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…