(This is #9 of a 16-section series about “How to Sell 75% of Your Freelance Writing“.)
The query letter is the difference between the amateur and the professional in the freelance writing world.
Your biggest profits will come from knowing what a query letter is, how it is written, and what it must—and must not—contain. Once you’ve learned that, the only thing determining your selling success is your own desire and hustle.
You’ll notice that after-the-query writing skill is not mentioned as crucial to that success. It is important, of course, but the timing is backward. Writing skill is what makes the query work. If you can’t write well enough to compose a query letter as good as the article you are proposing, there won’t be any “after the query.”
Positive responses and subsequent sales come from query letters that sparkle, persuade, convince, reveal, expose, provoke curiosity, ignite laughter—whatever it is that the articles are to do later.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that query letters must sell an idea and you as the person to write about it, in one page of copy that makes a promise and answers key questions, in writing so clear and appealing that any editor would feel like a fool if he didn’t ask to see more.
Let’s turn the tables for a moment and put you at the editor’s desk to see just how the query works.
The editor, incidentally, looks just like you, except a little older and wiser in the ways of magazine needs and his boss’s wants. That’s right, you’re the editor, but you also have a boss: the publisher, who often has bosses too. There are also other editors or their equivalents, and your scope of activity—nonfiction articles—is directly affected by their needs. One handles finances (how much to pay per article), one directs art (will you use the freelancer’s photos or buy from professional stock?), another is concerned with circulation (“we need more stories about Ohio!”), still another buys fiction (which takes up your space), another sells ads, and so on…
So you don’t make decisions alone. In fact, every article you buy must be arm-wrestled through a meeting of all editors, then defended until the moment the piece hits the stands.
As editor you must believe in the ideas that you select. You must know enough about those ideas and the writers who will prepare them to fight for both. And you need reasonable assurance (and no little faith) that the writers’ final manuscripts will shine in print. Why? Because your job—promotion, retention, or dismissal—is in their hands.
Therefore, as editor you need reliable, knowledgeable, professional freelancers who can present exciting ideas that your readers want to know more about.
Say that you need six such writers a month. So you’ll give eight a positive reply to their queries, knowing that one won’t follow through and another will run into photo problems or give you inferior work. To complicate matters, you need the material in final form three months before it is read by the public, and seven months in advance for the Christmas issue.
You’re at your desk on a balmy May day thinking October, fall, leaves, football, and an empty articles calendar. How are you going to fill those forlorn pages? You hardly have time to write up petty cash slips, much less investigate and pull together articles. Your assistant is even busier doing her job and the extra tasks you pass her way. That’s your entire staff.
So where do you get October copy?
It comes through the mail. Some of it is completely written, much of it on the fringe of literacy and clearly sent to the wrong address. Those are the direct-submission manuscripts, the unsoliciteds, composed, presumably, by novices for any publication that will buy them. Surely not for your readers and almost as surely not related to the fall or October. So they go into a huge, already bulging box to be returned to the misguided hopefuls when the assistant gets time or a secretary can be borrowed.
You used to feel compassion for those souls sending the over-the-transom pieces, with their photos and postcards and thinly veiled pleas of desperation, but after a while you wondered why they didn’t even bother to read the “query first” advisory in your publication’s write-up in Writers Market. And when you became editor and saw the quality of the material you needed, the quality the beginners sent, and the time it would take to find the few gems a year that might arrive by that wrong path, you gave up and turned to the high-percentage pile sent by professionals: the query letters.
So you put the unsoliciteds in the box, dump it (again) on your assistant’s desk, and start through the pile of queries. Twelve today, 300 average per month—for six article slots!
Some of the writers you know, most you don’t. You want to print new names each month so your pool of writers will continue to expand. You try to read with an open mind.
What are you looking for? Quick, sharp letters, preferably a page but two maximum and those well worth the extra reading, that tell you (1) what the writer wants to write about, (2) how that will be done or what the article will contain, (3) whether the piece will be straight or humorous, (4) why your readers would be interested, if it’s not obvious, (5) the writer’s qualifications or expertise, if necessary, (6) whether the person has been in print before and where/when, and (7) whether photos are available, if needed.
The writing in the letter will be almost as important as the content: Does it show attention to accuracy and detail, is it both interesting and to the point, can the person write to the level of your magazine?
If you can’t tell that from the query, you will want a copy or tear sheet of a recent article that the person has had in print, to settle your doubt.
How many provide you with enough of those elements to be able to judge their ideas and writing skill? From 300 queries, maybe 50. Add 10 more to that total from whom you’ve bought before and needn’t convince you anew that they can write. That gives you 60 potential articles from which you must ferret out the best 8 for positive replies. (The assistant gets to reject the other 240, though you write a personal note on some of the best, encouraging them to query again.)
By what process do you eliminate 52 potentially salable articles? The appropriateness of the idea for October. (After all, a professional should know that you program some two to four months in advance.) How recently you used that or a similar idea on your pages. (Again, easily checked.) The reliability of the letter writer to produce solid, top-quality copy. (Those who have sold to you before have the edge here; the others must be judged by the query or copies of recent items in other publications they cite or send with the letter.)
You cut from 52 to 15. Now come the toughest decisions. Much of the selection is intuitive: you like an idea and the way it is presented. The writer has a feel for the subject and can use words. The query gives you something to work with and defend in committee. The whole thing has a professional tone to it, and although the writer isn’t known to you and hasn’t much of a selling record so far, you’re willing to take a gamble.
Others come from veterans who gave you excellent work earlier, or from experienced writers who show a firm grasp of their topics and the ability to bring that alive on your pages. Two others, unknown to you, are on the edge of the pack, but their queries are well written and the topics could leap off the page if well handled. You phone one to ask about a point made in the letter, and to listen to how clearly the person thinks. You like the responses and add her to the go-ahead list. On committee day you add the other one too, but with deeper reservations.
And thus your sojourn as editor comes to an end. (The other editors, in a surprising show of confidence, accepted all of your article picks. The results? Two superb pieces—including one from that last candidate about whom you had the deepest reservations,—four solid articles, one sent nothing, and a veteran offered a once-over-lightly disappointment that had to be returned.)
The Queries the Editor Selects
Writing the query letter that gets you the go-ahead takes hard work, editing and reediting, plucking and adding, until you have touched every needed point and have shown that you can write clearly and well. No magic. Nothing the average literate person with a good idea can’t do. Even luck isn’t much of a factor. Having a good idea and presenting it thoroughly are.
The query is written in business letter form: no indentations to start the paragraphs, single-spaced except between paragraphs, and a colon after the salutation. It is a business letter. A sales letter. You are selling your services to prepare an article about an idea you think the recipient editor’s readers will buy. So the letter is businesslike in both form and tone.
That doesn’t mean stiff and humorless. It means that the letter is written for a purpose, to sell an idea and you as the person to write about it. So the tone of the letter must be chosen to best help you realize your purpose. If the article is to discuss training techniques for guard geese and it is to be humorous, a humorous letter will best show the editor that you can write what you propose.
Yet it must also meet all the other criteria that are necessary to receive a positive reply to your query.
What are those other criteria?
1. What do you want to write about? What is the purpose of the article? What is the topic? What working question does it answer? Nothing is more important than a tight, clear focus. The lack of focus, in perception or explanation, may account for more query rejections than all the other criteria combined.
In other words, after reading your query and giving you a go-ahead, does the editor know precisely what you will prepare and submit? If not, the editor will reject the query. At best, very rarely, the editor may ask for a clarification.
So zero in, “an article about … ,” with details and slant and clarity. Don’t offer an editor five choices; pick the best idea, develop it, and query. Don’t offer generalities, expecting the editor to find the particulars. Focus, finish the feasibility study, and sell.
2. What will the article contain? How will you develop your idea? How will you expand the focus?
Will the core of the piece be an in-depth interview, or perhaps a series of short interviews, each approaching the theme from a different angle? Will it be an exposition of all known facts? Or an expose of new facts or others too little known? Will the piece move from the general to the specific? The reverse?
To be sold, editors must know more than the mere topic. By knowing how a subject will be presented, the editor can judge the depth of preparation required, the worth of the work, and whether you have the skill and background to deliver the goods.
3. Will the article be humorless or humorous? Light or tongue-in-cheek? This will depend on the topic and the publication. Some topics aren’t essentially humorous: death, loneliness, starvation. Others defy serious treatment. But the most important determinant will be the ratio and degree of humor used by the publication itself, which you can check during the feasibility study.
If the treatment will not include humor, then write your query letter in that manner. If humorous, write the query with the same degree of humor you would use in the final article. Also mention that the piece will be written humorously so the editor will realize that the humor was intentional, not simply the product of a good mood or favorable moon.
4. Why would the readers be interested in your article? The answer is often obvious and needs no elaboration in the query. If you are telling how to irrigate rutabaga and the magazine is for gardeners (with strange taste), the subject sells itself.
Yet there are times when you are more familiar with the tie-in than the editor. Without a short explanation or bridge between your idea and the editor’s readers, your query would automatically be put in the reject pile.
You may have inside information or know of new uses or demands for products, or be aware of a coming trend. If there’s a chance the editor may not know, a sentence or two can create sales where rejections are otherwise certain. For example, rutabaga irrigation won’t sell to health magazines, but if you stressed (if it were true) that rutabagas are a cure for rheumatism, with a reslanting, they may indeed want this piece.
5. What are your qualifications for writing this article? That you are bright, literate, eager to gather information, and able to impart it with vigor and accuracy is plenty for most pieces not requiring special skills or training. In those cases, you needn’t dwell on your qualifications, just show your research and writing abilities in the query.
But if the article would have better acceptance by the editor and readers if it carried the authority of having special skills or knowledge, you must either have and display them or be able to borrow them.
If you’re writing an article about brain surgery, for example, and you are in fact a brain surgeon, mention it in the query. But if you are a tree surgeon, mum’s the word. Rather, indicate that the article will be based on an interview with a brain surgeon or two or five, enough to infuse the piece with the facts and insight gained from their learning and experience.
There are very few articles you can’t write for print by borrowing others’ knowledge. Just make sure the editor knows where the needed expertise in the piece is coming from.
6. Where and when have you been in print before? The stopper. If you haven’t published before, who will give you your first chance? The Catch-22, the insurmountable hurdle of needing experience to gain experience, a circle without a starter’s toehold.
In fact, it’s far less dire than all that. You can either gather experience and inch upward or you can write a query letter so well researched at the feasibility stage and so well composed that the editor, seeing your ability to use the skills vital to writing salable articles, gives you an opportunity.
If you opt to gather experience before querying, start with simultaneous submissions. They generate many sales quickly and fill your sails with confidence in the shortest amount of time. Then branch off from the same topics, find angles of particular interest to specific magazines, and learn the querying process.
At the same time write letters to the editor, articles for the local weekly or nearby college newspaper—anything to get in print with good copy.
Alas, none of this lower-level preparation will be mentioned in your query unless it is impressive. So why do it? To give you the courage to query the top publications, and the self-assurance that, if given a go-ahead by a top payer, you can provide what you promise.
The danger of working up is that it can take forever, if you let it, and that your courage will develop far more slowly than your competence.
What do you mention in the query about previous publication? Enough to impress, nothing more. If your only article was in the Church Bazaar Gazette and you are querying Esquire, you’d best leave it out. But if you are querying Travel and Leisure and you have had travel pieces in four large-city newspaper travel sections, mention it.
Another way is to use numbers: “I’ve been in print 200 times, including x, y, and z.” That is particularly effective when your earliest experience has been at the newspaper level, where every item you wrote counts, no matter how short. Also, if you sell simultaneous submissions, are syndicated, or have an extensive reprint tally, numbers add up quickly. The stipulated publications, then, would be either the best known or most prestigious in the particular field you are querying.
A final suggestion might be to put the spotlight on the last item you wrote for publication. “My most recent article is in the current issue of ______.” If it’s well done (and why would you mention it if it wasn’t?), include a copy of the printed piece with your query. This is particularly effective if your credits aren’t overwhelming. You are saying “This is what I’m producing now. I want you to read it to see that I can write for your pages.” Let the article do the selling.
7. Do you have photographs to help sell the article? If so, mention them. Don’t include them with the query letter. Force the editor to ask to see them. Why? Because you are querying to sell an idea in a follow-up article. If the photos you send with the query aren’t acceptable, the editor may assume that your writing will be of the same caliber. Sell your best product, which is writing. If you can provide photos later, more gravy.
The more the magazine pays, the less likely it is to buy your photos or to expect you to be equally adept at both skills. The category most apt to want to see what you have is travel, where available prints of little-known or remote sites may be hard to obtain.
Check the publication’s photo credits to see whether the author or some other person or agency provided them, and draft your query accordingly. If you don’t have photos or ready access to some of professional quality, say nothing at all.
Once written, does your query pass these four tests?
1. Is it the kind of letter a professional would write? The key word is professional. Or did you dash it off during commercials? Does it explain your idea so the editor knows precisely what you will deliver? Is it interesting? Do you sound knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the topic? Does it need more editing?
2. Is it brief, complete, clear, and positive?
Brief: Usually no longer than a page to sell an article, two pages (with attachments) to sell a nonfiction book. The exceptions had better be just that.
Complete: A full page, not a sentence or a paragraph. Too short and the editor will suspect that (1) you can’t write and are showing just the minimum to hide that fact, or (2) you don’t know much about the topic and are sending around some 10-minute, low-risk feelers. The query letter is your chance to parade a page of top-flight thinking and writing; it’s your setup session before the big-bucks sale. Why would you skimp on copy when it’s hard enough to succeed using all the space at your disposal?
Clear: If “clear” isn’t, your problems are too large for this blog!
Positive: You’re selling an idea and yourself. Inject negatives and you increase the slope and height of the acceptance mountain. The writing world is already tough enough climbing. Why make it harder?
3. Does it show attention to accuracy and detail? Editors love both. Accuracy is the root word of continued sales. And detail, well ordered, is the difference between an empty hall and a lovely room. Both should show in a query. Accuracy extends to spelling and grammar. If you’re too lazy to consult a dictionary or read your letter with a sharp eye, what will the final manuscript be like?
4. Is it convincing that the article should be written? It is a sales letter—soft sell, of course, but sell nonetheless. The editor must want to know more from the same good source. You must be convinced that the article is worth doing, and that conviction must show in the query.
That’s the genesis of a query letter than gets your words in magazine print a lot more than 75% of the time.
One of our best-selling (and the least expensive) report we sell is called “25 Professional Query and Cover Letters“–for $5! If interested, here are the details. (It’s immediately downloaded.)
The next segment of this series will discuss cover letters.
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