What Not to Put into a Query LetterPosted: March 1, 2008
When a young writer asked me to look over the query letter she intended to send to a national magazine, I was not surprised to find that the query started with the words, “I’ve never been published before.” A lot of never-published writers seem to think they need to announce their amateur writer status that way. In reality, editors are more interested in the article idea you are proposing than they are in your publishing credentials. A well-crafted, well-targeted query goes a long way in demonstrating your writing abilities and helping an editor determine whether to ask to see your proposed article.
So, “don’t tell the editor you’ve never been published,” was my first comment to the young writer. “Why would you get off on the wrong foot by including something that might cause an editor to stop reading your query right away?”
The problem was, I think, that she didn’t think of her query as a sales letter. But that’s exactly what a query letter is — an attempt to sell your article idea and your ability to write that article.
Can you imagine a car salesman starting his pitch with the 12-miles-per-gallon stats for the vehicle he’s trying to sell you? More likely, he’d hit you with his car’s most impressive feature up front. And that’s what a query must do for a writer, hook the editor with a compelling reason for reading your query and giving you an assignment.
A Google search turned up scores of other bad examples that writers have included in their queries. Two sites, Writer’s Resource Center and Suite 101 both listed very helpful advice about what not to do.
In her Suite101 article, “Don’ts for Query Letters,” Kimberly Dawn Wells advises: Don’t mention that your piece was previously rejected, and don’t talk about how good it is or how much work you put into it. And, she says, don’t apologize for not having written a better letter. If you don’t think you’re writing a solid letter, edit it until you’re proud of it.
She adds: “Don’t address the editor generally. This means, do not address your letter to ‘the editor.’ Take the time to find out what the editor’s name is, what their gender is, and spell their name correctly. Most editors won’t notice if the letter is addressed correctly, but they will definitely notice if it isn’t.”
In “How to Write a Query Letter,” the Writer’s Resource Center offered additional specifics on query-letter no-nos, including:
Don’t present ideas for several different articles in the same letter. This can be done after you’ve established rapport with an editor, but not in an initial query.
Do not say your piece still needs work.
Don’t include other people’s statements about your article.
Don’t say how thrilling it would be to be published.
Do not discuss the rights you wish to sell or discuss price or payment.
Don’t include your social security number or discuss copyright information.
Don’t ask for advice, criticism or comments.
Don’t send any query before studying the publication enough to know if your idea is appropriate for that publication.”
Let me end with advice found in multiple places on the Internet: Don’t give the editor a sob story. No editor is going to assign an article because you’ve just lost your job, because you’re having trouble making ends meet, because you’ve spent every weekend for nearly a year writing this article, or because you’ll have to give up writing entirely if somebody doesn’t buy your work soon. Keep your query professional and editors will applaud you.
We are indebted to the Writer’s Resource Center and Suite 101 for publishing their valuable tips for writers. If you know of other examples of “what not to put into a query letter,” please share them here. We’d be happy to learn from you.
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