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The Beginning Writer Magazine

The Query Letter: What Should It Say?

The Query Letter: What should it Say?

By Steve Morrill

 

 

The query letter is the first filter the beginning writer encounters when writing for publications.

 

WRITE WHAT YOU HAVE ALREADY SOLD.

 

The professional writer first looks in the latest Writer's Market book (or elsewhere, there are many sources and being a member of ASJA gives you many more insider sources) for a suitable magazine, then reads one or more of the latest-available copies of the magazine, then writes to the magazine editor for a copy of the magazine's writer's guidelines (which spell out in detail how the editor wants things done), editorial calendar (which lists upcoming theme issues), and index of past articles (if such is available). Then the pro sends a query that is carefully slanted to the magazine's audience, is pegged to a theme issue if the magazine uses theme issues, and does not propose an article the editor printed last year.

 

(Not all magazines have these guidelines, calendars or even indexes. But you lose no points by asking. And if you cannot get a copy locally, ask for one of those too; with any luck the editor will send you a free sample. At the very worst you'll have to pay for it.)

 

Remember: Sample Copy or copies, Writers Guidelines or Editorial Guidelines (same thing, different names), Index to Past Issues, Editorial Calendar. Do you absolutely have to have all these items before buckling down to work? Of course not. The list above is the ideal. You do the best you can with what you have available. This is not rocket science. We muddle through. True, the less muddled, the more scientific we manage to be, the better. But don't let an imperfect situation stop you. Don't suffer from "The paralysis of analysis."

 

Today, of course, much of this material is available on the magazine's web site. Don't even think of querying a magazine editor without first checking the web site. Not only might you find the items I mentioned, but you may find the editor prefers e-mailed queries.

 

So what do you put into your query? I like to use a format, and this is horribly abbreviated from a class I teach on writing query letters:

 

THE ADDRESS BLOCK: Don't start your letter with "Dear Editor." That only tells the editor that you don't know her name. Since this information is available to any reader of the magazine, it also tells her that you're stupid.

 

THE FIRST PARAGRAPH: MAKE IT A THROAT-GRABBER

The first paragraph is your "hook." Just as you would start an article with something grabby that would make it impossible for the reader to put the magazine down, you should start your query with something that will get the editor's attention. It may well be that your first line in your query will end up being the first line in the article. Typical hooks are anecdotes, news "pegs," unusual quotes, or dramatic statistics.

 

SECOND PARAGRAPH: EXPAND OR CONTRACT

In your second paragraph, you will expand your hook, going from the specific to the general (or vice-versa in some cases) and showing that your hook is not the only information about this subject.

 

THIRD PARAGRAPH: ADMINISTRATIVE DETAILS

Paragraph three is all about the mechanical details of our idea. How big, who's our cast of characters, and more. Your query presents an idea, not a topic. A topic is a broad generality, an amorphous thing. Editors hate `topic queries':

 

"I'd like to write an article about Kansas."

"Traffic accidents are bad."

 

An idea is a slanted, focused topic. In the third paragraph you will show that you understand this and will present an idea of use to that particular editor. Your third paragraph will discuss the slant, focus and length you plan to use.

 

Slant: The manner in which the manuscript is written so as to appeal to a specific audience. Thanks to the different slants of different markets, a canny writer who does a little extra research up front can sell variations of the story in different places. An interview with a race-horse owner could yield a profile of the owner for a business publication and perhaps a separate profile for a horse owner magazine

 

Focus: A way of narrowing your subject to a manageable length by concentrating upon one small aspect of a larger story. For example, a visit to a race-horse farm could yield articles slanting upon such things as the health of the horses (for veterinary magazines) and focusing upon Eastern Equine Encephalitis. Or we could use as a slant the business practices of the owner (for business and horse owner magazines) and focus upon how the owner handles tax issues arising out of the earnings of a race horse.

 

THE FOURTH PARAGRAPH: EXPERTISE

With your fourth paragraph you bring in your expertise. If you're writing about some topic about which you happen to be familiar, you can be the expert, though you'll probably still want to rope in a few others. But if you're a freelance writer, you're not expected to the expert; you're expected to know where to find them and how to interview them.

 

Keep a balance among your experts; not just the obvious stuff like opposing opinions, but geographic, too. If you're querying a local magazine, some local experts may suffice (although it rarely hurts to have an out-of-towner; they provide what cynical consultants call 'suitcase expertise'). If you're proposing to write a story for a national magazine, you need experts from several parts of the country just so it won't look like the magazine picked up a local story and reprinted it, even if that's what they're doing.

 

PARAGRAPH FIVE: WHO ARE YOU?

In the fifth paragraph you will list your writing credentials. You want to reassure the editor that you not only have a good idea, but that you are capable of bringing it off. A brief mention of how long you've been writing, and mention of some previous work, will often suffice. What if you have no experience? Skip that part. Do not say, "I've never written for publication before but I worked on the high school paper and my mother thinks my writing is wonderful." Mothers are supposed to think that and the high school paper experience would only count for a teenager writing to Seventeen. Say nothing. The editor will know that you are inexperienced but there's no point in trumpeting the fact.

 

Now I don't say to skip paragraph five entirely if you have no "clips" or writing experience. This query letter is a job application. Pull out the stops on this. Don't be shy. Put down anything that would make you seem knowledgeable about the topic and/or a reliable person. Pitch yourself enthusiastically. This is something we are all trained not to do because it's unsociable to toot your own horn. Well, I have news for you: no one else is going to toot it for you, so tootle away.

 

 

PARAGRAPH SIX: GET OUTTA THERE

Last, sign off gracefully. No begging, no pleading, no "I'll be waiting by my mailbox for your reply," stuff. I suggest a separate one-word paragraph: Interested? I've found this to be friendly-sounding, yet neutral in tone. (I didn't invent the idea. Dana Cassel, of the Cassel Network of Writers invented it. ( http://www.writers-editors.com/ ) .  She sums query-letter writing up as succinctly: "Be Bright. Be Brief. Be Gone.")

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Steve Morrill is a professional freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida.

He is also the Director/Administrator of an online writers school called,

"Writers College."  http://www.writerscollege.com/index.html

The school teaches every facet of the writing profession.

 

*Note 

The above was an extract from Steve Morrill's Magazine Query Letter course, taught at WritersCollege.com ( http://www.writerscollege.com/)

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