August 13, 2019
Editors are busy, often juggling multiple duties. That means it’s important to grab them with a quick, precise query letter. Learn what works and what doesn’t. Learn how to query even if you don't have clips.
In order to be offered a story assignment, get a book published, or get an already written story in print you need to query the editor first. No matter what you’re pitching, a strong query letter is a must. There are a few simple steps to crafting the perfect pitch that will let an editor know you’re a professional writer, and possibly even do a double-take at your idea, moving you several steps closer to publication.
If I had room to print my first query (and the guts to actually show the world how awful it was) and my most current query, you’d see vast differences. That’s the benefit of experience, which also involves multiple rejections—at least it did for me.
Rejections are tough. Even famous writers have received them. When I need a lift after a hard rejection, I’ve read about storied writer’s own rejections. Mental Floss has a fun collection. But take heart, after two decades of freelancing for newspapers and magazines, I get more positive responses from my pitches than negative.
Over the last twenty years, I’ve written so many query letters one would think when I sit down to pitch a new story it’s like driving to my day job in the morning—I do it on autopilot.
Not so fast.
Each query is different from the one before it. Even so, there are patterns that all queries generally follow.
Query letters should be short and sweet. When I still sent them out by USPS, the general rule is a query should be no longer than one page. Now that you’re sending most, if not all, your queries by email or an online submission form, it’s not a time to fudge that rule. Type up your query and keep it to a page.
As a teen, my mom would tell me I had to be home by midnight and I argued. My mom would end the argument by saying that nothing good happens after midnight. The wisdom of mothers.
I say nothing good comes to a writer following a long query letter. Keep it at one page. For further information on acing email queries, there’s a good article on freelancewriting.com.
After researching the publication and identifying the appropriate editor for your pitch, address the query and the editor. Avoid over-familiarity in your salutation. Never address your initial letter to “Jason” but to Mr. Anderson. If you’re unsure of the gender, it’s fine to address the query to Jason Anderson. And, if you can’t find a name of the editor anywhere, To Whom It May Concern is acceptable.
The editor may only read the first sentence so make it memorable. Here is where you’ll tell the editor why you’re submitting to them. If you were referred to them, state that up front. If you’re an expert on cats because you’re a foster cat mom for one of the local shelters or you work in a vet’s office, mention that. If you have no connection or particular expertise, demonstrate you studied the magazine and have an understanding of their audience. Again, the first thing you need to do is hook the editor.
Dear Ms. Keegan,
In your last issue of Cat Fancy, I read the article “Spotting Anxiety in your Cat” detailing the signs and symptoms of cat anxiety. As a “foster mom” for over a hundred rescued and abandoned cats, I’ve developed easy, cost-effective methods for helping my stressed-out foster cats with their anxiety.
You’ve demonstrated you read the magazine and also have expertise on the subject.
Here is where you expand on your idea. Name one of the time-proven tips you’ve found to deal with cat anxiety. Do not name them all. Even naming one and going into detail about it will show the editor you know cats.
As a caregiver of rescues, I’m often dealing with cats who have been abandoned, as was the case with Niles when he came to live with my family. He’d been found tied in a bag by the riverbank and his stress was evident. During his first week in our home, I’d flip Niles on his back to calm him. . .
By sharing a personal story that relates to your article, it demonstrates your writing ability and style and also showcases your knowledge or research on the topic.
Here’s where you share a bit about yourself including your writing credentials. MediaBistro has an excellent piece on how and where a new writer can obtain clips. If you don’t have any writing credentials, that need not stop you from submitting. You can make your current life sound relevant to any query.
Three years ago, I began to foster cats when our local shelter ran out of room. I kept it up because I’ve learned a lot about life from these furry friends. For my day job, I’ve worked over twenty years in marketing and communications as an account supervisor for Meltwater, crafting apt messages for clients.
While you don’t have writing clips yet, you’re demonstrating knowledge of your subject and turning your day job into an asset.
Make sure to keep track of your subs. I used to keep them on index cards but now there are so many good tools to track submissions. The article on writer Edie Jarolim’s website on tracking is worth reading.
Remember, keep your query short. Make your writing error-free and relevant to the publication. The more you target your submissions, the more the likelihood of a “yes!”
Emily Allen is the writer/editor for the Boilermakers union, founder of Kansas City Walking Tours, and a life and writing coach. She’s written for the Discovery Channel’s website, the Kansas City Star, Weekly Reader’s Current Science magazine and Cricket magazine in addition to hundreds of articles in regional and national publications. Emily’s a former journalist, newspaper editor, and broadcaster and has also worked in public relations and marketing. Her debut middle-grade novel, “A Friend of the Enemy,” will be released in 2019. Visit her at www.emilyrallen.com.