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Cold Email Subject Lines That Get Writers Hired: 5 Proven Formulas

Carol Tice

Cold Email Subject Line Formulas for Writers. Makealivingwriting.comHave you been wanting to do some serious pitching — but haven’t gotten going, because you don’t know what to put in your cold email subject lines?

Many freelance writers have this question, I’ve learned. Fortunately, I’ve spent the past 8 years hanging out with about 12,000 writers inside my Freelance Writers Den community and reading our busy forums. At this point, I definitely have a strong sense of what email subject lines freelance writers use that grab attention and get their emails opened.

You’re right to care about what you put in your subject line, because let’s face it: If it isn’t amazing, your email will probably go unread.

Your pitch is going nowhere, no matter how stellar an article idea or content-marketing pitch you’ve got. It will never be opened and read.

To get better results, you’ll have to do one of two things — learn to write great cold email subject lines.

Fortunately, coming up with a headline that catches your target’s attention isn’t super-hard. There are proven formulas you can use here.

What are they? Here are my five basic cold email subject lines that get results:

1. Keep it simple

Who are you and why are you writing? Your subject line could simply fill your prospect in on the basics. It may seem uncreative, but a subject line like this can be pretty darn effective:

SUBJ: Freelance writer with an idea for you

The important thing this cold email subject line does for you is immediately signal to publication editors that you are not a PR person pitching them a client. You are a writer.

Editors love to hear from writers…and less love the endless stream of mostly very dull PR pitches they get. This may not be a standout opening line, but it’s serviceable.

2. Ask a question

People’s brains are intrigued by questions. That ol’ question mark tends to catch their eye. So you could do worse than using the subject line:

SUBJ: Do you use freelance writers?

You can bet if that editor or marketing manager does use writers, and has current needs, they’ll probably open that one up.

3. Go short

There’s been a revolution in thinking about the length of email subject lines in recent years. Writing very short subject lines became a full-blown trend after President Barack Obama’s ‘Hey’ email went seriously viral.

I want to say I think the very short subject line works better when it’s someone you already know. Ideally, someone super-famous like Obama. But I do see loads of marketers doing it for cold emails, too.

A few subject lines that are currently so popular that I’m assume they must be pulling big open rates:

SUBJ: Marketing

SUBJ: Quick question


I know…these seem a bit boring. But there’s a reality that many people have their email set up so that only the first 5-6 words of subject lines are immediately visible, anyway. Longer subject lines get cut off. Like this:

You can see immediately that the un-truncated email subject lines seem more effective and impactful, yes? So keeping your subject short is definitely something to consider.

My tip would be to go short, but not 1-2 words kinda short — not on cold emails, anyway.

4. Show your research

Over the years, I’ve found that the most reliable results in cold pitching come from taking a minute to study your targets publication or website. Then, you use what you find in your pitch.

As in:

SUBJ: Need help keeping your blog updated?

SUBJ: 1-year update story on the earthquake?

SUBJ: Time for new case studies?

These show that you’ve noticed what they’re lagging on in their business marketing, or what might be a natural next article for an upcoming edition of their magazine.

Doesn’t get into too much detail, but you can create these quickly, and it’s possibly enough to intrigue your target and get a click.

5. Reveal your idea

I’m sort of an overachiever, so I haven’t tended to use any of the cold email subject lines above, even though I know they can get reliable results.

Instead, I want to show what I have for my prospect, especially if it’s a publication editor. I think as a pro writer, it’s worth trying to stand out from the marketing crowd.

I do that by making my subject line the headline for my proposed article query or blog post. If I’ve written a strong headline that shows I understand the audience of this prospect, they should eagerly click on my email to read more.

Just a few examples of the many assignments I’ve gotten with the headline-subject line approach:

SUBJ: Meet the 8 Hottest Publicly Traded Marijuana Companies (Forbes blog)

SUBJ: Should You Franchise Your Business? (Delta Sky)

SUBJ: 40 Questions You Need to Ask Every Copywriting Client (Copyblogger)

Feel like that puts a stronger foot forward than the generic formulas, no?

What’s great about this subject-line approach is that it compels you to spend time really making your headline shine. After all, it’s going to be your calling card in your pitch, so you get serious about perfecting it.

Since headlines are super-important these days, that’s a great habit to cultivate.

What NOT to do

Now that you know how to create a viable cold email subject line, what should you not do? Two important things to know here:

Avoid exclamation marks

Did you notice that ‘4th of July sale!’ email subject line above? That retailer was lucky to get through the spam filters.

Gushy email subject lines have two big drawbacks: They are considered amateurish for professional writers (let your writing craft convey your enthusiasm, people) and are also frequently used by spammy email marketers.

As a result, many popular email clients (looking at you, AOL and Yahoo) spike off emails with exclamation marks in the subject. Avoid exclamations and stay out of the junk/spam/promotions folders.

Don’t send NO subject line emails

That is, your subject line is left blank.

I get these all the time, and I automatically delete without reading. Believe I’m not alone there.

There’s a reason many email clients give you a warning before you send a no-subject email. They do that because no-subject emails get few opens.

Many, many spammers send no-subject emails. That’s why I now auto-delete them all without reading. Let me assure you, this mystery does not intrigue people.

A word about emojis

You may be wondering: Should I put an emoji (or three) in my cold email subject lines?

I have mixed feelings here.

Some marketers are definitely starting to use emojis in their emails.


I’m mostly seeing it used in two specific situations, when you’re emailing:

  1. People who opted in to get notices from you.
  2. A brand with a Millennial audience.

If you’ve got one of those situations, go for it, I say. Otherwise, for now, stay cautious.

Big tip: Watch the marketing of the brand you’re thinking of pitching. Do they use emojis in their own marketing? Then I’d give it a whirl.

Wait: Could you warm up your pitch?

If you hate sending cold pitches, maybe you want to take another tack. You could start by seeing if you could make your cold email pitch a little less cold.

Take the time to look at your target’s LinkedIn profile, for instance. See if you have any connections in common, maybe someone who could introduce or recommend you.

If not, perhaps you learn that you went to the same college as this prospect, or you belong to a group together. Maybe you could comment on a recent piece of company news they’ve posted on social media, or leave a comment on their blog.

Now, your email isn’t quite so cold. Your name in the ‘from’ field may ring a dim bell, or they may spark to the connection you have.

If you can turn your cold email a bit warmer, definitely do it. Shout-out to Ed Gandia here, who taught me this one — this email subject line can’t be topped for strong open rates:

SUBJ: [PERSON YOU KNOW] sent me your way

I’ve tried it, and it works every time. You might also try:

SUBJ: Go Bucks – fellow alum and freelance writer here

Or something along those lines. Make the personal connection, and you may find more of your emails get opened.

Create epic cold email subject lines

Now that you know the basics of how to warm up a cold email, and what to write (and not write) in a cold email subject line… how can you make your subject lines go one better?

Mix-and-match the ideas above! As in:

SUBJ: Freelance writer with an idea: [HEADLINE]

In other words, combining the generic ‘freelance writer with an idea for you’ with actually showing them your idea, right in the subject.

SUBJ: Do you use freelance writers? 3 blog headlines

Combining the question approach with the tease that you have headlines for them within.

SUBJ: Writer with ideas

Taking the ‘keep it short’ idea and injecting who you are

These are just a few combo ideas — the possibilities are endless.

Experiment to build cold-email confidence

I hope these email subject-line ideas give you confidence to crank out more email marketing. Now that you know what to say in your subject, try sending 100 pitches a month and see what happens. That’s what I get my coaching students to do, and cranking the numbers up that high seems to get reliably great results.

What do you use for cold email subject lines? Let’s share and discuss in the comments.

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