Writing Query Letters


For my next two posts, I’ve asked Dianne Butts  to share from her more than 20 years of writing experience on how to write query letters. Dianne has over 250 published magazine articles, so she must be doing something right! I believe she has many tips and tidbits that can get you on the right path to conquering the query!  Here’s Diane…

Dianne Butts

When I started freelancing, I found query letters very intimidating. I met writers who wouldn’t even submit to periodicals that required them. I knew that wasn’t good and would be a real detriment to my career, so I set out to master writing queries. Whether I’m a master at writing queries or not you’ll have to judge, but I know I’ve had many queries open doors for me to submit an article that was then accepted. And queries don’t intimidate me anymore.

Also, query writing is not just for magazine/periodical writers. If you want to write books, you’ll most likely need to write a query letter to open the doors for sending your book proposal. It’s not hard to tweak the suggestions below to fit your book. I hope the following points help you master query letters:

After you have a handle on what your target market wants, and after you have an idea to query about, you’ll need the following (if they apply to your project):

1.  Personal note, if appropriate.  Have you met the editor or been in contact?  If so, kindly remind the editor of where you met and what you talked about.

2.  Introduce your article or story.  Grab the editor’s attention. If you’ve already worked hard on a wonderful opening for your article, use that.

3.  Type of article.  Is it a personal experience? Interview? A how-to? Mystery fiction? Briefly indicate what category your article fits into.

4. What, specifically, is it about? Use the one-sentence thesis statement you created for your article. Tantalize, but don’t give it all away. Example, if your article contains ten points, give your top three.

5.  How is it organized? You might say, “In this article I will discuss…” and name your main points or subsections. Then, “For each section I will include one personal anecdote, a true story, and the lesson I learned.” Or, “In this article, I offer ten steps how to…”

6. Why you wrote it.  How will this article benefit readers? Finish this sentence: “Through this article I hope to…” (inspire? educate? inform?)

7. What sidebars do you have to offer? Give the title(s) and word count(s)  for any sidebars you wish to include.

8. If on theme, which one? If your article fits in with an upcoming theme the publication is planning, be sure to let the editor know.

9. If a seasonal piece, suggest when it might run.  “This Christmas piece…” Or, “Although this article could run at any time, it might work well in a May issue for Mother’s Day or a June issue for Father’s Day.” Sometimes it helps to give the editor a suggestion for where to use it. Not that the editor doesn’t know where it might fit,  but you may spark an idea he didn’t think about.

10. Your qualifications to write itNot your writing credentials, but rather, what qualifies you to write the piece. For example. if your article’s on a medical issue, do you have a medical back ground?

Be sure to stop back Monday, March 8, when Dianne will  finish her tips  for  query letter writing and offer advice on how to expertly target your query letters.

Dianne Butts has written for over 50 different Christian print magazines and seventeen books. If you’d like to learn more about writing query letters, consider Dianne’s pamphlet, “Conquering the Dreaded Query Letter,” available for $3.95 plus shipping at http://www.dianneebutts.com/conquering_the_dreaded_query_letter.htm.

Dianne also offers a free, monthly e-zine for writers, Dianne E. Butts About Writing. Subscribe at  her website, www.DianneEButts.com. And, be sure to follow Dianne’s adventures and challenges in self-publishing her book at www.DeliverMeBook.blogspot.com.

Advertisements

Today, I’d like to finish up my interview with writer, Dianne Butts, who’s been sharing from her expertise on writing query letters. Here’s Dianne…

Here are the final six pieces of information to include when writing queries:

11. The proposed length given in word count. If you’re querying a book, you could state word count or pages. Make sure your length is within the word count accepted by the publication/publisher.

12. Which rights are you offering? It is assumed you are offering first rights unless you state otherwise.  If your piece has been published before, and/or if you are offering the piece elsewhere at the same time, be sure to mention that it is a reprint and/or a simultaneous submission.

13. When it will be completed. Say, “I can send the article within two weeks of your request…” or whatever you can do. Give yourself plenty of time–writing always seems to take longer than we writers think it will!

14.   Your writing credits.  If you don’t have any publishing credits yet, you need not draw attention to that. If you have been published, give the editor an idea of how often and list a few of your finest credits.

15. Ask if you can send the manuscript.  “May I send you ‘Conquering the Dreaded Query Letter’?”

16. Close. Thank the editor for his or her time and consideration. You can say you look forward to hearing from them.

Other things to keep in mind when you query:

Keep your query to one page (even if sending by e-mail). In rare occasions you might go over one page, but chances are whatever you’re writing right now is not one of those rare occasions! Condense and edit your letter down to one page. (Without messing with the margins or font size!)  If you can’t edit your letter to one page, it may say to the editor that you can’t write concisely,  follow directions, or write to word counts.

When targeting your query letters:

Study the entry for the publication or publisher in a market guide, obtain the writers’ guidelines, and study sample copies of the periodical or the publisher’s catalog (often it’s online). Make sure what you want to send “fits” the publication/publisher. It’s glaringly obvious when writers don’t do this. Don’t submit to a market you’ve never seen or haven’t yet studied their guidelines, copies, or catalogs.

Doing your homework in this area will prove to the publisher that you have thoughtfully considered where you are sending your work, and will instantly put you above most of the submissions they receive.

Dianne Butts has written for over 50 different Christian print magazines and seventeen books. If you’d like to learn more about writing query letters, consider Dianne’s pamphlet, “Conquering the Dreaded Query Letter,” available for $3.95 plus shipping at http://www.dianneebutts.com/conquering_the_dreaded_query_letter.htm.

Dianne also offers a free, monthly e-zine for writers, Dianne E. Butts About Writing. Subscribe at  her website, www.DianneEButts.com. And, be sure to follow Dianne’s adventures and challenges in self-publishing her book at www.DeliverMeBook.blogspot.com.

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…