors and publications. Now sally forth and start pitching!

A modified version of this article originally appeared in The Working Writer on Substack.

Jean Marie Bauhaus is a freelance content marketing writer and indie author as well as an avid pet blogger. In addition to a number of both traditionally published and self-published novels and short stories, she’s also the author of Self-Publishing for the Broke Author. Learn more about her books and writing at JeanMarieBauhaus.com, where she’s on a Quixotic quest to bring back the personal blog.

Multi-passionate freelance writer, blogger and occasional novelist. Homesteader, daydreamer and ADD survivor. http://jeanmariebauhaus.com

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