by Jargon Writer

Writing my way to becoming a freelancer

Writing a Sales Letter – or cover letter or query letter…

The idea of a sales letter is to convince someone to buy a product or service. A query letter is a letter written normally to a magazine editor proposing an idea for a column or article. A cover letter generally accompanies a job seeker’s resume during the application process.

In all three cases the letter is trying to convince its reader to take a specific course of action – to buy a product or service, to pay a writer to do a story or to hire the applicant, and all three types of letters have a lot in common.

The First Step – Research
Before you put pen to paper or type the first letter into that word processing program you need to know what tone to take, background information about where you are sending the letter and who (as specifically as possible) will be reading it.

For a sales letter, you need to know information about who the letter is representing (assuming you’re not writing it to represent yourself and your company) and about who that company’s target demographic is; for a query letter you need to know who at the magazine you’re writing to, what the publication’s audience is and the tone (formal vs. informal? friendly vs. expert? Slang vs. Jargon? How-to vs. general interest?); with a cover letter you should know who you’re contacting, who that company’s primary clients are, what kind of services or products they offer, any recent news they may have released or have gotten press coverage for (ie. you should have Googled them) and, if possible, some information about the company’s culture (formal vs. informal?).

The Hook
Once you have all that information, it’s time to start writing. Your goal with your first paragraph is to hook your reader and create a desire in them for the goods/services/article/job seeker you are writing about without actually directly mentioning the thing you are pitching.Instead, you show the reader why they have a need for the unique thing you want them to be interested in (unique angle in a story, unique features in a product, unique skills or talents for a service or in a job seeker).

example 1: Achieving just the right look for your business is important. Your look is the first thing potential clients will notice about you. It’s what will create that lasting first impression. Do you have the right look for your business? (Sales letter for a graphic designer).

example 2: Is this letter a waste of paper? Yes – if it fails to get the desired result. In business, most letters and memos are written to generate a specific response, close a sale, set up a meeting, get a job interview, make a contact. Many of these letters fail to do their job. Part of the reason is that business executives and support staff don’t know how to write persuasively. (Query letter lede used by Robert Bly pitching a piece to Amtrak Express and included in his book Secrets of a Freelance Writer.)

example 3: A masters in publishing requires learning about the publishing process as a whole and having a through understanding of the different steps it takes for a book to go from idea to physical product. A general knowledge of the overall process would be invaluable for a production assistant responsible for moving the book through each step of that process.(Completely made up lede for a cover letter, applying for a position as a production assistant at a book publishing house).

Your lede paragraph should point out a need the reader didn’t know they had, but that now they want a solution to. And that’s where the second paragraph comes in.

The Line
Now you offer the good/service/job seeker/article as exactly what the reader needs to fill that previously unknown gap. Take our cover letter example – now the hiring manager wants someone who has knowledge of the general overall process of book publishing. How many entrance level employees can offer that knowledge? Not many.

In this paragraph you answer “what/who/how” it is they need – what the article is going to be about (the solution is a process called AIDA – Attention, Interest, Desire, Action), who has that skill and how they got it (ie. I have a masters in publishing from Pace University or as a graphic designer for the last 5 years, I have experience developing the perfect look to represent a company…).

The Sinker
The last piece of a pitch letter is what writers who work on ad copy title the “call to action.” A call to action is a few sentences on what you want the reader to do next. With a sales letter the goal could be “call xxx-xxxx for more information” or “visit” or even “place an order by x-y-z-ing.” With a cover letter, the next step is you want the reader to call you for an interview (if you’d be interested in further discussing how my experience can benefit xyz company, I’d be happy to come in for an interview. You can reach me at…), and with a query letter, it’s about following up and choosing to accept the article idea (I’d like to write this piece on xyz, if you are interested I can be reached at….).


February 20, 2010 - Posted by | Freelancing, in practice, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. This post couldn’t have come at a better time! As someone with a very specific niche (media planning/buying by way of full-service Ad Agencies), as I begin my own freelance journey working w/ small business owners and marketing departments, a gal like me can use help like this to broaden my marketing horizons.

    It looks like your reading through this book like a seasoned rockstar! Keep up the good work lady!

    Comment by AndreaVLewis | February 25, 2010 | Reply

  2. Nice post, Melissa. A smart overview of what’s needed.

    Comment by Jay | February 28, 2010 | Reply

  3. And thanks for introducing me to the trade-specific spelling “lede.” Had never seen it before.

    Comment by Jay | February 28, 2010 | Reply

  4. Glad you liked the post. The reason they spell it “lede” (they also spelled deck “dek” and head “hed”) was because in the old days, it set apart the works for the person who would lay out the type on the printer (when they still used movable type printing press style). It made it clear that the words were not to be included in the actual copy. Check out this wiki piece – under terms & style. it defines them and talks about it a bit.

    Comment by mbreau | February 28, 2010 | Reply

  5. Very nice blog post. Very detailed and well said. Thank you for sharing and breaking it into pieces. Had fun learning from you.

    Comment by Partner Profile Boy | April 20, 2010 | Reply

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