Some Basic Query-Writing Tips

Although I’ve been published many times since my first byline in 1974, I have a confession to make: I hate writing queries. I know they’re a necessary step in getting your work published, but I always found writing them most difficult. I still do.

To make it as easy as possible, I read everything I could find about how successful writers produce queries. I collected every scrap of that information and tried to use that advice when writing my queries. That strategy has served me well over the years.  Now I’m passing it on to others who want help with query-writing. It’s basic information, but I found it to be just what I needed.

Because a query is your first, and maybe only, contact with an editor, work to make a good first impression. And whether you’re sending the query by U.S. Mail or email, put it in the form of a business letter. It IS a business letter — you’re trying to sell the editor on your article idea and to convince him or her that you’re the perfect person to write it.

Address your query as you would to anyone you don’t know in any business letter, placing their names in the “Dear Mr. Editor” or “Dear Ms. Editor” format. Find out if the editor is a man or woman and spell his or her name correctly. Check the publication’s masthead or website for the name, or pick up the phone and ask someone at the magazine. And while you’re at it, make sure that every word in your query is spelled correctly. Editors reason that if you don’t pay attention to small details like spelling names correctly, how can they trust you to produce an article that is entirely error-free.

Start your query with a hook, much like the one you would use to hook readers of the completed article. Before you hook the reader, you must hook the editor. Concentrate on convincing the editor that your article is much too interesting to end up in the rejection pile. Just because it’s a business letter, however, your query doesn’t have to have a drab or somber tone. Make the tone fit the material you intend to present in your article. You can even use humor if it’s appropriate. Adapt the tone of your letter to fit the subject you’re covering. You won’t need dull statistics, for example, when you intend to write about a clown school or profile a local comedian. That’s the time to take a lighthearted look at your subject. Make your query sound like the article as it would appear in the publication.

Now describe the article you intend to write. Show the editor how readers will be captivated by your prose. Give the piece a working title and state the number of words you envision for the article (You did check the publication’s guidelines, didn’t you, so your word estimate fits the publication’s requirements?) Strive to assure the editor that he or she is dealing with a professional writer.

In the last paragraph, you get a chance to tell the editor why you’re the person who should write this article. Here’s where you include your writing credits, your background, and any other relevant information pertaining to your article. (Are you a culinary school grad, have your backpacked around Europe, are you a top athlete, have you built your own log cabin or traveled the Mississippi by canoe? Whatever relates to your article may gain selling point with the editor). Mention where the editor can find clippings of your previously published work, or offer to send clippings, but don’t send them with an email query unless the editorial guidelines request them.

Thank the editor for considering your query and end with something like, “I look forward to your response.” Sign it “Sincerely” or with some other business-like close. Add your name, address and email address. If you have a website, include that information, too.

If you’re sending the query by postal mail, be sure to include a stamped, self-addressed envelope. You should know that many writers send queries by email these days, with “Article Proposal” in subject line.  Check the editorial guidelines to learn which the magazine prefers. If that information is not in the guidelines, I sometimes make a quick phone call to the editor to ask if they accept email queries. There’s a big advantage to sending a query by email:  You usually get a response from the editor in a relatively short time.

No matter which mailing method you use, before you hit send or put the envelope in the mail drop, go over each word, each sentence, each punctuation mark in your query. Take out any excess spacing. Make your query as perfect as possible. You might even get someone you trust to read your query to see if you have overlooked anything important.

Then send it off and get right to work on another query or a writing project while you wait for the editor’s response.

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