You may have been told, “If you want to be seen as a subject-matter expert, you need to get your ideas published!” So you tried. You set aside a weekend to pour your heart and soul into an article, sent it off to an editor … and never even heard back.

It’s frustrating and demoralizing, particularly when you look through publications and see articles like those you’d like to publish, or maybe articles written by colleagues or competitors. What are they doing right that you’re not?

In this post, I’ll go into detail about the one simple step that I’ve found can dramatically increase your chances of getting your article accepted by a publication’s editor. It’s called a “query letter” and is a mini-proposal for your article. With a query, you can get the editor’s buy-in to your article idea, BEFORE you take the time to write it – dramatically increasing the chances your article will be accepted for publication.

I’ll first describe why a query letter matters, and then go into the steps for how you can create one. If you think in pictures better than words, there’s a flowchart you can see here.

Why trade and professional media should be part of your platform

But first, let’s establish whether the prize of getting published in niche third-party media is worth the effort for you. What kinds of publications are we talking about here? Well, it’s about niche media that are not widely known to the general population, but are powerful influencers within their niche. They tend to be targeted in three different ways.

Industry publications – for sectors including finance (as an example, UK-based “Financier Worldwide”), transportation (“Fleet Maintenance and Technology”), or to be really narrow, the liquefied natural gas sector (“LNG Industry”).

Professional or occupational publications – such as engineering (“Engineering Dimensions”) and law (“The Lawyers Weekly”)

Geography – “Crain’s Chicago Business” or “Business in Vancouver.”

Many of these publications have a healthy print presence, as well as online information, some of which may be behind a paywall and not publicly available.

Blog post #68, “Give your ideas a boost from media your ideal clients trust” goes into detail on why you need to include media such as these in your thought leadership program.

Just briefly on that topic: of course, you need to build traffic to your own channels – mostly, your own blog and website. But getting published in professional media adds credibility to your ideas, and it helps you to reach outside your current network to help you bring in new clients.

In post #72, I talked about five “gremlins” that might be preventing your article from being published – be sure that the publication you’re chasing actually accepts outside contributions (many of the larger media don’t), pick a topic that matters to the readers, target your article idea within the narrow scope of the publication, don’t sell, and have quality content.

One of the keys to success is mastering the technique of the query letter. My ideas on how to do this are based on my experience as:

  • An editor, on the receiving end of story pitches and queries
  • A freelance writer, with my income dependent on getting a “yes” to my article concepts
  • 15 years of experience presenting article ideas to editors on behalf of my clients
  • Reality-checks with several editors about how they like to be approached

Four points in a winning query letter

First of all, watch for two key success factors for your email (which is still the preferred medium for corresponding with editors):

The right recipient of your query

Be sure to have the right editor – generally the Managing Editor or Editor-in-Chief. I recommend not sending a query to a publisher – they may take the view that you should be buying advertising space, not trying to publish an article. Do not be content with an address that starts “editor@” or info@. Call the publication if necessary to get the name and phone number of the right editor. And check to ensure that you have written the address correctly.

Build an effective subject line

Editors get a LOT of email traffic, much it mass-produced spam from PR agencies touting their client’s latest amazing product. Make your query stand out by incorporating these three elements:

  • Start with the word “Query – editors scanning through their email stream will be impressed that you actually know the word.
  • A three or four word indication of your article’s topic – let’s say that you’re writing about an update to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act (or its equivalent in your part of the globe) – your query would read, “Query – recent changes to Clean Air Act.”
  • Indicate clearly which issue you’re targeting – many publications have themes to their issues, for advertising purposes. But writers can use them too, as the editor will want articles that meet those themes. Look on the website for their “media guide” or “editorial calendar” to see what those topics are. If you see that the June issue will focus on “Environment,” you should put in your subject line “for your June ‘environment’ issue.”

1. Summarize your topic, in three or four sentences

The first of your query’s four points answers the editor’s first question – “What’s your proposed topic?” You can do this inside maybe three or four sentences only. Remember that the purpose of your query is to get the editor’s interest in your article concept – not to write the whole text.

Make sure that you display your understanding of the needs of the publication’s readers – if your article is for a retail-sector publication, for example, be sure to express your idea in terms of retailers’ interests. This reassures the editor that the readers will get information that is specifically for them, and that they could not find elsewhere.

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2. Show why your topic is relevant to the readers of THIS publication

Many editors are tired of getting articles that do not relate specifically to their niche. Advertisers pay to be associated with articles that match the niche interests of the publication, because only then will the publication attract the kinds of readers (for the advertiser, those are known as “potential customers”) that they want.

So, in the second point of your query letter, you must spell out for the editor why your article is of interest to that publication’s readers. If it’s an industry-related publication, for instance, point out why your topic is of particular interest to that industry. If it’s a profession-related periodical, say how your topic will help the readers do their jobs better.

If you can, use the terminology, jargon and acronyms that relate to the readership, as that will help convince the editor that you understand the needs of the readers.

This second point in your query is necessary partly because many editors, while they have expertise in editing, have not had a chance to become subject-matter experts on the topic of the publication. They depend on external contributors such as you to tell them what’s news in the sector, or what are burning issues facing the profession. So you need to point to hard-news events, such as the passage of a new regulation, as evidence that your topic really will be of interest to the readers.

3. Provide an outline of your proposed article

Once the editor understands what your article is about, and is convinced that the topic will be relevant to their readers, they will want to know what the article will look like. They want this for two main reasons.

They may have already covered the topic – so may be able to suggest you come up with another topic. Or, point to one specific aspect of your proposed topic that will be of particular interest. It could also be that the topic you’ve proposed is no longer relevant, for some reason that you’re not aware of. In any case, they’ve spared you the work of creating an article that isn’t publishable in the form you expected.

They want to know that you’ve thought through your topic – it gives them greater confidence that you’ll actually come through with what you’re promising to write. Every editor has had problems with contributors who failed to come through with a proposed article. As they’re not paying for the article, they don’t have any way to put leverage on you to come through. Providing an outline provides some reassurance that you’ll deliver as you promised.

All you need is three or four bullet points, one or two lines each. It’s not like a published academic or professional paper where you’re expected to come up with an abstract of a few hundred words.

4. Show your qualifications to write on your given topic

So, by now you have the editor cautiously enthusiastic about your proposed article – the topic is clear, it’s relevant to the readers, and your outline is solid – they are then going to want to know if you’re qualified to write on this topic. The kerfuffle over “fake news” is not a new thing – the credibility of the publication is at stake.

The editor is not particularly concerned about your article being controversial, provided the information in it is true and your conclusions reasonable. However, they are concerned about outright errors and misstatements, and need to be able to say that they exercised due diligence in choosing your words to grace their pages or screen views.

The editor wants to know about three kinds of qualifications:

  • Your academic qualifications – they’ll likely want at least a Masters level of academic accomplishment, and a PhD or Doctorate is even better.
  • Your professional qualifications – such as being a certified accountant, engineer, architect or other qualification. Other, more niche designations such as a Certified Business Valuator, Certified Fraud Examiner, and Certified Industrial Hygienist may be relevant to the topic at hand. If you have these designations, list them in your query.
  • Your work experience – maybe the number of years you’ve been working in general, or serving a particular industry. It could be your experience in meeting the needs of a particular geography – having experience designing structures to be built in Africa with its unique supply chain challenges is one thing; knowing how to build on permafrost is something quite different.

I’ve found it useful to provide links to the author’s website, bio or social media channels, just to reassure the editor that you have the right qualifications.

Success points in queries

  • Keep it brief. About a screen in length – there should be no need for scrolling.
  • Your query is sort of like an audition or job interview – the editor wants to see that you can write in the style of the publication, not in a boring or pedantic tone.
  • Check your query for typos and spelling mistakes – the editor likely won’t have much time to copy-edit your article, and will be reassured if your query shows that you can and will write something that won’t need a lot of work to get into publishable form.
  • If you have pictures and other graphics to include with the article, say so. All publications, both in print and online, need graphics to break up the text, and many editors can’t afford to commission photographers or even pay for stock images (which cost a lot more for commercial publication use, than you may be paying).

Follow-up is key to success

Editors are busy people. They may not get around to responding to your query, particularly if they don’t recognize your name. This means that many would-be authors don’t get their article published – they never heard back from the editor.

So, you need to follow up. My usual practice is to re-send the query, with a subject line something like “Just checking – query on new OSHA regulations.” This often gets a response from the editor who missed the query the first time; this is partly because re-sending the query establishes you to be a person rather than a bot.

If the re-sent query doesn’t get a response, I’ll usually call the editor. I will leave a voicemail only after about the third or fourth attempt to get the editor in person. If and when we do connect live, I’ll say something like, “I’m following up on a query about the new OSHA regulations. Is this a good time to discuss it?” I do this because if the editor is on deadline or otherwise occupied, I won’t have their full brain engaged in the conversation.

The editor may say, “I don’t remember the query – what was it about?” For this reason, I like to have the query on my computer or mobile screen when I call the editor – so I can immediately forward the query again, or be prepared to describe it briefly.

Editors want to hear from you

Even if the editor sounds rushed, impatient and even obnoxious, don’t let that dissuade you. Editors of most trade and professional publications depend on external “expert” contributors like you because:

  • They need articles that they don’t have to pay for – their budgets for staff writers and freelancers is limited
  • They depend on experts to provide them with outside points of view that bring new perspectives to their readers
  • Publications need your expertise based on your academic, professional and experiential qualifications.

Remember that your purpose is not to get the editor to agree to publish your article. No credible editor will promise to publish an article unless they’ve read and approved it. Your goal is to get their support for your idea – and this means that when you do send in your completed article, they’ll be expecting it.

For aid in writing your article, see some of the ideas in post #73, on how to get the support you need. You’ll learn about how to work with proofreaders, ghostwriters and other writing professionals.