Magazines articles are the freelance money chest. Query letters are the magic key.


If you want to sell 75% of your freelance writing, articles are king, magazines are the castle, and query letters are the magic key.

This section—articles for magazines—is the sixth of 16 about “How to Sell 75% of Your Freelance Writing.”

If you can write sentences, it’s all marketing first. Fortunately, there’s no magic to marketing, then writing, articles that sell. The process is shockingly straightforward.

The marketing starts long before the sale and determines what you write and how. It starts with an idea and ends with many sales.

In section #5 we looked at selling to newspapers by the simultaneous submission route. The simultaneous submission and the query letter approach are two complementary paths that could quickly elevate your sales to the 75% plateau— if you find good ideas that others want to read about, follow the guidelines, and write to the level of the publications in which you want to appear.

You either submit to editors after querying (and getting a positive “go-ahead”) or you write the final copy and sell it directly. Both begin with an idea, both end with a sale or a rejection. The differences between the paths are considerable, though they ultimately share the same moment of truth, when the editor reads the manuscript and says yes or no.

The most important difference is the point at which the editor passes first judgment on the idea. On the queried path that judgment is made before you expend major time on travel, research, and final composition. With direct submissions, the idea is judged only after the manuscript is
totally researched and written.

Given a choice about the most profitable path, professionals almost always sell to a magazine after an initial query letter. (We will focus on queries two blogs hence. If you want to see 25 actual query and cover letters, look here.) In a query letter, usually a page or several hundred words long, you ask an editor in writing whether (s)he would seriously consider an article about a particular topic, written by you. If the editor says no, you write another query to another editor, until one says yes or you run out of editors for that idea.

When an editor says yes to a query, indicating that the manuscript will be read and likely published, you complete the research and write the piece, sending it in final form to that editor. Unless it is about travel or a subject that requires considerable time to plan or prepare, most want the article in their hands in about three weeks. What kind of writing is marketed this way? Nonfiction, including humorous items (where humor is the style rather than the purpose).

Sometimes you can directly submit to magazines, without a query. It’s far simpler to do but, in the long run, costlier in time and risk. In those cases you determine the readership, prepare a market list, research the idea, write the manuscript, and send it directly to the “best” editor. What kinds of magazine writing is sold without a query? Fiction (short stories and novels), fillers, greeting cards, humor (where humor is the purpose), and some regional, in-flight, and religious material, as indicated in the current Writer’s Market or by studying the publication. Sometimes the same magazine submissions can even be sent to different editors simultaneously, particularly to regional, in-flight, and religious markets.

However, as implied earlier, while omitting the query letters speeds up the process, it’s both far less lucrative and far less commonly done for magazines.

Usually the editor wants to have input before you write for his pages. He knows a manuscript is en route because of the query. He can plan the issues several or many months in the future if he knows what is in the preparation stages from many contributing or querying writers. He can also offer suggestions about the slant or interviews that will add substance for that target issue. By seeing the idea first in a query letter, the editor can also take part in the article’s creation, and thus has a psychological buy-in to making it succeed. That hook operates in your favor, if the final copy lives up to its queried promise. Direct submissions, on the other hand, arrive unexpectedly and must win favor solely by their first impression.

Combine the uncertainty of the directly submitted material’s reception with the time invested in its full preparation and you can see why queried submissions are preferable. The latter are never completed until the writer has solid assurance that the finished product will be given full consideration for acceptance and is worth its cost in time and expense. Direct submissions are a roll of the dice.

The only way direct submissions can approach that logic is when many copies of the same manuscript can be sent to different markets at once, on the premise that of, say, a dozen markets, more than one will buy the piece and offset the greater risk its preparation entails. (Thus their applicability in newspaper travel.)


If every article go-ahead resulted in a sale, you would literally sell 100% of what you wrote. Alas, that never happens. Still, done right (particularly after you’ve overcome beginners’ fears), you should quickly sell more than half of your go-aheads, if you provide what you promised in the query and write to the publication’s level. Later, that sales rate will approach 80-90% as your output increases and an informal client relationship develops with editors of publications central to your writing interests.

Still, at the outset, that’s not a selling ratio of 75%. Reprints should more than make up the difference. That is, by selling reprints (“second rights”) to articles, with little or no copy change, after they have first been in print in the targeted publication, you can quickly boost your average to 100% or more. We’ll discuss reprint or second rights later in this series, but a quick example might help here.

Say you sell first rights to a general interest article to a magazine for $350. After it appears in print you offer it to five other editors simultaneously, as a reprint. Two buy it. You’ve sold your original article 300%!

The key, though, is not the subsequent sales, as nice as they are and as much as they should be sought. It’s that you didn’t invest time and cost in an article until you had the relative assurance of the initial go-ahead.

A Plan of Attack

The question isn’t how you can write great articles that quickly strike pay dirt. The professional would rephrase it to ask, of articles, “How do we sell it first, then write it?”

Alas, there is an order that works: find a salable idea, query the most appropriate editor, and when you get a positive response (the “go-ahead),” study that editor’s publication, research, and write. I suspect that the time ratio (from pre- to post-querying) is something like 11:4.

Where do you find magazines eager to buy your words? Start with the current Writer’s Market, and read its editorial information from front to back.

You will also see how important it is to find an idea that is salable, then mate it to the people who would pay to read about it. In other words, tightly match the idea to an identifiable readership, whether you start with the idea or the reader.

You needn’t focus overly on developing a “style” in nonfiction writing. Learn to study the target magazines to see what their readers (and editors) want or need on their pages. See what the editor favors—interviews, boxes, humor, telling anecdotes—in addition to facts well balanced. Over time your “style” will emerge. Just focus on learning to wield words deftly and to tell stories clearly and compellingly.

Two very useful step-by-step guides will lead you down both the queried and simultaneous submission paths—”The Mechanics of Getting into Print” is in my Travel Writer’s Guide. That book may be hiding in your town library. “How to Prepare and Market Articles That Sell” will be in the next section, #7, at this blog, about creating your own feasibility study.

Think query letters, follow the order in the “plan of attack,” write smooth and fetching prose similar to the format used in the publication in the article you send to the editor who gave you a “go-ahead,” then resell that article again and again as reprints. That’s the secret.

In the nest section we will give you an organizational tool, a feasibility study. And in #8 we’ll talk about query letters and how to make them work almost every time.

Stay tuned!

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

P.S. you may be interested in my free, monthly newsletter. There we talk about writing and publishing.

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