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Crafting Quality Queries: The
Mechanics of Writing a Letter that Sells
Which came first: the query or the clips?
Almost all beginning writers wrestle with this dilemma. Before giving the "go ahead," most publications require a query letter describing the significance of the proposed article, the details of the piece, the writer's qualifications and, of course, clips (a.k.a. copies of previously published articles). But if you're just starting out, you may not have many or any clips. What's a writer to do?
Take heart. And take a careful red pen to your query letter. According to three editors at both print and online publications, a lack of significant clips will not necessarily rule out your being assigned the article but a sloppy, poorly written, or unprofessional query letter will.
Little Things Mean A Lot
Shelley Divnich Haggert, editor of Windsor Parent Magazine and co-author of Writing Lessons Learned—We Learned the Hard Way So You Don't Have To agrees that there are certain "niceties" to adhere to at all times. "Do you capitalize your name? You should—it's proper. If you aren't showing me you know that much, what makes me think you can do it in an article?....Do you have a salutation? Are you professional in your communication? Have you included your full contact information?"
The tone a writer conveys in the query letter is an equally vital consideration. "If someone comes across inappropriately, I don't bother," says Bivens. "This doesn't mean that I take offense if someone doesn't know my name when they query, but a writer who imposes a time limit on response or obviously didn't read our guidelines indicates what working with them will be like."
Haggert warns against appearing too informal. "It is possible to be both professional and witty," she says. "'Hey there' is not professional." And she underscores the importance of getting the editor's name right. "Everywhere my name is listed in relation to Windsor Parent Magazine, it is spelled right. There's no reason for you to get it wrong. If you're not sure, try 'Dear Editor.'"
Looks Can Be Everything
More and more publications are beginning to accept queries by e-mail, opening up a whole new frontier of do's and don'ts. "If the query is coming via e-mail, the first decision is whether or not I open it," says Haggert. "I delete anything from an unfamiliar writer if it has an attachment. Whether or not I take the time to read the headers and let the writer know I've deleted it depends on what kind of mood I'm in….This sounds extreme, but please understand—one virus can put me out of business for several days, and cost me much time and effort to repair. I don't take chances."
The query should also provide as much information as possible upfront before the editor even opens the e-mail. "Do the 'From' and 'Subject' lines clearly indicate what the e-mail contains?" asks Haggert. "As an editor, I get more than just queries and submissions from writers; I also get press releases, marketing requests, questions about the magazine, letters to the editor—and spam. If there's anything in those lines that indicates spam, I'm not opening it. I encourage writers to use their first and last names in their 'From' lines, and to indicate in the 'Subject' line 'Query—10 Ways To Be A Better Parent.' If you don't know how to work with your settings to adjust your 'From' line, etc, then you need to rethink your approach."
Another must-know feature is the bcc (blind carbon copy). "Even though I'm probably not the only editor you're approaching," says Haggert, "I'd sure like to think I am. Don't spoil it for me by letting me see the addresses of the other 45 you're querying."
Susan Holson, Managing Editor at Kids VT, says, "First, I look for relevance…upcoming features, local market (or localization opportunities), for example. Then I consider the readability. Our readers are busy mothers. We need to give them information in a concise yet interesting way."
"Be specific wherever possible," adds Haggert. "Don't say, 'All mothers want…,' say 'according to Angus Reid, the majority of American mothers are….' Don't generalize. Help me to see the possibilities in your idea. Instead of 'Readers will appreciate…,' try 'Since your readers live in an urban center, they will identify with….' Be as unique as you can possibly be…."
But most beginning writers do not live in a perfect world and have few if any clips to draw from. "If the writer has sent samples (published or not) that show talent, that's more important than where they've been published," says Bivens. "I also don't really care if a person sends me a clip that isn't topic relevant. If a person is querying me with a good idea on parenting, but their best writing clips are about politics, I'm fine with that. Talent isn't always defined by subject matter."
"Clips are important, but not vital," agrees Haggert. "It's nice to know someone else has taken a chance on you before I do. But at the same time I think writers need to consider their clips. If the only places you've been published are obscure Web sites with lousy reputations, it's probably better not to mention them at all."
"I don't really give much thought to how many times or where they've been published," acknowledges Bivens. "We've all read articles in major magazines and thought, 'I could have written that better.' So a credit with a major publication doesn't always indicate talent. On the other hand, if all of the above are met, AND a person has a good publishing history, it's definitely a bonus."
Beginning writers, the future is up to you. Dream up an interesting idea, write and re-write your query using the advice above and before long you'll be faced with a different dilemma—which clips to choose.
For more information about Writing Lessons Learned—We Learned the Hard Way So You Don't Have To by Shelley Divnich Haggert and Linda Sherwood, visit http://www.sherwoodcom.com/book.htm.
Kristen Stewart's work has appeared in ePregnancy magazine and a number of regional parenting publications. She is also a columnist at EveryWriter.com.