How to write good query letters that editors will notice
Published: September 19, 2002
I want to start finding markets for my nonfiction articles. Do you have any tips for beginners on writing queries?
Writing a bad query is one of the easiest ways to shoot yourself in the foot. You can do everything else right--do a fine job of reporting and writing your piece--but you'll bring yourself down with a poorly presented query.
In every query, you must sell your idea and yourself, especially if you're a newcomer to the publication. You must also try to stand out in the sea of submissions that many editors receive. That's a lot to accomplish in one page, so you have to work hard on your presentation.
In constructing your query, put yourself in the editors' shoes and use some common sense. Editors want to read a query that grabs them at the start with something interesting and fresh, and then holds their attention with good supporting detail. They also want to see reasons why they should be confident the writer will do a good job on the proposed topic.
Moira Allen, a contributing editor to The Writer and author of The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Allworth Press), lists five essentials a query letter generally should have: the hook, your first line and attention-grabber; the pitch, in which you explain exactly what you're offering; the body, where you really start to "sell" and present the details of your article; the credentials, which can include a writer's experience in the subject area and his or her writing experience; and the close, or kicker, in which you give the editor one last enticing reason to consider your work.
Perhaps the number-one turnoff for an editor is a query that indicates the writer knows little or nothing about the publication, the types of articles it runs, and its specific mission and audience. Why is this so bad?
First, it screams "amateur." Second, it signals laziness. And third, editors, by and large, are very busy people, and unfamiliarity with their publication warns them of a possible train wreck ahead. That is, the writer is probably going to deliver a story that is out of sync with the publication's general approach and audience and will take a lot of time to rework. Time that the editors don't have.
Another immediate turnoff, which almost should go without saying, is a query that contains spelling or grammatical mistakes. If the query is sloppy, how can an editor be confident the writer will be careful in the preparation of the article? Proofread every word of your query and, if possible, have someone else read it, too, as a backup.
In the category of odd turnoffs, editors sometimes receive queries that are only one or two sentences long. How can you begin to sell your idea and yourself in one or two sentences?
Now that we've tried to scare you into really bearing down on your queries, some words of encouragement are in order. Yes, many publications receive queries by the dozens, even hundreds, but most editors remain eager to find gold in all of that ore. They want to be pleasantly surprised by a good topic that is intelligently presented and well suited to their particular publication.
Editors love to stumble on good, fresh material; it's their publication's lifeblood.