How To Write A Query Letter

by Anne Wayman

freelance writingIn the world of freelance writing, your query letter or query email is first of all a sales piece. It’s a communication from you to a publisher selling them on both your idea and on you as the writer.

Query letters are used most often pitching magazine articles to magazine editors.

Ideally you’ll end up with a firm assignment at a specified pay rate and with a kill fee if for some reason the magazine doesn’t use it. Next best is an invitation to send the article to the publication on “spec” or speculation.

The invitation to submit to a recognized magazine on spec is not to be sneered at. You will have  the ear of the editor who asked for it and if you do your writing well and tailor it properly you probably will have a sale.

What do editors look for in queries?

Editors need ideas that fit their publications. They have a whole magazine to fill every week or every month or every quarter. They need writers to fill each one. Even if they have some writers on staff they still need freelance writers who have appropriately creative ideas and who can put those ideas in a form the magazine’s readers will absolutely love.

Your query should be designed to show them you can do exactly that! In other words, you want a well written letter that demonstrates your writing ability as it applies to the idea in question.

Know what the editor wants

I can’t tell you how many queries I got as a magazine editor that had little or nothing to do with the publication I was editing. It was, and still is, I’m sure, shocking. That’s why you’re urged to read at least a couple of the magazines you want to write for – even better to actually study them. Pay attention to everything from the masthead through the articles to the ads. All of it will inform you and your unconscious of what that particular magazine publishes. Make your article idea and your query match the magazines style, tone and voice and you’re getting close to a sale.

Keep your query short

Your query should be a single page, certainly no more than two. Keep in mind that editors often see 100s of queries in a day or  week. You can be sure they do not read each one closely. They scan quickly to see if the idea and the writer have any potential at all. Out of 100 queries, they might set one or two aside to look at more closely. Short queries with a grabber headline that fits stand a better chance than a formal letter.

Putting it together

For the most part, ignore classic letter set-up instructions. Sure, include a date, and the name of the editor in question, but you don’t really need an inside address as such.

Start with the title, in bold, centered. Make it a grabber.

Know that your first paragraph is the most important. If you can make it actually the hook of the article you’ll be ahead.

Then follow with a brief intro about why you’re qualified to write the article.

In the last ‘graph put the estimated word count, details like if you’re including photos or a sidebar, and how long, from getting the assignment, it will take you to deliver the competed piece. If you know how they want it, email, snail mail, etc. state that’s how you’ll send it. If you don’t, offer to send it any way they want it.

Now you should have a query that is also an accurate sample of your writing. See how that works?

Details matter

You need to make sure your query looks right on the page. Double check your spelling, and if you’re spelling is creative like mine, get someone else to check it too.

Make sure you’ve addressed the right editor. If you’re not sure who that is, pick up the phone and call and ask.

If you’re using snail mail, be sure you’ve enclosed an SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope).

Make sure all your contact info is easily available, including your phone number. You want an editor to be able to pick up the phone and talk with you about the piece or to know where to send the check.

You’ll find a sample query here.

You also might find the 9 Elements of A Successful Writing Proposal helpful – queries and proposals are different.

Tell us your favorite query story.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebecca February 8, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Can these tips be applied to queries sent to literary agents and publishing companies? I’ve sent out about 10 or so query letters (testing the waters) to literary agents for my non-fiction book for teens but haven’t heard anything. Some agents take 6-12 weeks before they respond. Other agents claim they respond within 2-weeks if you send your query via email. I’m thinking about self-publishing because it’s fast and easy, and I can use it as a speaking platform. I’ll be able to build up my in-person and online presence quicker.
Rebecca recently posted..How Writing about Loss Can Help You and OthersMy Profile

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annew February 10, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Yes, of course. Make sure you’re picking agents in the teen market… you know that. If you’ve got a platform, self-publishing can work. Read Bowerman’s Well-Fed Self-Publisher – http://www.aboutfreelancewriting.com/2009/06/well-fed-self-publisher-a-review/ links to my review.

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