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Communication

Query Letter vs Letter of Introduction: Which to Use When

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Here's something fun about being a freelance writer: If you want a gig writing an article for a magazine or a newsletter for a business, you can get it, even without a lot of experience.

How?

You can send that market a short pitch letter or email and land the assignment.

The trick is knowing exactly how to craft that message, so that it impresses the editor or marketing manager and gets you hired.

I've critiqued heaps of these pitch letters...and most of them aren't very compelling, to put it mildly. I'm not surprised when the writer tells me they're not getting a lot of responses.

This means if you learn how to write strong pitches, you can stand out and snag a lot of assignments.

2 Types of Pitches

There are two basic types of these pitch letters, queries and letters of introduction (LOIs).

What's the difference?

An LOI simply introduces your freelance writing services and explains why your experience -- be it writing experience, work experience or just life experience -- makes you a perfect fit for this particular market.

Maybe you used to be a veterinarian, so that makes you perfect to write the newsletter for an animal hospital. Or you blogged for an insurance company at your last day job, so you're qualified to blog for a local insurance broker.

A smartly done LOI will also show you've researched this market and know what they've published or done recently. You might mention a business's recent acquisition that made the local papers, or a recent story in the magazine you're pitching that you particularly enjoyed.

By contrast, a query letter contains an article idea...and then tells the editor why you are the perfect writer for the gig.

Who Gets a Query

Consumer magazines are the primary target for query letters. Legions of writers would love to see their byline on the pages of Woman's Day, Car and Driver or O, The Oprah Magazine. So the only way to stand out here is to come up with a stellar article idea that's a perfect fit for your dream publication.

Study the magazine to see what they've written about lately to make sure your idea hasn't recently appeared before you invest time researching and writing your query.

To up your success odds, check out the editorial calendar to see what topics are scheduled to be covered in issues six months or more from now (many pubs have the calendar easily viewable on their websites these days). Pitching topics that fit the calendar is a proven way to impress editors that you've done your homework.

The critical question here: Which editor gets the query?

At small publications, there may be only one editor, so that makes it easy.

But major magazines can list more than a dozen editors on their masthead. Here's a translation of their titles and some tips on best editors to pitch:

  • Editor in chief - usually too high up the chain, mostly involved in big-picture stuff
  • Managing editor - a good bet at a medium-sized publication
  • Senior, deputy, or associate editor - also good bets if the pub is big enough to have these, too
  • News editor - probably stuff handled in-house
  • Features or articles editor - an ideal choice for querying
  • Health department editor - even better, if a specific department you want to pitch is identified
  • Contributing editor - a freelance writer who writes for this magazine regularly (so don't pitch them!)

Who Gets an LOI

Trade publications have a narrower audience than the big national magazines -- think of The Hollywood Reporter for showbiz execs, or Ad Age for advertising-agency managers. Magazines for these select audiences are harder to figure out.

Editors tend to think up most of the topics they want covered, so often a straightforward LOI is your best option for trade and customer publishers.

Businesses usually aren’t putting out magazines, so sending them a story idea doesn’t make any sense. So businesses get an LOI.

If you've got a story idea that you think an audience of hardware-store owners or yacht manufacturers or whatever would eat up, go ahead and include it briefly. It'll never be a negative to show you've got ideas. But mostly, trade pubs get an LOI.

Businesses usually aren't putting out magazines, so sending them a story idea doesn't make any sense. So businesses get an LOI.

Who at the company gets the LOI? The marketing manager is your best bet. At companies too small to have a marketing manager, the CEO or owner is your next best target.

Some businesses do put out magazines, though. Examples of business magazines include Costco Connection, Costco's customer magazine, and Diane, a magazine published by the Curves gym chain.

While a few of these are published in-house by the business, most are farmed out to specialty companies known as custom publishers. It's too hard to guess what corporate agenda needs to be served in the next issue to successfully pitch a story idea here.

Treat these like a trade publication -- locate the editor and send an LOI. Mastheads are often harder to find for a custom pub, so try searching LinkedIn or Googling "editor <publication name>" if a masthead or bylines aren't listed.

Pitching Tips

There are a few basic areas where writers tend to go wrong in their pitches:

  • Don't say what you don't know and can't do. Many writers seem compelled to point out that they are about to leave for six months to Europe, or that they just became a freelance writer last week, or that freelancing is a last-choice career for them after getting fired.

    This pitch should be all about your strengths and abilities. Put your best foot forward, and leave out anything negative.

  • Focus on them, not you. Most of your pitch should detail your understanding of this market and, in the case of queries, your idea. Keep the focus on the client's needs and don't go on and on about yourself. Pros usually sum up their qualifications in a query letter in just two or three sentences.
  • Watch your tone. For publications, your tone should match the tone of the publication. The editor should be able to close their eyes and envision what you are writing appearing in the magazine's pages. For an LOI to a business, the same rule applies -- read their existing marketing materials and then employ a similar tone in your letter.
  • Pre-report your story. If you are pitching a story idea to a magazine, do an interview or two ahead of time, so you can use a couple of tasty quotes right in your query. This will enable you to open your letter with a compelling anecdote and to cite pertinent studies that validate your idea.
  • Find the missing piece. I know one writer who recently got a gig by reading a magazine's mission statement and discovering what part of it they hadn't offered articles about recently.

    With a business, see what's missing from their marketing -- maybe their website has no team bios or the blog hasn't been updated in six months. Pointing this out can pave the way to an immediate freelance assignment to fill that marketing gap.

  • Multi-pitch. Impress magazine editors and briefly describe several story ideas you've got, in one single query. This positions you as a writer with loads of ideas and can help you stand out. It also ups your odds that the editor will find one of your ideas appealing.

Quality Pitches Yield Better Results

Writers tend to moan and complain that writing an outstanding query letter or LOI takes time. Yes, it does.

But better to invest a little time in researching your target and crafting one pitch that gets the gig than to dash off dozens of half-baked letters that get no response. Remember, story ideas usually have more than one potential market, so if one doesn't bite, just send it out again.

Are you sending query letters or LOIs? Leave a comment and add your pitching tips below.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by SimonC_photo.

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