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Monday, January 29, 2007

Elements of a successful query letter

Because Greta asked, thought I'd share this column I wrote last summer for SPJ's Quill magazine

Quill magazine / August 2006
Elements of a successful query letter

By Wendy A. Hoke

A fair amount of successful freelance writing involves good salesmanship. While that may be anathema to the newsroom journalist, it’s not as far-fetched as you may think.

“Sales” in this case involves selling both your ideas and your ability to execute those ideas in the written and reported form. If you’re a newsroom journalist, it’s akin to plopping down in your editor’s office and selling him or her your story ideas.

In the case of freelancers, many of those sales are not going to happen face to face. They are largely electronic and given the deluge of e-mails received by editors these days, your sales skills must rise above the tide.

Some Web sites and writers will promise you the “surefire” query letter. For the newcomer, a query letter is simply a pitch letter to an editor used to sell a story idea. While I’m not buying that one-size-fits-all letter, there are common elements to a successful query.

How to send
Before you sit down to write your pitch, research how the publication prefers to receive its pitches. Some of the national magazines still prefer snail mail, but most will accept electronic pitches. Check out Writers Market or contact to the magazine to find out its preference.

When sending e-mail queries, think about your own inbox and craft a subject line that will get the editor’s attention. I always begin my subjects with “QUERY:” so it’s clear that I’m sending a pitch. Spare the hyperbole. If you use certain words (like sex, mortgage, drugs, words ending in exclamations, etc.) you’re pitch will likely be dumped by spam filters.

The lede leads
Your lede paragraph of your pitch or query is the potential lede (newspaper jargon for first paragraph) of your story. Write compellingly and concisely about your subject. That means having a clear vision of your story before you ever craft a pitch. Never begin with: "I'm interested in writing a story about…"

This doesn’t mean there’s no room for tweaking the arc of the story as you go along, but in the world of national magazine freelancing, editors want to know that they’re going to receive what you promise to deliver on the front end.

The nut graf
What is this story about and why should readers of this magazine care? This is a question you must answer in your query.

Improve your chances for a sale by thoroughly researching the publication in advance. Don’t just read the latest issue, head to the library and look over the last year’s issues. Get a feel for the tone of the magazine, the subject matter it covers and read the media kit (usually found online) to learn about its demographics.

Pay close attention to the magazines departments and suggest where your piece could fit. Does it make sense as part of a monthly mini-profile section? Can it work in a front-of-the-book short? Is it a back-page essay? Be helpful with your suggestions, but not too bossy.

Research, research research
By the third paragraph, the editor is wondering how you’re going to pull off this masterpiece. Who are you planning to interview? What kind of access do you have to the subject? What kind of background data do you have to support your story’s pitch? What kind of specialized or first-hand experience do you have that lends your reporting credibility?

One of the hardest things to balance in freelance writing is the line between doing enough work to sell an idea and wasting your time without guarantee of a sale.
Each writer has to determine for him or herself where to draw that line. But you have to be comfortable enough with your research that you can back up your pitch. It will be tested and fact-checked.

So be specific. List the sources you plan to interview. When appropriate, briefly discuss your methodology and how you plan to report the story. Does it involve attending certain events or meetings? Does it require on-site research? Do you anticipate the need to travel? Don’t leave the editor guessing.

The brag graph
If the editor is interested in the pitch, their final question is going to be, “Why should you do this story?” Wind up your query with a paragraph that briefly describes your expertise with the subject matter, related articles you’ve published, where your articles have appeared, how long you’ve been writing, etc.

Remember to keep your bio relevant to the publication and story you’re pitching. If you’re writing about a new fitness rage, include your experience writing on other health and wellness topics. Offer to send a few—emphasize few—relevant clips. If you’re sending links, make sure they work before you bother to include.

Thank the editor for his or her time, indicated a date when you will follow up and include your full contact information, including mailing address.

Remember that different magazines and types of story pitches require different approaches, which is why queries are so time-consuming. But like anything in life, you get better the more you write them.

Put yourself in the editor’s shoes and think about what you’d like to see from a writer. If you’re planning to write humor, you better be humorous in your pitch. If you’re pitching an essay, the editor is going to want to see the full piece, not a two-graph summary.

Your queries will not always succeed, even when well written and researched. The timing may be off, editorial calendar may have changed, etc. But continue to pitch magazines you want to write for because persistence pays off the first time your Caller ID reads, “Time Inc.”

Wendy Hoke is a Cleveland-based freelance writer. After 18 months of trying, she recently sold her first piece to Continental Magazine.

© Copyright 2006 Wendy A. Hoke


Jill said...

Do you know that this is why you could be teaching this, young lady? :) (but you know I empathize with that part of us that always want to know more and do better)

Wendy Hoke said...

Kristin Ohlson had a good post about that very topic!

Wendy Hoke said...

Wait, hit send to quickly. About the topic of always wanting to know more, do more, do better, live many lives, etc. Check it out.

Jill said...

Thanks Wen.

Heather said...

just thought that you would like to know about a spelling error under the second heading, second paragraph. The word "you're" is supposed to be your.