Here is another post in my WRITERLY WISDOM series I first ran back in 2013. Six years later, I’ve updated the material and made sure it still applies to today’s writers. This week we learn about the ten things to keep in mind when writing query letters…
TEN THINGS TO REMEMBER WHEN WRITING A QUERY LETTER
By Patricia Hope
There are as many ways to write a query letter as there are editors to read them. After a lifetime of reading and writing them, I think most editors would agree writers should follow a few common-sense guidelines if they want their query letter to be read and responded to in a positive way.
A writer feasts or starves on ideas, said Robert J Hastings in his book How I Write. So do editors. That’s not to say they don’t get lots of ideas but good ideas are often turned down because the writer didn’t spend enough time presenting his idea. The following list is 10 of the things I’ve learned about writing query letters after decades of writing and selling articles, both for print and online publications. As a former newspaper editor, I’ve read my share of queries, as well. It would take many blogs to give you examples of what some writers have said to make editors say no, but hopefully, this list will help you get more yeses.
Do your homework.
Read the publications’ guidelines, if available, and follow them to the letter. If no guidelines are available, read several issues of the publication so you will know what style of writing it uses and what subject matter it covers. When I queried The Writer a few years ago on the idea of writing about my own writing critique group, I had been reading the magazine for more than 20 years, yet, I carefully read and re-read their guidelines.
Begin with Why.
Every good writer knows you must have the “who, what, where, when and why” to tell a good story. But first, “Why do you want to write this story? Why did you choose this publication?” Be honest in evaluating why this story matters to you and your potential readers. My “why” for the writing group piece was because we had been together 30 years and we had all reached success as writers.
Keep the query to one page.
An editor sifting through hundreds of letters and emails will be grateful. That’s basically four or maybe five paragraphs. The first two paragraphs should say why you think your idea is good for this publication and who is involved, what they are doing or have done, where all this takes place, and when it happened or will happen. The why should become obvious as you explain what your article is about.
Don’t be cutesy or sloppy.
No colored paper or flashing emails. Be as straightforward and professional as you can be, whether sending a query by snail mail or email, be sure you check and re-check, things like grammar, spelling, capitalization, formatting, tenses, everything. Your query Letter is a prelude of what your article will be. It’s your salesman with his foot in the door. Don’t blow the only opportunity you might have with this publication by being sloppy.
Never address the query to “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern.”
Know the editor’s name and the correct spelling. It’s your job. This information should be on the masthead of the publication but if you can’t find it any other way, call the company and and get the spelling of both first and last names.
Do enough research to know where your finished piece is going.
Try to think of what your story opening would be. Something made you want to write about this idea. What makes your angle unique? My opening that got me an assignment from Ford Times about Dollywood, in Sevierville, TN began with, “It’s as country as a Tennessee Barn Dance and as colorful as a July Fourth fireworks display. It’s as down home as grits and gravy and as gauche as rhinestone-studded boots. It’s Dollywood . . . superstar Dolly Parton’s way of bringing something home.”
Share the meat of the story but don’t say everything.
In my query to The Writer, I went on to say, “You name it and we’ve written it. . . . We’ve won hundreds of contest awards, two members have columns that have run more than 25 years, one member has published a historical novel and one member has two novels for children. One has a play that was produced by a major university . . . . All have been included in anthologies . . . . five have taught creative writing classes, four have worked as newspaper editors . . .” What I saved was how we achieved all of this and the influence our critique group had on our success.
Be careful about adjectives and adverbs.
Don’t say “I have this wonderful article” or “I think your magazine is the best one I’ve ever read.” If your idea is a good one, it will stand on its own, without the sugar-coating.
Don’t say you can get an interview with Justin Beiber if you have never met him. Don’t promise things you can’t deliver and don’t agree to deadlines you can’t keep. The editor will respect your honesty more that broken promises.
Save the last paragraph in your letter to tell about you.
List your credits and say if you are an expert in a particular field as it relates to your article. If you have not been published don’t say anything, and especially, don’t play on sympathy, i.e., “I’ve never written anything but if you give me a chance I know I could.” Remember, even club newsletters, church bulletins, and local newspaper guest columns can lend credibility to your writing.
So, go, and cultivate your ideas, then pick no fewer than five publications where you think an idea will fit and begin your query letter writing. Choose the publication first where your article idea is most likely to sell. Keep these ten steps in mind as you submit your queries. Don’t be discouraged if you get a rejection, just go to the next editor on your list and keep submitting. If an editor says something personal in his rejection, take it seriously, especially if he invites you to send him something else. Keep your query letters going and it won’t be long until the assignments will fill your inbox and/or mailbox. Happy writing!
Award-winning writer Patricia A. Hope has published widely in anthologies, magazines, newspapers, and literary journals including the online literary journal Maypop and a short story in Muscadine Lines. Her articles have appeared in Tennessee Women of Vision and Courage, A Tapestry of Voices, Rocking Chair and Afternoon Tales, The Writer, Blue Ridge Country, An Encyclopedia of East Tennessee, These Are Our Voices, An Appalachian Studies Teacher’s Manual, and numerous more. She has written extensively for area newspapers including the Knoxville News-Sentinel and The Oak Ridger. She is Past Chairman of the Tennessee Writers Alliance (TWA) and Editor of the first TWA anthology, A Tennessee Landscape, People, and Places. She is the Past President of the East TN Chapter of Society of Professional Journalists, winner of the American Cancer Society’s statewide Best Media Coverage Award and winner of a Tennessee Press Association Award. She co-founded and served as Executive Director of Tennessee Mountain Writers, Inc.(TMW), a non-profit writing organization. Because of her work with TMW, earlier this year she was recognized by the Arts Council of Oak Ridge (ACOR) as one of its “arts champions.” She lives in Oak Ridge, TN.