“Nothing,” I responded, naturally. “It’s all there.”
But then I cut the sass and conceded: There was, in fact, one thing I left out of the book that should have gone in. And that subject, which I shall attempt to remedy here and now, is this: Letters of Introduction.
Freelancing is a game in which there are generally two ways to go about pitching a magazine, newspaper, website or any other such place that fields words slung by writers:
- The traditional query letter, in which you tell an editor what you want to write, how many words it would be, why you’d be the best to write it, etc., and …
- An on-spec query, in which you either send an editor the full piece you’re offering to the publication, or ask them if they want to see the full piece, risk-free.
But there’s another way to land a gig at your favorite magazine.
Letters of Introduction (let’s steal the acronym back from the legal community that uses “Letter of Intent” and call them LOIs) are something I’ve been using more as a freelance writer, something writers have been sending more to me as a magazine editor, and something that, well, just keeps popping up more often these days. (In a recent freelance writer Pitch Clinic I helped teach with Linda Formichelli and Carol Tice, LOIs were even included as their own subject alongside query letters.)
The formula for an LOI is simple enough. As a writer, you essentially pitch yourself before any ideas—turning a regular query letter inside out—and focus more on selling yourself than on selling a single article.
For instance, let’s say I’m obsessed with greyhounds. Let’s say I want to write for an upscale magazine for greyhound owners known as The Grey Quarterly.
Sure, I could send a targeted pitch in a traditional format to the editor after digging up their submissions address in the current edition of Writer’s Market. Or, I could send the following:
Dear Mr. Trebuchet,
I hope all is well with you and and Greyhound Quarterly. Ever since you launched four years ago, I’ve been a loyal reader and count the days between issues. I love the mix of refined coverage and practical information you bring to readers, and would love to be able to contribute my skills to the publication as a writer.
In addition to owning 12 sighthounds, I am a specialist in the history, lineage and upkeep of the breed, working for the past five years as a researcher at the Greyhound Institute in Seattle. (You can find published examples of my work at the Institute here, here and here.) As you’ll see in my clips, I strive in every article to speak directly to greyhound owners, and to break complex information down into an easily digestible whole for today’s modern enthusiast or professional.
I’ve been approached to write for other greyhound publications in the past, but honestly, none have resonated with me the way yours does, and I’d love to contribute to your publication or website in any way you might see fit.
To that end, I have a few ideas that I think might be a fit for your publication:
- Modern maintenance and upkeep of a truly supple brindle coat. In this piece, I would offer a practical how-to for your front-of-book “Going Grey” department, offering concise and distinct tips that greyhound owners can really put to use for this challenging subject.
- Greyhounds in Classical Art. While many have read that greyhounds were used as hunting dogs around the Fifth Century BC, and some greyhounds are even thought to date back to Ancient Egyptian times, you don’t often seethose representations. But after years of research, I have built a portfolio of greyhound art from ages past, and would love to produce a visual essay with complementing text for your feature well. Perhaps we could call this “50 Shades of Grey”?
- Again, while we so often hear about greyhounds in history, we often do not get to meet some of the more famous lovers of the breed. For “Going Grey,” I’d love to do a short piece recapping, in breakout form, eight notable greyhound owners from history, from kings to pop princesses.
Should any of these ideas strike a chord, please don’t hesitate to contact me for more information. I’d be happy to develop one for Grey Quarterly or your online counterpart. And, of course, I’m also happy to write on assignment. I just love the breed and what you do, and would love to be a part of it.
Thank you for a great publication.
Researcher, Greyhound Institute
(555)-555-5555 ext. 555
Now, sighthounds aside, let’s break things down a bit.
- Did it sound like I was sucking up? I was. But there’s honest sucking up, and there’s dishonest sucking up. If I am obsessed with a publication, I’ll tell the editor. Not only do editors geek out over writers who geek out over their publications, but it lets the editor know one of the most important aspects of the game: That you, the writer, are familiar with and have read their publication. Too many slush piles are filled with bizarre detritus that would never fit the publication, so by conveying this information to an editor, you let them know right off the bat that you’re a viable player.
- Next up, the 12 sighthounds. Yes, you’d probably be considered the canine-obsessed equivalent of a cat lady. But the important takeaway is that an editor will know that you know what you’re talking about (thus the Greyhound Institute and all the rest). Editors can easily write any number of things in-house, or ferret them out to general-interest writers. What you want to do is to offer your expertise, and let them know why they can trust you with a gig, and why you’re a better choice than all the other freelancers at the gate. Moreover, the great thing about finding markets pertaining to things that geek you out: You get paid to write about things that geek you out. So consider your passions, and find markets that fit them. You want the editor to wonder how the hell they went so long without you in their pages.
- Next, the three ideas. On the whole, you’re fine either including a couple ideas, or just introducing yourself and establishing your credentials and a connection, and leaving them out. I like to include ideas in my LOIs because it shows the editor how I think … and alleviates the risk of them getting off-point pitches later, like, “Greyhounds: What are they?!”; “Greyhounds: How to Own One Right”; or, most dreaded of all, the outside-the-bounds “Poodles: Why You Need One!” Note that I also pitch ideas for the front-of-book—an essential testing ground for new writers. Before editors let you do a massive feature story, they often want to test you on a shorter, less-risky front-of-book assignment. (Upon further reflection, though, I’d scrap that “50 Shades” bit.)
- Next, the note about being open to writing for the print publication or its online counterpart. As editors, we also sometimes test writers by having them do something for the website. If we get a bad piece back, we won’t be left scrambling to fill a hole in a carefully arranged print lineup. If it works, great, it’ll go up on the Web. If it doesn’t, well, the Web isn’t measured in pages that need to puzzle-piece together into a magazine. The Web is the gateway drug for many a regular freelancer at a publication.
- Finally, as for my note about writing on assignment—if you establish yourself as a prime candidate for the magazine (even if the editor isn’t gaga about your pitches), you may just be called upon to write something the editor has in the works. (It happens!)
All in all, your mission is simple: Say hi; explain why you belong in the magazine; flatter a bit, if you’re feeling flirty and mean it; and get out. Done correctly, the editor will be knocking on your door the next morning, anxious to meet you and your gaggle of greyhounds.
Have questions about the freelance life? Join us Friday, March 18, from 11am to 1pm EST, for an informal Q&A session with the author on the WD Facebook page.
Then again, not all LOIs are the same. When I was managing the submissions inbox at Writer’s Digest magazine, I’d continually field emails like this (really):
Dear Sirs or Madame,
Can I write for hte Writers Digest.
Hit me up! I’d love to be in Your Digest.
Writer of Boss Words
See the difference?
Be the difference.
When it comes down to it, breaking into a magazine isn’t all that difficult. You just need to know what you’re up against, which ultimately proves that in a sea of Horaces, it’s not that hard to stand out and fight your way to the top if you know the right way in.
Zachary Petit is the author of The Essential Guide to Freelancing: How to Write, Work and Thrive on Your Own Terms, the editor-in-chief of PRINT magazine, and the content director of the HOW brand. Say hi over at ZacharyPetit.com, or on Twitter.