Freelance writer and editor Carol J. Alexander joins us this week, offering tips on a popular (or maybe not, lol) writing topic, writing the query letter.
How to Write a Query Letter - Step-by-Step
By Carol J. Alexander
I wrote many query letters before finally landing an assignment. Even then, I’m not sure what the editor saw in that pitch. (Other than the idea, that is.) Since that time, 10 years ago, I have studied and practiced enough that 96% of all my queries have led to published articles—eventually.
As the editor of a regional lifestyle magazine, I get a lot of those “diamond in the rough” kind of pitches. Sometimes they come from students at the local university. If I know that, I help them along the way by drawing them out with questions. But sometimes, these anemic queries come from seasoned freelancers. Those, I delete.
Sound harsh? Consider this pitch I received recently:
Subject line: Article idea—Apple Festivals
The valley is loaded with them, from Winchester to Lovingston. Would be a good article and pix could be taken now for next year.
Varieties of Virginia apples (more than you might expect and more than you'd find in the grocery store)
Apples in the history of the Valley
Apples today: produce, craft fairs, Appalachia, tourist destinations
What does this writer want to write about—apple festivals, varieties of apples, the history of apples or what, exactly? I also want to know who she might mention in the story and who she might interview. Finally, Lovingston is not in the valley—our coverage area.
See what I mean?
Since I didn’t know what this experienced journalist wanted to write about, I would have to ask. My response would prompt many back and forth emails hammering out exactly what she intended to write, the points she wanted to include and who her sources were. I could see myself spending over an hour of the magazine's time helping this gal formulate her ideas and pitch so that we both understood what the story would cover.
Most magazines, mine especially, cannot afford for their editors to spend time holding the hands of freelancers who do not know how, or are too lazy, to write a proper query letter.
So if your queries are getting no response, keep reading.
How to write a query letter
There are five main parts to a query letter. They include:
- Advance planning
- The hook
- The pitch
- The outline
- Your credentials
- A call to action
While not exactly a part to the letter, advance planning is still an important part of the process. Many beginning writers balk at the thought of putting time into a story that has not yet found a home. But it pays, I promise.
I heard a guy in my beekeeping group planted a truffière. I had no idea you could grow truffles in North America, so I wanted to write about it. Since I knew little about truffles, I did a little research. I then ferreted out experts in the field and secured interviews. I did all this so I would know what I was talking about before I approached an editor with my idea.
The hook is your introductory paragraph. Write it as compelling as the lead to your story. This is where you capture the editor's attention so he or she doesn't get bored and delete you.
The pitch paragraph tells the editor what you want to write about. Here is an example:
A truffle is a type of underground fungus, or mushroom. There are hundreds of varieties of truffles. … They are harvested using trained dogs, or pigs.
European white truffles can cost as much as $3,600 a pound. … And I recently learned that David Cassford, a member of my beekeeping group, also farms truffles. Whoa. Growing truffles could be a lucrative business for the modern homesteader; so why aren’t more people talking about it? I want to talk about it.
Once you tell your editor what you want to write about, spell it out for him. Give him your three key points, the story length, what you will include in a sidebar and who you plan to interview.
A lot of new writers get hung on not having clips. Unless a magazine comes right out and says they only publish established writers, you don’t need to worry about it. If you don't have any clips, don't mention it. If you do, share what is appropriate. Also share life skills or experiences that make you the best person to write the story. For instance, when I pitch parenting magazines, I tell them I have six kids—it makes me look like I know what I'm talking about.
A call to action
Ask for the assignment. Short and sweet: "Would you like this piece for your holiday issue? I can have it to you by June."
And that’s it. Not quite easy-peasy, but I can pretty much guarantee that if you follow this outline your query will get read. What about you? Have any other query letter writing tips or secrets? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
Carol J. Alexander has been published in over 60 local, regional and national publications. She is currently the editor of Shenandoah Living Magazine. For more help honing your query letter writing skills, get a free copy of her eight-page tip sheet "How to Write the Query Letter that Sells."
Visit Carol at her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter.
Sending a big thank you your way, Carol, for sharing this great info!
How sharp are your query writing skills? As Carol asked, do you have any tips to share?
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