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Query Letter How To’s
If you plan on submitting an article for publication, the query letter is your new best friend. Written more frequently than any paying piece, this short letter is your chance to shine to the editor. In this newsletter, we are going to discuss the various parts of the query letter and ways to make them most effective. While I’ll caution that, thus far, none of my queries have gotten me published, I can also promise that in my obsessive-compulsive mood, I have put a great deal of research into the subject.
Most articles I have read recommend a simple header. I recommend your name, address, phone number, and email address. Mine is centered at the top of the page in 10 point, Times New Roman font, bold. Other options, if you are actually making money, is to invest in letterhead. Most articles I have read caution against a logo or images of any sort. While it might look good for a Writing.com sig, it seems to scream “amateur.” Keep it simple. Also, I recommend you take a moment to visit the Post Office (www.usps.gov) and look up the four-digit extension to your zip code, which you should use on all SASEs. This seems to speed up the mailing process, and could shave time off the long, drawn-out wait for a response.
Quick note: For email queries, I do not use a header, simply because it doesn’t look right at the top left, and I’ve yet to find a standard way to center or right align it for email. Rather than look foolish, I include it at the bottom, under my “signature”. Thus, my ending reads (with / equaling a line break): Scottiegazelle/ firstname.lastname@example.org/1234 Peachtree St/Atlanta GA 12345-6789/770-123-4567
1234 Peachtree St
Atlanta, GA 12345-6789
I also recommend including the date at the top left, one line above the address of your editor. This will help the reader know when the letter was sent, and keep them in a rough time frame for responding.
30 June 2005
This is where you put the editor’s mailing address. How, you ask, do I find this information? The easiest (but not always most correct) method in the United States is to look in your most recent Writer’s Market (also available at http://www.writersmarket.com). Here you will find names, addresses, phone numbers, and often web sites for a large number of fiction and nonfiction magazines.
What if you don’t have access to Writer’s Market? Check the magazine! Frequently, addresses and phone numbers will be listed in teeny tiny print near the front, with all the editors names. Use a magnifying glass and search it out. Another option is to check the website. Frequently, you kind find important information in the “About Us” or “Contact Us” section (sometimes you can find Writer’s Guidelines here, as well).
Once you have the editor and the address, should you slap it on an envelope? Not necessarily. The next best step is to take the phone number listed (or look on the website to obtain it) and call the office. Then, take a deep breath, and tell the operator, “Hi, my name is ScottieGazelle, and I’m a freelance writer. I would like to submit a query letter to your _____ department (or for the _____ section, or as a feature/short story), and I wanted to confirm which editor I need to send it to. Here, you may be told that the editor listed has moved away, been fired, or is really not the query letter type. I also like to take advantage of the moment to ask, “Does (s)he prefer to be queried by regular mail, or is email better?”. Sometimes, a heretofore-unknown email address will surface. This is also a good time to ask, “And of course, I assume Jennifer is a woman.” With some of those names, you never know (so says a woman ‘named’ Scottie).
Story Master, Features Editor
1234 Story Lane, Suite 567
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 12345-6789
Never, never, never take liberties with an editor, with the possible exception being if they were already your best friend. Never greet them with “Wassup?”, never call them by first name, never give them random nicknames (“Jen” for “Jennifer”, “SM” for “Storymaster”, etc). Remember that your query letter is a business letter, and treat it accordingly.
Never assume “Ashley” is a woman, or “George” is a man. If you have confirmed on the phone (see previous section), then “Mr. Storymaster” is okay. However, don’t assume marital status. Apparently, some female editors get upset with “Ms.”, which boggles me since I was always told it could represent either. In some places, however, it is short for “Miss”, which could offend a married editor; similarly, “Mrs.” could upset that young, swinging single. Frankly, I prefer to go with a first-and-last-name greeting. After the editor has published you a few times and perhaps calls you to chat, you may be able to go down to a first name basis, but not before then.
Dear Story Master,
No matter what you are writing, your first paragraph must grab the editor’s attention quickly. After all, most editors go through a large stack of query letters each month. Make yours stand out. I like to start with the first paragraph of my proposed story (or a similar one), since in both fiction and nonfiction both, you must be interesting enough to prompt someone to keep reading.
Never never never start with any of these lines:
I have written an article/story…
I am a professional writer…
My friends told me I should send this to your magazine…
If you do not want to start with the entire paragraph, or if you feel it will not give the flavor of your story, you may want to summarize. I recently did a query for a math puzzle, which completely lacked a paragraph! Instead, I tried to slant the first paragraph to describe the puzzle enough to catch the editor’s attention.
Finding adequate writing resources on the web can be difficult at best. Receiving honest feedback for your writing can also be a challenge. However, if you land at Writing.com, you can count on resources, feedback, and a whole lot more!
The job of the second paragraph is to let the editor know what they are in for. This is where you describe your story or article. You don’t have to give all of the details, but you want to give enough that the editor has a firm grip on what will happen, where the story/article is heading, and what makes it unique. For nonfiction articles especially, I like to reference what column or section I feel the article would best fit under, letting the editor know that yes, I read the magazine. I try to reference why this piece will be interesting to the readers. Obviously, a magazine on writing won’t be interested in an article on scrapbooking – or will it? What if I am submitting an article on scrapbooking your rejection letters? It depends on the magazine, of course, but make sure you help the editor catch your vision. I also suggest giving them an estimated word count (final if it is already written), so they can determine how to fit it into the magazine. However, make sure your proposed count is similar to the articles already contained within the section you are querying. That is, don’t submit a query for a 1000 word piece in a spot usually occupied filled with 500 words or less.
Finally, if you can let the editor see you have already done some research, they will see you as responsible. If you have already spoken with someone about an interview – or have already done one – they will recognize your enthusiasm. Also, if you have any photos or illustrations, this is the time to let them know that they are available.
Readers of Writing.com magazine will enjoy learning about a fantastic and helpful website that will provide them with the input they need on their journey to becoming a published author. I propose an 800-1,000 word article for your “Online” section detailing how to make the most of your Writing.com experience. Readers will be intrigued to learn about methods for obtaining honest, from-the-heart feedback, participating in various forums and real-time chats around the site, and, for fun, playing around with word searches and mad libs. I would like to interview various members of the site to get their feedback, and I have already spoken with the site owner and his wife, both of whom are open to an interview. I have several pictures of owners, members, and moderators available.
The third paragraph is the “why me” paragraph. This is where you get to strut your stuff, to show off your credentials. If you’ve been published in fifty magazines, why are you reading this? I mean, list only a few; perhaps those that are closely related. If you only have a single claim to fame, list that bad boy! If you’ve never been published, do not I repeat do not say this. Instead, list your credentials. If you are doing an article on kayaking, let them know that you’ve been an instructor for ten years, or that you’ve been kayaking for ten years. Tell them you’ve led groups or organized something. Your article is for a teen publication? Mention that you’ve organized the local Boy Scout kayaking trip for the last five years, or taken your church’s youth group. You haven’t done any kayaking with teens but you’re a high school teacher? Let them know you have influence in the teen world. Obviously, the closer you can slant towards your magazine’s market, the more professional you can come.
Another thing to never say: my mom/my friends/my neighbors/everyone I know or even everyone on writing.com says I am a good writer and should be published. Very much the amateur. Remember, you are professional, whether you have been published or not.
This is also the place to mention “clips”, those pesky little things mentioned in my previous paragraph. Having chosen the clips I plan to submit, I usually reference them parenthetically. If you have no clips, then I suggest making one up. No, don’t lie; instead, let them know you are submitting a “clip on xyz” subject (preferably related) to give them an idea of your writing style. If you are submitting your query to a teen magazine, write the clip skewed toward teens; if to a children’s magazine, skew towards kids; if to an executive, skew it towards…an executive! You get the idea. This is where Writing.com can be especially helpful. I like to submit my unpublished clips online and get feedback, enabling me to polish them up before sending them out. I put a note at the top to that effect and ask point-blank if the piece works for addressing my audience.
I also recommend letting the editor know how quickly you can get an article to them. For magazines, I honestly believe that, if I can get ahold of anyone I need to interview, I can have an article completed in a week, probably less. However, I try to allow for real life, and tend to pitch for three weeks. My goal is to finish in two weeks and submit early in all cases, thus causing the editor to view me as an early finisher. If I wind up sick, or one of my interviewees is harder to get ahold of, I should still be able to meet the deadline.
I have been published in various magazines, including Let’s Write and Online Journaling, and am enclosing clips from both. I have been a member of writing.com for the past two years, and a moderator for one month of that time. I have a great deal of interaction with site members, and believe I could return a finished article to you within three weeks of assignment.
I like to leave the editor with an upbeat, positive conclusion. If I am sending the query by snailmail, I will also note the enclosure of an SASE (a must-have if you want a response; otherwise, you may as well save yourself the trouble of crafting a query letter).
Enclosed is a SASE for your response. I look forward to working with you.
Again, be professional. No “cya later” or “take care”. I would try to stick with the plain old boring
For a letter, go down four lines and then type your first and last name. For an email, I just put one line break, and then the info taken from the header (remember, I don’t send a header in an email).
Finally, I list my clips. For a snail-mail query, I list the enclosures at the ending. One thing I’ve noticed about clips. If you have been published, make several copies. If you have a scanner, a nice (inexpensive) solution I found to the copy machine is to scan your article(s) and save them as a tif file. This is huge, but the best resolution. Then you can print the clip at your leisure. However, despite it’s location on the computer, do not email it. Most editors will not open an attachment.
(3) Enclosures: 1 pg Let’s Write
1 pg Online Journaling
For email, instead of enclosing the clips as a separate file, list them within the body of the email. I like to make a note where they were published at the conclusion. This gives them the opportunity to check it themselves if they feel the urge to verify.
Published with Write & Telescope, August 2004, pg 7
This article is obviously slanted towards nonfiction. Another type of writing that requires a query letter is the novel. Here, I would follow a similar approach, with a few changes.
Don’t start with the first paragraph. Instead, raise the issue of conflict very simplified. You still want to grab the editor’s attention, but don’t launch into a synopsis; that’s a different letter. And make sure you address what makes your novel different from the regular love story/sci fi story/your type of story. Editors want to know what will make your novel stand out.
I’m pretty sure most novels don’t require clips, so you can avoid mention of those. However, be sure to check your market or publisher to be certain – don’t take my word for it!
Here is a sample query letter for more instruction, from someone who has researched the field a bit more. http://www.writing.com/main/view_item/user_id/sherrashttp://www.writing.com/main/view_item/user_id/sherras
Another good link is here:
Short stories usually do not need a query letter; instead, they need a cover letter. A cover letter is similar to the query letter, but much simpler. The biggest difference comes from the body, which can be highly modified.
For a short story cover letter, start with the simple introduction paragraph.
Enclosed please find my short story, “Scottiegazelle Writes Again.” I hope you will consider it for a future issue.
Then lapse into the section detailing your previous experience. Publications take first priority. Follow-up with any relative experience you have. Are you writing a horse story and you are a horse trainer? A murder mystery after twenty years as a police detective? A children’s story about life under the sea and you are a marine biologist? Pull no punches!
Finally, you need a conclusive paragraph similar to the previous ones. Basically a “love to work with you, SASE enclosed” line or two, such as that detailed under the “Final Paragraph” section.
I couldn’t find any on-site resources just for cover letters, but here is a good site off-line.
Whatever you write, in order to get published, a query or cover letter is a must have. Make sure you keep your letter professional and to the point, and you will improve your odds on getting published.
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