Monday, January 23, 2017

How to Write a Query Letter by Carol J. Alexander








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. 

Focus: 

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 
Let's take a look at these five parts a little closer. 

Advance planning 

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 

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 

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.  

Your Outline   

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. 

Your credentials 

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?

Happy writing,
Karen 



Photo: Free Images

30 comments :

  1. Thanks for the tips, Carol. Query letters are one of the most challenging parts of being a writer, at least for me. I like how you broke it up into a few small steps.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Natalie. Breaking jobs down into smaller steps always makes them more manageable.

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  2. Hi Karen - great to see Carol here with her understanding of Query letters ... gosh people are so naive ... mine are poor, but I'd try and make a letter short, sweet and to the point ... so great advice here - cheers Hilary

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Hilary. Yes, you don't want to write a book for a query. An editor should be able to read your pitch in a minute or less.

      Delete
  3. Natalie,
    They are challenging for me as well, and have never been my favorite part of the process. I too, appreciate Carol's breakdown here. :) Thanks for coming by!

    Hilary,
    Glad you enjoyed the post. Carol's tips really are spot on. I agree, even if a query isn't the best, at least focus it as if you care, right? :) Appreciate you coming over to see us!

    Happy writing,
    Karen

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  4. Following the guidelines and giving the editor/publisher everything they need to make a decision is so important. I get so many vague queries and ones that leave out all the important - and required - information.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for concurring, Diane. I appreciate you chiming in.

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  5. I've only written articles for magazines and online issues a couple times and they do want the details up front. I certainly can't imagine pitching something I hadn't researched at all though.

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    Replies
    1. Alex, I think some freelancers believe that more is better. Just pepper the editor with pitches and eventually you'll get something accepted. Trust me, that's not the way to do it.

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  6. Great tips. Adding the focus of the article seems like it would be a natural thing to include. It's surprising that it isn't.

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    Replies
    1. I think freelancers make this mistake for two reasons, H.R. Not knowing or inexperience and what I said earlier, thinking more is better and not taking the time to do it right.

      Delete
  7. Diane,
    I can just imagine the things that you come across. If there's one thing that's important in our business, it's paying attention to the focus and the details. :)

    Alex,
    You've got that right, I wouldn't either. It's interesting to get Carol's perspective from the other side of things.

    Holly,
    Carol's tips are useful for any type of writing we do, I'm thinking. An important reminder to heed details and other important items.

    Happy writing,
    Karen

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  8. I have never queried to write an article. I wonder, is it worth it as a beginner writer for magazines to write the article first and then query publications that might be interested? I guess it is never losing as the practice is always beneficial!

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    Replies
    1. Lynn, most magazines will not read already written articles. Putting the time into the query is never wasted because if it's rejected, you just resubmit to another publication. But if you write the article in the voice of publication A and they reject it, then you have to rewrite it to fit the voice/style of publication B.

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  9. You make a great point about distinguishing between the college writer and experienced freelancer. They should know better. I loved reading this.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Clee. Sometimes I think experience folks just get sloppy, which is not recommended.

      Delete
  10. Lynn,
    That's a good question! It'll be interesting to see what Carol says. From the writer side of it, I've done that to give me a better overview of the subject. Also have done it with articles previously written and submitted but not accepted anywhere yet. :) Yes, I think you're right, it is good practice!

    Lee,
    There is a difference there, I agree. I've known a college grad (journalism) or two who weren't as attuned to the marketing and submission side of things. Much to learn no matter what your background. Glad you enjoyed the post. :)

    Happy writing,
    Karen

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  11. Carol: I'm printing this out and going to try to query some magazines. I am inspired.

    Karen: Thank you for having Carol on your blog.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! I have a more more detailed, 8-page tutorial available on my website.

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  12. Thank you, Carol, for such clear steps to writing the query letter :-) And thanks for hosting Carol, Karen. All is very timely since one of my goals, next to writing new words, is to get my finished book back out on submissions. All advice is welcomed!

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  13. Awesome. I haven't queried for article writing, but if I ever do, I have a firmer understanding of how to go about it. It's so easy to get caught up in our own heads and not see the pitch from the other side of the desk, eh?

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  14. Cecelia,
    You are welcome. So glad to hear you are inspired! It's inspired me too. :) Carol's insight is wonderful, and much appreciated.

    Kenda,
    You're welcome. Always happy to have Carol visit. Also happy to hear that this is timely for you. Wishing you much success with your book! :)

    Crystal,
    Yes, I think you're right. It all can sound so good (or so lousy, lol) in our own heads. Carol breaks it down in such a helpful way. :)

    Happy writing,
    Karen

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  15. Hi Karen and Carol! I have written query letters that have been successful, and ones that I never heard anything back at all. I always thought it had to do with topic. Maybe I'm wrong about that after reading this post!

    I like the idea of being focused, and not bringing too much into the article. Carol's sample query really showed me that being 'all over the place' is of no help at all.
    Wonderful information. Thank you Carol! And thank you Karen for hosting her here :)
    Ceil

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ceil,
      I recommend following up if you never hear back from an editor. If the submission guidelines don't give you some idea of a timeframe, give an editor 6 weeks then, if they haven't responded, send him a gentle reminder. "Just checking to see if you received my query. I've copy and pasted it below for your reference..." A lot of magazines have killer spam filters.

      Delete
  16. Such excellent advice! Writing a proper query letter is so important and it can be overwhelming to start and finish one. I appreciate anything that can make writing them a bit easier. Thanks, Carol!
    ~Jess

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  17. Wow, what an invaluable post! Great advice for newbie and not so newbie writers. In my own pitches I have noticed adding just a pinch of personality often helps. One editor was delighted that I signed off with "Cheers!" Thank you, Carol and Karen.

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  18. Ceil,
    Glad you enjoyed the post. Carol knows what she's talking about, that's for sure! :) Appreciate you coming by and sharing your experience.

    Jess,
    Who can't use a little help in this department, right? :) I appreciate Carol's insight as a writer and an editor.

    Susan,
    Yes, I think this kind of advice helps all of us. :) I like your suggestion about the pinch of personality. In the right balance and place, I think it's an excellent idea.

    Happy writing,
    Karen

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  19. I LOVE this! Even though my agent handles queries for my books, I regularly query magazines and other publications for my freelance writing work. And I'm always amazed how many writers don't even know how to write a query. Years of writing novel-length fiction prepared me well, I guess!

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  20. Stephanie,
    Glad you liked it! This advice is helpful for most any writer, for it's a reminder to pay attention to the details, whether writing a query or submitting a completed article or book, etc. :)
    Happy weekend,
    Karen

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Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate your input. Have a blessed day!