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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A Query Letter Alert (about an interview with Wendy Burt-Thomas)

Today I received an email alert from Victoria Mixon about her just-posted interview with Wendy Burt-Thomas, author of The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters.

In this far-reaching interview, Wendy answers just about any question you might ever have about query letters. And whether you write fiction or non-fiction, you should benefit from Wendy’s wide knowledge about query letters. If you’d like to read the complete interview, just click on this link to Victoria’s site.

You may remember Victoria — she did a guest post on “Handling Rejections” on this site just a few days ago. Thanks again, Victoria, for writing that post, and for alerting us to Wendy’s interview.

© 2009 Laverne Daley

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Selling Yourself to An Editor

Some writing advice is timeless; some needs to be adjusted over time.

An example: At one time, a written query, complete with SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) was the only acceptable way to approach an editor with an article idea. Now many editors want queries only by email.

Whether you’re submitting by regular mail or email, however, you need to present yourself ( and your work) in the best way possible. Editors and agents expect you’ll do a bit of horn-tooting in your queries, but Lisa Collier Cool advises you not to do it too loudly. Best foot forward, but don’t overdo it.

I’ve written before about Lisa Collier Cool and her book, “How to Write Irresistible Query Letters.” It’s chock-full of timeless advice about selling yourself to an editor or agent, including this: don’t create a negative impression. Because editors want to buy from writers who believe in their own work, she says you should avoid even the slightest expression of doubt.

She even lists these five Terms of Indecision to avoid:

This book (or article) would …. (the use of the conditional tense subtly suggests a lack of confidence in your work). Instead, always say: The book (or article) will… (this implies that you consider its publication a certainty).

I’ll welcome your editorial input. Bad because it sounds as though you’ll need editing. Surprising as it may seem, today’s book and magazine editors prefer to do as little editing as possible…. This is equally true in the magazine business, where the fqst-paced schedule of putting out a monthly or weekly publication leaves minimal time for editing.

I know there are a lot of other books/articles on the topic…. Why offer an editor a ready-made reason for rejection? Rephrase as “My book differs from others in the field because …. ” or “My article will be the first to explain….”

I’m an unpublished author…. Work on creating a strong bio emphasizing your other qualifications–don’t draw attention to your lack of publishing credits.

I’ve written six other books/articles, but this is the first one I consider worthy of publication…. The suggestion that you have a hoard of unpublished works that you consider to be of interior quality strikes terror into an editor’s heart as she envisions your query being followed by a deluge of unpromising material. Avoid referring to other works you’ve written unless they are either published or presented in your query as candidates for publication.

Lisa’s advice is right on target.

I’ve had my copy of “How to Write Irresistible Query Letters” for more than 20 years and refer to it often. It’s chock full of advice that really is timeless. The book is available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers, if you’d like to take a look.

© 2008 Laverne Daley

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Here’s Good Query-Writing Help

If you hate writing query letters, or if you have questions about submitting a query, you might want to pay a visit to The Urban Muse, Susan Johnston’s site. Her post, “10 Tips on Querying Magazines and Websites,” offers practical help you can use to your advantage. I wrote about the site back in April when Susan also had posted some good query-writing tips. You can read about that here.

This time, I especially liked Susan’s on-target advice about what to do if you don’t yet have writing clips:

Play up your expertise relating to your topic. If you don’t have any writing clips yet, don’t mention it in your query. You can find other ways to play up your background without admitting that you’re a newbie. For instance, ‘as a former nurse, I am well versed in healthcare issues such as ….’ Or, ‘Sibling rivalry is a topic that I’m intimately familiar with thanks to my three children.”

She also has good suggestions about follow-ups and using an eye-catching subject line. In fact, all the tips in Susan’s article are helpful. I find her posts well worth reading — they give me a different way of looking at some writing practices — and that’s a good thing. (Her post yesterday, “When Pubs Don’t Pay,” is a good example).

Although I’m years beyond being a newbie, I often learn a lesson or two by reading The Urban Muse. You might want to make it a regular stop, too. In addition to The Urban Muse, Susan publishes The Urban Museletter, which also features tips on writing.

© 2008 Laverne Daley

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What Not to Put into a Query Letter

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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©2008 by Laverne Daley
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Notes on Being a Pack Rat

A pack rat? Guilty. I admit it. I’ve been a pack rat for years. But I don’t hoard everything. No old newspapers, balls of string, or useless items for me. I hoard articles about writing. My treasures are magazine clippings, some yellowed with age, stored in manila folders, labeled and ready for me to read at will. The clippings that I’ve saved for years have been an education in writing. They’ve taught me nearly as much as my four years in Journalism school.

Before I was a consistently selling freelancer, the words on those clipped pages taught me how to be a writer. They were a constant source of support from successful writers who, amazingly, shared their wisdom with me each month in the pages of The Writer, Writer’s Digest and similar publications. I treasured every clipping. Then, as now, they were the boost I needed to keep going despite rejections, to keep writing, to keep sending out queries.

One example: Back in 1990, I clipped “Dear Friend,” an article by Art Spikol, who was then nonfiction columnist for Writer’s Digest. The focus of his article was on writing personable and entertaining query letters, the kind of letter you’d send to family members or a friend (people wrote letters to family and friends back in the 90s, before email became ubiquitous).

His suggestions were, and are, timeless, whether you were writing a conventional query letter back then, or you’re sending an email query to an editor today. For a query, Spikol advised imagining that you weren’t writing to an editor at all, but to a friend with whom you felt relaxed and confident. Somebody you could communicate with.

“You’re going to tell that person what kind of an article you’d like to write, why it’s interesting, why you’re qualified to do it, and so on. . . . You’re writing to a friend. You don’t have to use language like, ‘I proposed an article of 1,600 words,’ because that’s not how you talk to your friends. So the same sentence may actually come out, ‘I figure the piece will run 1,500 words or so.'”

Spikol said forget the rules. “Communicate . . . If you can say can’t, don’t say cannot. If you can use I’ll, don’t say I will. My theory is that if it sounds intelligent, professional, on target . . . and natural, it’s fine. Concentrate on selling the idea, not individual words.”

Let your enthusiasm and confidence show, he said. “There’s nothing wrong with ending a letter with, ‘I’d love to write this for you,’ or, depending on the publication, even, ‘How about it?'”

Advice like that is why I became a pack rat in the first place. The words are just too valuable to toss in the trash.
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©2007 by Laverne Daley
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