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Why Your Query Letter Gets No Response: The Painful Truth

Carol Tice

mailboxEvery freelance writer I know hates rejection. But there’s one thing that is even worse.

It’s when you send a query letter, and you never hear anything back.

No “thanks but no thanks,” no form “we received your query and will get back to you if we’re interested”…nothing. Ever.

Now, usually, when writers complain about this to me, I’m sympathetic and encouraging. I point out there are tons of logical reasons you might have never gotten a response that have nothing to do with how good your pitch was…such as:

  • The editor is on vacation
  • The editor gets too many pitches to respond
  • The editor is busy planning a special issue or section right now
  • The editor has your pitch in a ‘possibles’ stack but isn’t ready to pull the trigger yet
  • Your query went in their spam or got lost in the mail
  • They recently assigned an idea just like that
  • That editor just got fired but it hasn’t been announced yet
  • That editor’s role has changed and they’re not the right one anymore
  • That publication is being bought out and the focus is changing

You get the idea.

But today, we’re not going to dance around this subject. I’m not going to tell you to think positive. To keep pitching anyway and not be emotionally devastated that you didn’t get the gig.

Today, let’s confront the most-likely real reason that you heard nothing but crickets after you sent that query.

Your query sucked

I’m sorry to be the one to say it. But if you never hear a peep, it’s highly likely it’s because your pitch wasn’t even in the ballpark.

You’re not understanding how the query-letter game works. Your queries are not showing editors you’ve got a great idea, and that you are the right writer to assign this topic.

In fact, they may be hoping if they just don’t say anything, you’ll move on and not pitch them again.

As long as you get the big silence from editors, you are stuck.

You can’t get new publication clients and grow your income. You’re cruising the Craigslist ads or Elance or writing for content mills. The doors of higher-paying opportunity stay slammed shut in your face.

What’s going wrong

If you’re not getting positive rejections and some assignments from your queries, what can you do?

Learn more about how to write queries and get better at it. Until you start to get results.

Here are some common pitch errors I see:

  • Don’t proof. It’s amazing how much sloppy work there is out there.
  • Don’t follow instructions. Like one writer who pitched me for this blog recently, sending just a headline — that’s all. There was no outline or background on them or link to their site and they clearly hadn’t read my guidelines.
  • Don’t study the publication. Have you read this publication’s advertising guide and know who their reader is? Have you scanned back issues so you know what they’ve recently published? When you send a pitch that is just like an article they ran two issues ago — or one that isn’t remotely something their subscribers would want to read — the editor just moves on. You couldn’t be bothered to do your homework, so why should that editor take the time to write you?
  • Don’t have a ‘news hook.’ Your basic idea might be OK, but you haven’t given the editor any compelling reason this story needs to be published now. So it isn’t.
  • You sound desperate. Lines like “Please give me a chance” or offers to write a free article to get in the door just clue the editor in that you don’t understand how magazine publishing works. Oversharing tidbits like how you turned to freelancing out of desperation after getting laid off don’t make you sound excited about writing.
  • You didn’t get to the nut. Most magazine articles have a paragraph early on that sums up what you’re going to learn in the story. It frames why the piece is important, and what news makes it relevant right now. This paragraph is known to editors as the nut graf. One slick thing you can do analyzing your magazine is to see how far into the story nut grafs appear. If you don’t have a nut, the editor will struggle to get their head around it and decide if it’s of interest. Editors don’t have time to search the query for a headline and nut graf…they’ll just move on.

I could go on here, but I think you get the basic drift.

Querying is not something writers are born instinctively able to write. It’s not like breathing. Queries are a format you have to learn to master.

Good news is, you can learn it. It’s not that tough, once you know the fine points of what goes into a strong pitch.

How you’ll know when you’re getting the hang of it

How do you know when you’ve got the hang of pitching editors? Contrast that silence most queries get with what happens when you write a great query, but the editor doesn’t want that particular idea.

They write you back.

That’s right — even if they’re passing on that idea, they respond.

It’s happened to me bunches of times. At this point, I rarely get no response.

A truly well-written, standout query makes an editor stop what they’re doing to reach out. Because editors are always looking for fresh, talented writers to add to their stable. And most queries suck.

So when you write a great one, it stands out.

Then, instead of silence, you get something like this:

“This is great,” writes the editor, “but I just assigned something similar. Let’s definitely work on something together, though. Feel free to send me more ideas. I have a special issue on X coming up, so let me know if you have any ideas on that topic!”

I call this the positive rejection letter.

It’s no to this idea…but yes to you.

It’s your flashing indicator light that you’re on the right track.

Tricks to Take Your Queries to the Next Level

These tips come directly from C. Hope Clark:

Every word in your query needs to be tailored to the magazine or site, including the author’s history. That bio needs to be as attractive as the story idea itself, because the slant of the bio could ultimately nail the contract.

Each of us is multi-faceted and holds numerous experiences, education backgrounds, and skills to be used and prioritized as needed. Here are my tips for tailoring your bio:

Use Your Education

I’d just moved into a newly constructed home. Enter the local landscaper. He spoke to me like I was June Cleaver knowing little more than how to iron the perfect pants crease, until I told him I had a degree in agronomy, i.e., a science of producing plants.

That evening, I researched publications and found Landscape Management Magazine, a resource for landscape contractors. I sculpted the bio to begin with my degree. I never mentioned I was editor of FundsforWriters or wrote for Writer’s Digest.

Thirty minutes later, I had a gig advising landscape contractors on how to approach potential customers.

Use Your Experience

My proposal to College Bound Teen emphasized my skills as a previous human resource manager for the federal government. I landed a piece to address qualifications of federal employment for college graduates.

Use Your Life

A pitch to Next Step Teen included a bio that listed mother of teen sons on top of the HR experience. They accepted a story about my sons and their friends involved in job shadowing.

A query to Women as Managers, a business newsletter, mentioned my personal experience with a discrimination claim, and they accepted my piece entitled Ignore the Harassment.

Use Your Personal Interests

I once served on the board of a nonprofit that supported teen writers. So I lead my query with that connection and immediately nailed an article entitled “Why Johnny Needs a Writing Mentor” for Voices of Young Advocates Magazine (VOYA).

Use Your Knowledge of an Evergreen Topic

You may know nothing about lawn maintenance, but you might be a pro at business, social networking, or self-promotion and can pitch those skills for a proper feature to lawn care providers. A piece on business cards or navigating a convention may accent your entrepreneurial expertise, and find a home in a dozen different trade publications representing a dozen different professions

Use Your Chicken Soup Mentality

Each Chicken Soup book has a specific theme. Ever sat and stared at the six or so topics and tried to manipulate your experiences to suit them? That’s the mindset. Take your talents and tweak them, putting them in a proper order of priority to suit the situation.

Make a game of redefining yourself per the needs of that magazine and rewriting your bio to fit. Approach each case with a different bio, a different inverted pyramid presentation of your history, experiences, and education, leading with your strongest for the story at hand.

By choreographing your bio for the audience, you increase your odds that your query will find center stage in magazines.

What’s Ahead…

Now, you understand how to write a query letter that is creative and on-target enough to make an editor like you and start building a relationship that should lead to paying gigs.

And if you take that time to learn how to pitch, it’s like getting the key to a whole bunch of way better-paying doors as a writer.

Have you gotten a response to a pitch? Leave us a comment and tell us what you think made the sale.

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