December 2009

As we head into a brand-new year, it’s the perfect time to reflect on what’s worked over the past year and what hasn’t. Hopefully, more has worked than hasn’t! I’m not big on making resolutions, but I am huge on goal setting. Resolutions are too easy to break, but goals stay before you, daring you to reach them. I find goals quite motivating.

Over my next couple of posts, I’d like to discuss different areas of the writing life and how we can  make it work in our favor instead of against us. In particular, I’d like to focus on:

1. Balancing family obligations with writing obligations

2. How to stay organized for optimal efficiency

3. Juggling part-time writing with full-time work

4. Overcoming distractions when working from home

5. Making time to write effectively when it’s part of your non-writing job

If you have any additional areas of the writing life that you’d like to see discussed, please leave a comment and I’ll do my best to address them.

Look for today’s follow-up post by January 1!

Whether you’re sending an email to a prospective customer, communicating with an editor, or sending an idea to your boss, there is a proper way to express yourself.

In many ways, sending someone a business-related email is no different than sending any other piece of business correspondence. Therefore, you should be mindful to communicate your points concisely and clearly. Don’t send emails that require your recipient to scroll down 3 pages just to read your whole message. Think in terms of memo writing.

Here are some additional points to consider when sending emails:

Subject line–make it count! To ensure your email gets read, add a meaningful title to your subject line. If you and your correspondent have been going back and forth for a few emails, make sure you change your subject line accordingly if the subject has been altered from its original.

Don’t be “tone deaf.” Emails are very easy to misinterpret, as is any written correspondence. You have no immediate feedback from your recipient as you would if you were talking with that person face to face or over the phone. It’s not unusual for an innocent email to get inferred incorrectly. To help avoid this, after you’ve written your email, read it back to yourself out loud, and make sure there’s nothing that may be interpreted wrongly or perceived as rude or harsh.

Even if you have some concise directions for your recipient, you can soften the blow by using well-placed “pleases” and “thank-yous.” It will go a long way to ensure you don’t come across harshly.

Increase readability. Make your emails easier to digest and read by incorporating bullets, white space, short paragraphs, or other ways to break up the text. Nothing elicits groaning more than opening an email that is nothing but solid text, all single spaced, with no paragraph breaks!

Be organized. If you have a lot of material to cover in your email, it’s worth the time to outline and organize your thoughts before you dive into writing. You don’t want your emails to ramble on with no apparent direction, as you run the risk of losing your audience.

Use the BCC feature. When sending or forwarding group emails, you may want to use the Blind Carbon Copy feature.  This will solve two problems. First, your recipients won’t have to scroll through a long list of addresses just to get to the actual message. Second, you won’t be inviting potential scammers to gain access to your recipients’ addresses.

Pause before sending. How many times have you accidentally sent your email to the wrong person or wish you could hit a “cancel” button immediately after you’ve hit “send”? We’ve all done it. Especially if you’ve just written an emotionally charged email, it’s easy to fire it off before taking a second look at it. This is very dangerous!

Check not only the content itself, but make sure the recipients you are sending the email to are correct. If your recipient is in your address book and your email automatically finishes the person’s name, it’s easy to think it’s going to one person when it’s actually going to someone else if you don’t confirm that the address is correct.

Be sure there’s nothing contained in your email that you wouldn’t want the world to see. Your information may end up places you’ve never dreamed of, and it may come back to haunt you. Companies typically save all their employees’ email messages (even the deleted ones), so you never know who may read your mail or when you may see it again. Be safe and protect yourself.

How about you? Do you have any embarrassing email stories you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about them. You just might give us all some ideas of what not to do!

With Christmas and New Year’s right around the corner, writers’ thoughts often turn to holiday writing. There is a huge writing market for all things Christmas as well as other holidays throughout the year.

First, let’s talk about writing for Christmas, since this is probably the biggest holiday to attract writers and publishers. What makes for good holiday writing, and where can you market what you’ve written?

When writing for Christmas, publishers often look for heartwarming stories that focus on the true meaning of the holiday. Christmas stories are generally true stories, although many magazines publish fictional pieces as well. The most important ingredient of a good holiday story is the relationship focus: How does the holiday bring people together? How can families help keep the holidays more joyful and simple? Publishers typically want true, first-person stories that can show this focus from your personal experience. What have you experienced that is helpful to others when it comes to celebrating Christmas?

Because Christmas can be a hard time for many people, stories should also be written to encourage and not bring out the difficulties or stresses of the season. Publishers look for upbeat endings, even though there may be a tragedy or crisis within the story. Because of the nature of Christmas, stories also often contain elements of spirituality and faith.

Aside from Christmas, publishers look for stories that reflect the heart of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, and Thanksgiving. If you write for children, almost any holiday is fair game, including Independence Day, Labor Day, and even Groundhog Day! Children’s book and magazine publishers welcome holiday fictional stories as well as nonfiction pieces that will both educate and entertain.

When researching markets to send your stories to, look at compilation book publishers like Chicken Soup for the Soul or Cup of Comfort books, as well as gift book publishers. In the periodical market, a magazine like Guideposts is a good place to start.

One thing to keep in mind when writing for the holidays is that publishers are generally buying holiday pieces for magazines 6-12 down the road. So, now’s a good time to start writing for Christmas 2010!

Just wanted to announce that I will be teaching a teleclass this Friday, December 18 at 12:00 Central Time on writing for children. My workshop is entitled “Writing for Magazines: Selecting and Submitting to a Target Market.” For more information or to join the class, log on to:

In this final installment of How to Write an Article Query Letter, we’ll take a look at avoiding the slush pile with a stellar query. What are the elements of a well-written query that really make it shine? Let’s look at the top 5:

1. Professionalism. No matter what, your query must be professional. That means absolutely no typos or mistakes of any kind, aesthetically pleasing, and written in a professional manner that lets an editor know you are serious about the business of writing.

2. Captivating lead. There is no right or wrong way to write a lead, but a good lead will quickly accomplish your main goal: catching the editor’s attention and pulling him in to your letter. If your lead is not catchy or interesting enough, he’ll skip right over your article. Your lead needs to be quick and punchy, set the tone for your story, and creative enough to make the editor stop to read. Good leads often use humor, surprising statistics, or present a provocative question. To help you get the hang of leads, browse magazines and look not only at the article leads but also at the headlines. You’ll soon get a feel for what makes a great lead.

3. Creativity. It’s okay to step out of the box a little when writing a query. You need to somehow make your letter stand out and be different from all the hundreds of others that come across the editor’s desk every week. You can do this by adding various font styles, such as italicizing or  bolding subheads or titles, blocking off quotations, or using bulleted lists. You can also do this through your writing style, by adding humor or just coming up with an interesting way to present your material. Remember, this is your one and only shot. Don’t go overboard with the quirky stuff, but also don’t be afraid to stretch yourself a little.

4. Realistic promises. When you’re trying to make a good first impression it’s easy to want to promise editors that you can do anything. But be careful what you promise, because they just might take you up on it, or they will immediately realize that you must be an amateur because of your lofty aspirations. Some areas worthy of a reality check include: time frames and word counts (don’t promise a 3000-word article by the end of the week), interviews with famous people who you don’t know if you can actually get an interview with, and topics requiring too much research for the amount of time you have. Your letter will stand out if you can immediately gain the trust of the editor by only making promises you know you can keep.

5. Package presentation. Along with your query letter, editors often ask to see either clips (articles of yours that have been published) or samples (pieces of your writing that have not been publsihed), a resume, and/or a cover letter. Be sure to give them exactly what they ask for. In other words, if they want to see three writing samples, don’t send them seven because you can’t decide which ones to use. And, make sure when you do send clips or samples they are good representations of the particular magazine you want to write for.

Put these tactics to work in your queries and be sure you’re not doing any of the “must-nevers,” and your query is sure to make a good impression!

Now that we’ve discussed the important elements of an article query letter, let’s talk about what should definitely remain absent from your queries. Sometimes what’s not done or said is just as important as what is. Things to avoid in a query letter:

1. Lack of focus. Writers sometimes try to tackle too many topics in one article, and their query may reflect that. Choose one angle for your article, and one issue of your topic you wish to focus on. In your query, be very specific as to what you will cover and how you intend to cover it. Avoid tangents and side topics at all costs.

2. Wordiness. Your query should ideally be one page. In order to present all the information you need to, brevity is key. Write as tightly as possible, and only say what absolutely needs to be said. Avoid unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and ramblings.

3. Mistakes. This is such an easy thing to remedy, yet many writers won’t take the time to do it. Self-edit your query, checking for grammar errors  (such as sentence fragments), misspelled words, and unnecessary words or redundancies. Then, have someone else check it as well. Chances are, you will never see all of your own mistakes. Aside from spelling and grammar errors, be careful to double-check any facts or statistics you are presenting, along with the proper spelling of the editor’s name.

4. Not doing your research ahead of time. One sure turnoff for an editor is when he learns that you have no idea what his magazine is really about, how it’s structured, or what kind of stories he likes to see. Do your homework and make sure you understand the magazine’s readership. Avoid queries that look like templates, where you’re just substituting the magazine’s name for another with each one you write. Make sure your query is tailor made for each editor.

5. Presenting yourself arrogantly. Your query letter should prove that you are the right person–the only person, perhaps–to write your article. It should not, however, spend most of its time discussing you. A quick overview of your writing accomplishments and why you can write the article is all that’s necessary. Too much self-promotion and the editors may wonder how difficult you’re going to be to work with.

If you avoid these top taboos when writing queries, you are well on your way. The final installment of How to Write an Article Query Letter will look at how to really make your query shine and how to put your whole query package together.

Until next time…

As promised, let’s explore the various components of a query letter you’d send to an editor for an article you wish to write. By the way, these rules apply whether you are sending your letter snail mail or email. If you are emailing (and you need to double-check to make sure that’s OK with the editor), send your letter as an attachment so it can remain in a professional, letter format. Sometimes the editor may ask you to put all your information within the body of your email to protect them from potential viruses, but if he doesn’t, send it as an attachment.

1. Contact information. Just like any other letter, put the editor’s contact info in the top left corner. This goes without saying, but make sure all the components are spelled correctly, especially the editor’s name! And…take the time to actually get the editor’s name so you’re not addressing your query to “To Whom It May Concern.”

2. Clever lead. In a query, you’ll only have a few seconds to make a great impression. Get right to the heart of your article idea in the first couple of sentences. Take your idea and turn it into a creative hook that will force the editor to keep reading. I’ll be talking more specifically about how to write leads in a future installment of How to Write Article Query Letters.

3. Story idea. Now that you’ve got the editor captivated with your lead, continue to explain, as briefly as possible, what your article will be about.

4. Magazine compatibility. Next, tell why you believe your article is perfect for their magazine. How does it fit with their readership, the magazine’s style, and the magazine’s format? If you don’t know these answers yourself, you’ve got some research to do!

5. Slant. Explain how you’re going to present your material. The more common of a topic you have, the more creative you’ll need to be in using a unique angle to tell your story. Think in terms of point of view, lists, how-to format, or Q & A if it’s an interview. I’ll cover specific ideas for slants in a future post.

6. Why you? Finally…you get to talk about yourself. After you’ve presented your idea and angle, let the editor know why you…and only you…can write this article. What expertise qualifies you? What inside track information do you have on your subject? Why can you present the story in a way that no one else can?

7. Concluding arguments. This is your final chance to convince the editor that your article is exactly what he needs and you are the person to write it. Use a short, one-paragraph summary to restate your article idea, tell why it’s a must-have for the magazine, and why you’re qualified to write it. Give the editor no reason to say no!

Stop back next time for a look at what to definitely avoid in your query letter.

You have an amazing idea for an article, and you can’t wait to send it off to The New Yorker, where you know it will published in an instant. You heard something from one of your writer friends about having to query magazines before you can send them your article, but why is that important, and what is a query anyway?

In the first part of this how-to, I’ll discuss what exactly a query is, why it’s important, and for what types of work you should send queries. In future installments, I’ll cover the details of query letters: their components, must-haves, must-never-haves, and how to avoid the slush pile by writing a stellar query letter.

What is a query letter? Simply put, a query is a letter you send to an editor (for either a book or a magazine article you wish to write) explaining what you want to write about. The letter serves as a concise summary of your idea as well as the approach you will take in writing the article. So, the obvious question here is, Why not just write what you want to write and send that to the editor instead? Well, for many reasons.

Why the query is important. First, if you’re looking to write a magazine article, the chances of you writing about the exact topic, in the exact style and format, with the exact angle that the editor is looking for is probably about .01%. Instead of wasting time writing the entire article, send off a letter explaining your idea, your slant, and why you think your article is a perfect fit for their magazine, and determine if there is even an interest before you actually write your article.

You may have a great idea, but that magazine may have just bought a similar story two months ago. Or, your idea may work, but not the way you want to present it. In that case, if the editor has enough interest, she may be willing to work with you to change the format to fit her needs. It’s better to create something from scratch with the editor than give him a finished piece just to have him tear it apart to make it workable, or worse, reject it altogether.

Additionally, sending a query allows you to introduce yourself to the editor, which can have many advantages. Even if the editor may not be interested in your current article idea on “The Ten Best Places to Catch Trout in America,” if you’re presenting yourself as a fishing expert, he may just want you to tackle (no pun intended) a unique idea he had but can’t find a writer for.

What should you query? By reading the submission guidelines for the magazine you wish to write for, you will learn how your work is to be sent. Typically, editors ask for query letters for nonfiction articles. You may also be asked to send a query for a fiction article, although some magazines do prefer to see the entire manuscript if you are writing fiction. Other times, they may ask for a query with a sample from the work as well, instead of the whole story. If you are writing humor, poetry, or essays, however, you would not send a query, but rather the manuscript itself.

Next time, we’ll look at the components of a solid query letter—and what you should definitely avoid when writing queries.

Stay tuned…

In my last post, I talked about five things that are definite to-dos when writing for children. As promised, this time we’ll learn five things that you should never do.

1. Don’t spell out the lesson to be learned. A good children’s story should include some sort of moral or lesson. The trick is not to spell it out but let your reader figure it out for himself. The point you want to get across needs to be woven through the fabric of your story, so your reader can experience it throughout. Don’t just tack a one-liner onto the end, telling the children what they were supposed to have learned.

2. Don’t be preachy. Along those same lines, don’t preach to your child reader or dictate your message to him. Often, writers like to use their story’s authority figures to “lay down the rules” and tell the children in the story what’s expected of them. Instead, allow your message to come through during the normal course of your story’s events, and force your reader to “read between the lines” to discover that message for themselves. They’ll be much more receptive to whatever point you’re trying to make if they stumble upon it instead of being told about it.

3. Don’t underestimate your child reader. Kids are smart! Don’t worry about using terminology that may be a bit challenging or concepts that might be outside their area of current discovery. Just be careful not to go overboard with it. There’s a fine balance between challenge and frustration. Allow children to connect their own dots as they read, and don’t feel you have to hand over all the information to them. Let them dig a little and use their brains!

4. Don’t write the same for girls and boys. Generally speaking, your girl reader will gravitate toward different material than your boy reader.  Girls are typically more interested in relationships, dialogue, and emotions, where boys need to have action, intrigue, and facts. This is not to say that you can’t write about similar topics for girls and boys, but you should approach your story quite differently depending on your target audience.

So, if you’re writing about an alien invasion for boys, sprinkle in lots of scientific facts about the aliens and their planet, include plenty of chase scenes, and keep dialogue to a minimum (maybe just grunting sounds). If you’re doing the same story for girls, have the aliens befriend some humans so you can have dialogue and emotion. If you need to capture the attention of both genders, be sure to include enough elements from each side of the spectrum to keep everyone happy!

5. Don’t give pat answers. A good children’s story, whether for a preschooler or a teen, will include a strong conflict and resolution. Be sure your resolution isn’t cliche or something trite just to get you out of the story. Even a three-year-old will see through that. The problems kids face today are complex,  seldom with easy answers. Help them think through solutions, and to even be okay with problems that may not have a definite answer. You’ll be doing them a great service in the long run if you do.

If you have a desire to write for children but don’t know where to start, I highly recommend the correspondence course through the Institute of Children’s Literature. It is very thorough with individualized instruction provided by exceptional children’s authors and editors.