Here’s Why Your Article Idea Isn’t Getting You $1 a Word

Carol Tice

Hand with Copper Coins IsolatedA well-written query letter can work like a magic wand for freelance writers, opening the door to the great-paying article assignments you desire.

Unfortunately, most query letters don’t get a response, even ones to publications that pay $100 an article, much less the ones that pay $1,000.

And yes, there are still $1-a-word article markets. Loads of ’em.

Lately, I’ve had a lot of comments here on the blog from writers who complain they’ve queried and queried and never had so much as a nibble.

That means something’s going wrong. Fortunately, most query errors are fairly simple to fix.

Here are the most common slip-ups I’ve seen reviewing query letters:

Your query has no headline

You’d think it would be a no-brainer to include a strong proposed headline for your story idea in a query letter, so the editor can quickly scan through and immediately grasp the gist of your story idea. But I’d say the majority of queries I’ve reviewed lack one.

Writing a headline for your story idea is also highly recommended because it will help you focus your idea. If you can’t put it into a concise headline — that’s written in the style of that publication — your idea probably needs more work before it’s ready for a query.

You didn’t study the publication

I see a lot of writers trying to shoehorn a topic they’re dying to write about into a publication that doesn’t accept articles on that topic, or in that format.

For instance, you query that you want to write about a single breakthrough medical procedure you learned about — but for a magazine that only runs medical roundup stories with five or more breakthroughs per story. Or you’re proposing a 3,000-word narrative feature for a publication that mostly runs short, list-driven “listicle” type pieces.

Trying to convince an editor to break the mold of their publication and make an exception because your idea is super-marvelous doesn’t usually work. Instead, analyze the magazine and see what types of articles they run…then, feed them an idea that fits right into one of their regular departments.

Your topic is too broad

Editors fear assigning topics that aren’t well-defined. It’s too risky. You might end up turning in a rambling mess.

Yet many writers feed this fear by pitching topics that are too general. They’re big enough that you could easily write a full-length book on the topic. If your idea could be a book, it’s not niched enough to be a good article pitch.

For instance, I recently heard from one writer who said an editor had liked her ideas enough to start up a conversation on email. But she didn’t assign her any right off — instead, the editor asked her to submit ideas that were “more thinly sliced.”

“What does she mean?” the writer asked me.

Translation: Your article idea needs to be narrow and clear enough that the editor can easily see you’ll be able to address that topic in the (usually short) word length you’re given.

Let’s slice a topic here just for practice. For instance, the writer who got the “thin-sliced” comment from her editor mentioned she had pitched writing an article about “dealing with divorce after 40.”

That, people, is a book topic.

An article topic in this neighborhood might be, “Dealing with divorce after 40 — when you have young kids.” Or you’re disabled. Or you live in a rural area. Or your kids are special needs. Or your ex is a stalker.

See the difference?

Serve up a thin slice of story and your editor sees your topic is doable in a short wordcount.

You don’t show your research

There are two kinds of research that are good to show in a pitch — your research into the publication, and your research into your story idea.

You should do both kinds before you query, especially if you’re a new writer.

Even if you don’t have any clips, if you write a really strong query, you could find yourself with an assignment from a great-paying market. It does happen.

But to make it happen, you have to show your stuff. Say which department your piece is for. Say what’s revealed by the interesting research you’ve about this issue. Throw in a quote from an expert you’ve already interviewed.

Writers hesitate to put this much work in for the query, because they fear it will be a waste of time. Then, you never get the gig because your query doesn’t give the editor confidence you can execute your piece.

It’s all about you

New writers often spend half their query letter talking about themselves. Worse yet, what they have to say is frequently negative. Here are a few gems I’ve seen:

“I just graduated college.”

“I’m a brand-new freelancer.”

“I couldn’t find a job, so I turned to freelancing out of desperation.”

This is not making the sale for you.

Remember, don’t tell an editor what you don’t know or can’t do.

A pro-sounding resume line goes like this:

“I am a Chicago-based writer specializing in healthcare topics. My work has appeared in ___ and ___ magazines.” (And omit that second line if you have no previous credits.)

That’s it. Give them a link to your writer website to solidify the idea that you’re a pro, and you’re done.

You never pitch good-paying publications

Sadly, this is probably the most common reason I see for not earning more.

Writers are trapped in fears they’re not good enough to earn that sort of money, and avoid approaching elite publications altogether…sometimes even if they’ve been getting published in lower-paying publications for years and years.

Remember, nobody will move your career up a notch except you.

The main thing to know is if you don’t pitch up to great publications, those juicy, fat $1,000 or $2,000 article checks are never going to come.

CONTEST: What’s keeping YOU from earning $1 a word? Tell us in the comments for a chance to win a FREE ticket to the 4-Week Journalism School class that’s starting May 8. Most fascinating insight whose author has the most RTs for this post will be declared the winner on Monday’s post, so leave us your Twitter handle with your comment. Good luck all!



  1. Arabella

    Really useful tips, especially for me, because I’ve just set up my new online business in the last couple of days, and honestly, I’m not into blogging and online marketing, I haven’t done this before and I have to learn a couple of things in the next weeks to be able to realize my resolutions and reach my grand goals in the near future. Thanks for sharing your useful advices!

    • Rhonda Kronyk

      Arabella, I have recently done the same thing. Here I am in my mid-40s, starting a new business. It’s scary, it’s exhausting, and it’s exhilarating! There is so much to learn, isn’t there. But, sites like this one help so much. I know it will all work out as long as I keep my head up. I wish you luck in your new endeavor.

  2. Keiti

    I’m a newbie here (as in I just stumbled across your site today) – I’ve been reading through the comments and I’m both sorry and grateful that other writers feel the same way I do. For me, lack of progress is two-fold: the first is that I’m all over the place – scriptwriting projects here, website projects there, etc. I’m a *great* ideas person, but I find that I get started, end up telling myself that the idea is stupid, and then move on to something else. As a result, nothing ever gets done. The second part is fear that I’m really a crappy writer and one of these days someone’s going to point it out for me.

    The ironic part is that writing and working with words is really the only thing I’m good at.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Keiti — welcome to the blog!

      If you look near the bottom of the sidebar, you’ll see a topic for ‘overcoming fear’ — lots of posts there that might help you out.

  3. Katherine Swarts

    All these comments on fear (and attitude in general) remind me of something I’ve been wondering about: When it comes to building confidence through positive thinking, what’s the most effective first step? Just acting confident; saying all the right things; following your gut? Or is this a chicken-and-egg question that should be answered “all of the above”?

    It sounds a bit silly put like that: but “first-move decision paralysis” can strike here as easily as in many more “material” aspects of life.

    • Katherine Swarts

      I think I found the “official” Writer’s Den answer to my question on the “fear chat” transcript, bottom of p. 8: “You don’t act the way you feel, you feel the way you act…. If you’re sitting around waiting for this divine light to come and make you less afraid… you’re kind of stuck in this morass of feelings and… the more you think about it… the worse it gets.” Twice I went through the audio version and I missed that both times.

  4. Katie Mack

    For those of us who are brand new to this, it’s daunting to query without any clips to send. It is a very intimidating catch 22 that I struggle with. You can’t get clips without getting a job, and you can’t get a job without having clips.

    I am relieved to see you wrote that it is possible to get a gig with a strongly written query. I would have never thought of trying to query without some experience under my belt!

    • Carol Tice

      Well, that’s what I did. I was too dumb to know I shouldn’t, so I’d just call up the local alternative paper, ask for the editor, and say, “Hey, you have anybody going to that city council meeting about the controversial new cel tower?” And they’d say, “Hey, no I don’t, write up 400 words on it, would you?”

      Nobody ever even asked me if I had a background in it…guess they thought if I knew enough to pitch them a story I could take notes, talk to a few people, and write something up.

      FYI, inside Freelance Writers Den we have a previous bootcamp, The Step by Step Guide to Freelance Writing Success, that’s designed exactly for people in your situation — how to start from zero, build an initial small portfolio, and then be able to query and get the assignments you want.

    • Katie Mack

      Thanks for the reply, Carol! I will be checking out the Step by Step guide right away!

  5. Colin Guest

    It is good to read all the comments and the answers from Carol.Found them to be very interesting. I can put myself into various peoples shoes who have posted comments. I have had a few articles published online and one in a UK magazine, this being the only one I have been paid for. I have been writing a story re my life working in various countries around the world, including how I came to do so. One of these days I will try and see if anyone is interested in reading my story, which is in 14 chapters, one for each country I have worked in. Any ideas re this would be much appreciated.

    • Carol Tice

      Colin, why not try selling a chapter as an article excerpt? I’m just in the process of trying to do that now with a print book on business startups I have coming up.

    • Colin Guest

      Many thanks for your advice, which is much appreciated.
      As some chapters are much longer than others, I guess if an editor is interested, he would advise on the length of the article required. I am planning to start the chapters with a startling incident, which happened in various countries I worked in. This I feel would draw the readers attention. Any advice you could give me would be greatly appreciated.

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