Query Letters

We’re writers, we know the words, so why is it so tough to write a query letter? Why do we second guess every word on that page? Why do we agonize over the punctuation, the grammar and the spelling? Why do we “just die” when we realize a typo was missed in our proofreading of that all important query letter?

Because we are bundles of self conflicted maniacs. Geez… I thought you had that figured out by now. Anyway, I thought it was time I wrote something about query letters. We know how important they are, giving prospective editors and publishers (clients) that vital first impression. Plus, of course, the actual idea you’re pitching them.

A query letter is a proposal, describing an article or book you would like to write for a particular publication or publisher. Queries should be kept short, a readable length, one page. A couple of paragraphs to sell the story, a line or two to actually ask for the sale and another paragraph to describe your qualifications.

If you get no reply after a month send a follow up letter. Of course, you kindly ask if they read your first query and remind them of the particulars. You know yourself how hard it is to catch up with an idea you brushed against a month ago. Keep that in mind as you write your follow up. Make a copy (or keep a copy) of your letter. You’ll sound foolish if you finally hear from the editor only you don’t remember what you queried about, exactly.

The basic elements of a query letter:

Start with something to catch their interest and make them read on. An anecdote, statistic or something you can enclose in the envelope along with the letter. Chances are you won’t have anything to send other than your words but if you can come up with something more go for it.

In a paragraph or two explain your idea, why you want to write about it, why their publication would be interested in publishing your article. Gear your idea to the market you have chosen. Of course, you have already spent time picking out your target market. Make sure you also get the editor’s name right (and spelling counts!) and the name of the publication. This would also be an important part of researching your market.

Draw them in with your special angle, slant or hook on the topic. It’s likely true that everything has already been written about at least once. So you need something new to say about it or say the old stuff in a new way. Show them how your slant is new and interesting. Let them know if you can include photographs or other illustrations to go along with your article.

If you have clips (copies of previously published articles) offer to send them. Remember, you’re selling yourself too. Add any other credentials that would help. Are you an expert in the field or have some related experience?

How many words will your planned article be? The editor will know how much space they can offer and you’ll have to work with that. But, start by giving them an idea of what you plan, how much content you can provide. Tell the editor what format you will be using- plain text email, Word document, double spaced, etc. Maybe these seem trivial things at the beginning but to someone working on filling space and keeping a layout they matter and make life easier.

If your query isn’t being emailed or faxed you need to send a SASE (self addressed, stamped envelope) for return mail. This is part courtesy and part hoping making a reply easier will make it happen sooner. We always have our wishful thinking, they can’t take that away from us. Also, make sure the editor accepts email queries, some people still don’t like or use email. Email queries should also have an email signature which sticks to the rules of email etiquette: not more than 4 lines or approximately 60 spaces wide. Please, don’t send an email where your return address shows up as “CutsiePie69”. Unless you’re writing about online chat or some such thing you want to project a professional image. That means no smilies too.

In the end sell yourself and don’t be too modest. What makes you the right writer for this job? How can you (especially) bring this story to life for their readers. Enclose your writer’s resume if you have one and it seems relevant enough.

Don’t forget the letter writing basics. Add your return address and the date to your letter. Start and finish your letter with salutations, something suitable, not too personal. Don’t forget to proofread and proofread without using spellcheck on your computer. Be meticulous, even down right nitpicky, check your spelling, punctuation, grammar and the typo factor. Don’t ever send a query letter you haven’t checked more than a few times and don’t ever write one when you’re too tired (or just not in the mood) to check it as well as you know you need to.