In 1996, I sold my first magazine article—to Cosmopolitan. I’d never taken a journalism class. I’d never written for a magazine before. I didn’t even realize I was supposed to pitch with a query letter; I simply wrote the piece and sent it in. (I do not recommend this technique to writers today!)
To win over an editor, explain your connection to the subject you’re pitching.
Why did it sell? It was well-written, yes. But the real reason is two-fold. First, the topic, on surviving your last two weeks on the job, was a topic I had personal experience with. As an unhappy young lawyer, I’d changed jobs four times in five years. I was all too familiar with the discomfort of the remaining days after you give your official two-week notice—and I had a unique perspective on the subject.But second, and more important, the topic appealed to the vast majority of Cosmo readers. Think about it—how many of the women who read the magazine will quit a job and suffer through that two-week waiting period before they move on to their next position? Just about all of them.
That’s the two-part test I recommend that new writers use to break into magazine freelancing, especially when they have few (or no) clips to their name. And it makes sense—we’ve all heard the adage “write what you know.” That’s why I suggest that writers start out by pitching ideas that they have some kind of personal experience or connection with—ideas that they are “uniquely qualified” to write—and demonstrate that experience in what I call the “I’m so great” or ISG paragraph. But that’s only the first part of the query test. The second is to ensure that a publication’s readers will care about their proposed subject, and to make a case for that fact in their queries.
Remember, a query letter includes four basic parts:• The lead, which is designed to catch the editor’s attention. It might be a startling statistic, time peg or anecdote. The key is that it interests the editor enough to continue reading.
• The “why write it” section. This paragraph (or two, if you have a particularly detailed query) fleshes out the idea, demonstrating why the readers of the magazine will be interested in the topic. (This is part of the two-part test.)
• The “nuts and bolts” paragraph. Here you give the details of the story itself. What types of sources will you contact? How long will the story be? Will it have sidebars, and if so, how many? What section of the magazine will the story fit in? What’s the working title?
• The “I’m so great” paragraph (or “ISG”). Here, you highlight your relevant qualifications, including your writing experience and background with the subject matter. This is the paragraph where you showcase your unique qualifications and convince the editor to give you the assignment.
So let’s take a look at several examples to highlight the two-part test and how to make sure your queries pass it. The first is a query to Runner’s World about head injuries, where I’ve used a first-person lead to show that I have personal experience with the subject. My second paragraph uses statistics to show how common these injuries are:
Dear Jane:Here’s another example using a first-person lead. Note my use of statistics in the second paragraph to show why readers of this parenting magazine will be interested in the piece:
Last month I was in Madison, Wis., to teach a week-long class. Madison’s a great town to run in, and one gorgeous evening I headed out for an easy five-miler. Two blocks from my hotel, I picked up the pace. I was running hard as I sped down the slight decline of Langdon Street. I was flying! And then suddenly, I really was flying—literally. I broke my fall with my head, and learned at the local ER that I’d suffered a mild concussion. Runners occasionally take spills that produce far worse than a scraped knee or a twisted ankle. In fact, 7 million Americans a year seek treatment for sports-related injuries, more than 1 million of which involve the head or neck region. Head injuries are particularly troubling as they tend to be more severe than other sports-related injuries. Their effects can also last for months—even a seemingly mild bump can cause brain injury and lead to post-concussion syndrome, which includes symptoms like poor memory, headaches, dizziness and irritability.
My article, “Head first,” will explain the risks and symptoms of head injuries and describe how to reduce the chance of experiencing one while running or doing other activities. [rest of query omitted]
Dear Tamara: If you’re writing about a subject where you can cite statistics to show how many readers the story may impact, it’s relatively easy to make the case for it. But what if you’re writing a feature or a profile of someone? Then you want to play up the drama, and give details about your story to show why it will be a great read. Here’s an example from a piece that ran in Woman’s World:
Before I became a mom, I was a long-time runner, hitting the roads several times a week and lifting weights and stretching regularly. I had my share of aches and pains, but nothing serious—until my son, Ryan, was 6 months old. I developed a sharp, nagging pain in my right iliotibial band, which runs along the front of your hip. I couldn’t figure out the culprit until I realized that I always carried Ryan (who already weighed 18 pounds) on my right hip. Once I made a conscious effort to carry him more often on my left hip, my pain dissipated. This “parenting-related pain” is only one problem many new moms may face. In fact, while men and women may be equal in most respects, our bodies are not—and as a result, we’re more likely to suffer from certain injuries than men are. For example, studies show that women have twice as many anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, injuries than men, both because of different anatomy and hormonal differences. Women may also be more prone to shoulder injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome than men. Throw in weakened abdominal and back muscles from pregnancy and the constant lifting and carrying of infants and children, and you’ve got the perfect mix for a back or shoulder injury. (According to the CDC, 80 percent of all adults suffer from back pain at some point, but moms may be particularly susceptible.)
“Moms in motion: Reduce your risk of common injuries” will describe these problems and offer exercises designed to prevent them. [rest of query omitted]
Dear Ms. Alberts:Here, I haven’t used statistics, but I’ve promised to tell a dramatic story with this detailed query. I likely also caught the interest of the editor by playing on every parent’s fear—a terribly ill child.
What would you do if your only child was so ill she couldn’t sit up—and yet no one believed she was sick? It started when Emily Russell’s daughter, Erin, was in eighth grade. She complained of feeling tired all the time and became so weak that she missed more than 30 days of school. Although Erin’s symptoms eventually abated, they returned in high school. She underwent batteries of blood and physical tests, but all were negative. One doctor announced that she was simply depressed.
With a home tutor, Erin managed to graduate from high school. After nursing school, though, her symptoms returned. Erin felt a continual, oppressive heaviness and was often dizzy. Her thought processes were so greatly affected that she was afraid to drive. Eventually she had to quit her job and move in with her grandmother.
Desperate, Erin sought treatment from the Mayo Clinic, but it wasn’t until a California specialist diagnosed her with chronic fatigue syndrome that she started to improve. After being treated by a chiropractor who uses applied kinesiology and homeopathy, she went back to work full time. Interested in an article about Emily and Erin’s experience with chronic fatigue syndrome? I believe Woman’s World readers will find their story compelling, especially since many people who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome and other “questionable” diseases experience the same kind of frustration with the medical field; in fact, Erin only found relief from her symptoms through alternative medicine.
Finally, use the two-part test even when pitching trade or custom magazines. You want the editor to recognize that you “get” her readership and its needs. Here’s a pitch that sold to a trade magazine devoted to personal training:
Dear Christine: Remember that a great idea for a query is only the beginning. Your query should describe why you’re uniquely qualified to write the piece, and why the publication’s readers will be interested in it. Meeting that two-part test will boost your chances of publication.
[Lead about how often regular exercisers are injured] As a trainer, you can develop a plan to help clients stay fit even when they can’t perform their exercise of choice. But what about the emotional impact of being unable to run (or bike or swim)? A study published last year revealed that regular exercisers who experienced forced exercise withdrawal had increased negative mood and fatigue. Another study found that regular exercisers experienced depressed mood and fatigue in as little as a week without their thrice-weekly workouts.
“Buzz-killed: Helping clients deal with exercise withdrawal” will explain the link between regular exercise and elevated mood and decreased anxiety, and more important, help regular exercisers manage the emotional changes that can occur during a forced layoff. [rest of query omitted, including where I mention that I’m an ACE-certified trainer]