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The Query Letter: A How-To
It’s 3:15 in the morning and suddenly you wake up with a great idea,” Lose Weight on the Ice Cream Diet”. You research and write a dazzling 1500 word article. And there it is, on your desk, full of inspiration, great quotes from ice cream experts and some tough re-writing. The only problem is, it’s not going anywhere. Sure, writers say they write for themselves but really, you might want to share that story with the rest of the world. And it would be nice to get paid for it, too.
If you’ve experienced the aha! moment for a great article that you want to sell, then it’s time to learn how to write a query letter that works. Here are some things to remember.
The first step toward getting your story into print is writing the query letter. A query is sent to an editor to let them know the who, what, where and how you really can lose ten pounds eating nothing but ice cream for a week, or whatever else you have decided to write about.
Before you sit down to write your query you’ve got to decide what publication to send it to. Look at the magazine. Can you imagine your article in the table of contents? Does it fit with the feeling of the magazine? If it does, you are one step closer to getting your article into that magazine. It’s also a good idea to see if a piece about the ice cream diet just ran last month. If so, the timing may not be right for another weight loss with ice cream story.
Be familiar with the publication. You don’t have to subscribe to hundreds of magazines, but you should check out the last three or four issues before you send a query. The library or bookstores are good places to research past issues of magazines. If you are one of those people who absolutely must have a copy of the magazine to hold onto at home, ask your friends if you can take back issues of old magazines off their hands when they are finished. I’d be delighted if someone offered to haul that big box of old magazines I just can’t bring myself to throw out.
Before you dismiss the query as boring paper work, understand your query is as important as the article. For your writing to entertain and educate it has to move beyond that pile of papers on your desk. And to do that, you have to sell your article to an editor with your query letter.
The query gives the editor her first impression of your writing. Everything counts. Neatness, clarity, style, voice, content. Everything in your query will help the editor decide whether your article is right for his publication. Your query should be your best work. You don’t want to just slap it together and because of that you can figure it will probably take more than five or ten minutes. An editor will not be inclined to think your article will be brilliant if your query rambles or is unorganized. Dedicate time and energy to writing a good query and you will increase your odds of selling your article.
The first sentence of your query is a make it or break it moment. Make it snappy and make it count. If your opening sentence is boring, there’s a good chance the editor will stop reading right there. Give him a reason to keep reading. One way to do this is to start your letter with action. You can also use quotes or statistics to make that first sentence jump off the page. You also need to be concise. Your query should be short. One page is best.
Your query should reflect the tone of the piece you’ve written. If you’re pitching a serious article on the benefits of therapy for cancer patients, your letter should reflect the seriousness of the subject. If you’ve written a humorous article on the joys of owning goldfish, let your query letter show just how chipper goldfish owners really are.
Know who to send the letter to. Do you read junk mail addressed to a former resident? Take a look at the most recent issue of the Writer's Market to learn who to send the article to. Watch your spelling. Some editors are crazy about seeing their named spelled correctly. It may sound like a small point, but if you're not getting the little details right in your query letter, why should anyone believe the details in your article will be any better?
Your query should show that you understand what the editor is looking for. You don’t need to come right out and say, “I know you need this article." But it should be clear you understand the type of articles that appear in that magazine. That little article you wrote on “Beauty Tips After Forty” may have hit the mark, but pitching it in a query to Field and Stream is a waste of postage for you and a waste of time for the editor.
Many magazines have Web sites with writer’s guidelines. Check out the guidelines. If the guidelines say to indicate if you can provide photos, say so in your query. You should always include a self-addressed stamped envelope whether the guidelines say so or not.
At this point you’re pretty excited about your writing. Your best friend just read your article and he says it’s “totally awesome." Your mother says she can imagine it in Parade Magazine. Be grateful for all the good vibes but be realistic. Countless writers send a first essay to Woman’s Day only to get a note back that says, “We’re sorry…” And so they send the essay to Family Circle, and Better Homes and Gardens. And after a while they’ve collected a pile of rejection slips that say, “it’s just not right." And then the writer begins to think it’s not worth it to ever write again and quits. There may be some quick success story somewhere out there about an emerging writer cashing in with their first opinion piece sneaking into Redbook, but if there are, those stories are few and far between.
Look for a smaller publication to send your first query too. A local periodical might be just the place to start. Fifty bucks may not sound like much when you did all that writing, but success breeds success. And for an emerging writer, getting published anywhere is better than a string of rejections from big name magazines that might make you feel like giving up. Also, an editor of a small publication may have more time and energy to work with an emerging writer. And don’t discount connections you make with editors of small circulation magazines. The editor you begin working with now may be working at a larger publication next year, and if she likes working with you, she may have an assignment for you as she moves up in her career.
While you’re deciding what publication to send a query to consider the number of stories the magazine purchases (you can find this in the Writer’s Market as well). Your chances of selling an article to a journal that buys 200 articles a year is probably better than trying to get in print in a magazine that only buys ten articles a year.
Your query should let the editor know why you are the best person to tell that story and how you are going to tell it. If you are an expert in the area you’re writing about, by all means, say so. If you are published, mention that in your query as well. If you haven’t published anything don’t worry about it, but you don’t have to bring it up in your letter.
Be honest. Don’t make up anything about you or your story that isn’t true or you can’t deliver. Once the editor calls you to say they’d like your article on “Incredible Tie-Dyed Easter Eggs” you are going to have to deliver.
Emerging writers should write the article first and then send a query. That probably won’t be the order you will do things when you’ve gained more experience, but for now it will make it easier to tell the editor exactly what your article is about.
Once you have put a stamp on the envelope and whispered “good luck” under your breath as you drop your query in the mail, you can pride yourself on doing your best to make the first move. Now it’s the editor’s turn. Resist the urge to call or send an e-mail. Better yet, if you feel you absolutely cannot sit on your hands, immediately place yourself in front of your computer and start working on your next query. With some imagination you’ll find another way to package that article on the ice-cream diet for a different magazine and increase your odds for your first sale.
Julie is a freelance writer and mother of three. She is also a meteorologist in Kansas City. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org