Writing a Query Letter with a Sample
The hardest part of any writing gig is seldom the writing itself. Generally, those drawn to this profession feel that writing comes naturally. No, what most writers struggle with the most is becoming published as a freelance writer. There are many necessary steps, such as learning to write a query letter, what a query letter needs to say, or maybe even what in the world is a query letter, and why is it so important?
The key to getting published is not how great of an article/story/poetry it is, but about how to get an editor to notice it! Let's face it; not all published pieces are great. Why did a publisher notice that article and not a very well written piece? The difference between the unpublished writer and the published one is that one knows how to get their work noticed through query writing, and the other is still learning!
Wendy Burt-Thomas, the author of "Guide to Query Letters" (which you can find to the left of here), states that she spends 1/3 of her time writing, 1/3 marketing herself, which includes writing query letters, and 1/3 managing her lifestyle as a successful freelance writer.
Promoting your work within a query letter is just as important as the writing itself. You will have to submit many query letters before you will sell one. You may want to consider selling your work for free, so that way, you will have a tear sheet (a sample of your work) that you can use in future queries.
What Is a Query?
If you are unsure what a query is, it is a letter that tells a potential publisher or editor why they should publish your writing in their magazine or book, and why you are the person who should write it. There are vital things that you need to keep in mind. First, it's essential to familiarize yourself with the Writer's Market Manual. You can find this book in any library. It will give you addresses of potential editors where you can sell your work. It will also tell you how the editor likes the work presented.
Very few want to receive your entire manuscript. Most require you to send a query letter before they decide if they are going to read your longer work. If you get a rejection, don't take it personally, you will get a lot of them. They may have denied you because they don't publish the type of article you are querying for, or they have recently published a similar item or a host of other reasons. Here are some tips on how to maximize your chances of them wanting to see your work!
Before You Write the Query
It's essential to find an appropriate magazine, publisher, etc. that is right for your work. That means you need to do a little research. The Writer's Market is an excellent place to start. If you are writing about the eohippus, which is believed to be the first horse before evolution took its toll, then you may want to look in the science section, animal section, or maybe the archaeological section. Then read the different magazines that they offer. Read descriptions until you find a good match.
Once you find a good match, you need to make sure that the voice of your work fits the magazine. Check out a magazine's last three issues. Again you can find these at your local library or contact the publisher for back issues. You will first want to make sure that they haven't recently published an article similar to the one you wrote. Second, you want to make sure your article would fit well in this magazine, not just in content but also in tone, length, and depth. Children's magazines will require a little less intensity, whereas National Geographic would want a profound article that is substantially longer.
Once you find the right publisher, you want to make sure that the editor listed is the current editor. Even if it's this year's market, people change jobs. I have gotten rejection letters solely stating, "This editor no longer works for us." They didn't even consider my work. Though I can understand why they probably figure if I didn't do my research to make sure the editor was the current one, then how do they know the rest of my research is going to be accurate. A few ways to double-check this is by looking at the latest issue of the magazine. In the front, there will be a list of editors. Try to find the editor that best fits what kind of article you are writing. If that doesn't' work, call the magazine and ask someone. Chances are you will be able to reach someone. But if you call to make sure you get the correct spelling!
Another critical thing to keep in mind is how does the editor wants it sent. If it does not list it in the Writer's Market, the preferred way, then call. If you're not sure, most today prefer e-mail. But just because it's email does not mean it needs to be any less casual. Still, make sure that the email is very professional.
Next: Write the Query
The three most important things about a query are to edit it, edit it, edit it. In other words, if it's not well written, they don't want to see your work. You want this to represent how well written the work you want to submit is. If it's not, they might not even give it a second look. So read over it carefully; maybe also have someone else read over it before you send it.
Another important tip is to make sure it looks professional. The Writer's Market has excellent examples of how you should have a query set up. It also gives you great examples of not only what they should look and sound like, but also what they should not look and sound like, which is equally important.
At the top, make sure that you have a clear header. It should include the name of the editor who you are sending it with his official title. His title comes before his name in the front of the magazine, e.g., Tommy Bruin, managing editor. Underneath their name, type the name of the magazine or publishing house. Make sure it is spelled right! If not, they will assume you are not careful and do not double-check your facts. Then underneath that, you should write their address, whether it be their email address or their address.
Single-space everything in the header. The entire body should also have single spaces, with double spaces between paragraphs.
After the header, make sure there is at least one single space before you write, "Dear... So and so." Make sure you use the editor's name and be professional. For example, "Dear Mr. Tommy Bruin," "Hi, Tommy," or even starting it, "Tommy Bruin" is unprofessional. Try to keep it strictly professional, until you get to know them. Then follow their lead.
Again make a double space before the body, then another double-space before the close. Choose a professional closing. "Sincerely," is a very safe choice. Then do another double space, and write your name and information. For example, it should look something like this:
137 Noon Ave
Sage, MN 78392
There are many variations, but a good rule of thumb, the way you fill out their address at the top, is an excellent way to fill your address at the bottom, plus your phone number. It's better to give them more than one way to contact you, and giving them all three is just fine.
If you are enclosing anything like that manuscript (ms) or a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE), include this below your closing. Make another double space then type: "Enclosed: Manuscript and SASE" or whatever applies.
The Body of Your Query
The body of your query is the most critical part of the query. It is what tells the editor why they should hire you, why they should look at your manuscript, and even why they should finish reading this query.
Queries should only be one page long. That includes a header, closing, everything. Any longer than that, the editor will probably put aside to read later, or not at all. The best advice is, the shorter you keep it, the better. That doesn't mean skimping on the details, nor does it mean pack as much information as possible in one sentence at a time. Remember, it needs to capture their attention, and it needs to be well written.
Just as in the story itself, the first paragraph should grab their attention. It should also include such details as what the story is about, the age appropriateness (if a children's or teens work) the word count, and why it would fit into their magazine. An excellent way to show that it would be a good fit for their publishing company or magazine is referencing a work that they previously published that you enjoyed. In a children's book, I once wrote this as my beginning paragraph:
Josie Lynn and the Gigantic Jump, written for 4-8 year olds, has a message of self-confidence. Through Josie Lynn’s schemes, she strives to prove that she is an equal to her brothers. HarperCollins is a great fit for this work due to your focus on stretching the imagination like in Pinkalicious, and the precociousness of a girl, like in the Fancy Nancy series.
Queries for Novels
The next paragraph should explain why you are credible to write about the story. Remember to talk a little about yourself as possible, but let the editor know that you are not only a good writer, but also an authority figure on this topic. So if you want to say, I have published this many works in these magazines, go for it. But don't go on and on with your accomplishments. Keep it short, so it does not seem like you are arrogant or prideful: two things they don't want to deal with in a writer.
When writing about your authority on the topic, be careful of revealing too much information; it's good to keep it as short as possible. For example, if you're writing about suicide, feel free to say someone's suicide affected your life, but don't get into details that may cause the editor to feel uncomfortable. One paragraph I was explaining my experiences in this same book was:
Having grown up with three older brothers and seven older male cousins in a neighborhood without girls has given me a unique perspective of self-confidence and wanting to prove oneself. Not only have I lived through the challenges of being the only girl, but the youngest in the chaos of it all. That is why in Josie Lynn and the Gigantic Jump, she plans ways to prove herself to be worthy of her older brothers, only to learn that it doesn’t matter what they think after all. It only matters what she thinks of herself.
Then end the article by thanking them for their time and consideration.
Granted, it can go longer or shorter than three paragraphs, but the elements need to be there. Longer works can have longer queries but still stick to the one-page rule. Shorter does not mean putting less effort into the query. It's hard to fit all that information in that small amount of area, so if you find yourself writing a lot in a query. Set it aside, look at it again in a few days or a week. You may see where you may have gone too much in-depth here, or want to add a little here.
Good luck with your writing endeavors. Now you have the tools to write a query; you already have the means to write an article/story/novel, so now get the courage and send out your work!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
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© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz