I was first published when I was eleven years old, a poem that to this day I look at and think … wow, yeah, I really did that. Since that first published piece, I’ve been hooked on seeing my words and thoughts in printed form. As addictions go, I suppose that there could be worse things. During my time writing, I’ve had the opportunity and misfortune to try out many different styles of query letter. Some worked, some weren’t so lucky, but every time that I’ve gotten a personal response to my queries, I’ve learned something about what makes a good one.
Unfortunately, there’s no “magic bullet”, no proven effective style that will work for everyone, every editor, and every article. By realizing that your query letters should be different depending on the type of writing you’re doing, though, you’re making a good step in the right direction. Beyond that, there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of getting a magazine editor to read your work.
Elements of a Good Magazine Query Letter
When you get right down to it, a query letter is a business letter. It should reflect the fact that you realize there’s a need to be professional. Your language doesn’t have to be stuffy, but you shouldn’t sound chatty either. Find a good balance that represents your style of writing while maintaining a professional appearance and you’ll be good to go.
Every query letter that you send to a magazine editor should contain several specific items:
• A professional heading – Begin your query with the traditional business heading that includes your full name, address, phone number, and the date of your submission.
• Place of submission – Make sure you get this information right. You will want to place the name of the magazine you are querying, followed by the editor’s name (correctly spelled, and try to make sure you’ve got the right editor – look on the magazine’s website or check the Writer’s Market), and their mailing address.
• Polite greeting – There are a few schools of thought on how you should “greet” the editor, including the very formal “To Whom it May Concern”. If you did your research, though, you should know who it concerns – the editor you are submitting your query to. Instead of going ultra-formal, be polite and greet the editor personably with something like, “Dear Katherine Franklin”.
• Why you’re writing – If you have spoken to the magazine editor before, you have a good lead here and can emphasize that lead by saying something like, “As you requested, I’m querying your magazine…” Not all of us are lucky enough to have an in with the magazines we query though. If not, simply state the reason you’re writing to them, “I have an article proposal for your consideration”.
• A hook – Magazine editors receive and read hundreds of queries every day. Give them a reason to continue reading yours right away. Your hook could be a tantalizing lead-in to your story, or a really descriptive title that reads like a headline. Whatever it is, make it relevant and make it strong.
• Why Them? – Are you a reader of the magazine you’re submitting to? If so, mention that – it shows that you’ve done your homework and are submitting the article to them because you’re certain it fits their audience. If you’re not a current reader, make sure that you explain the benefits that their readers will gain by having access to your article. In other words, tell the editor why you’re submitting to them, instead of another magazine.
• Why You? – What makes you the right person to write this article? If you have relevant experience, make a point of saying so. Basically, the editor is hoping to see that you know what you’re talking about because it’s something you work with. Don’t have a lot of experience? Do let the editor know, but back it up with the fact that you’ve performed expert interviews, researched the topic thoroughly, and are confident that you can represent their readers well with your article.
• What have you done? – Querying magazines is a lot like submitting applications when you’re right out of college. If you don’t have a lot of printed work yet, it will take a little bit longer for you to get attention from most magazine editors. With this in mind, you would do well to prepare a writing sample that really shows your best work and can be included with your queries until you have a few tear-sheets to show.
• Wrap it up – Let the editor know if you have submitted this query to any other publications, and wrap it up by stating that you await their reply. This shows that you’re confident in your writing, without sounding cocky. End the letter with “Sincerely, Your Full Name”.
Once You Have a Good One …
If there’s one thing I regret about the way I’ve worked in the years I’ve been writing, it would be this: I failed to track.
Most experienced writers will tell you over and over how important it is to track your work. Keep a tracking log that contains copies of your query letters and submitted articles, and who you submitted what to, when. By keeping track of these details, you accomplish several things – you know the date you mailed a submission, so you don’t panic thinking that it’s taking too long to receive a response. You also know exactly what articles have been mailed so that you don’t send out simultaneous submissions (some writers do submit work to several places at once, but in the long run it backfires more often than it works).
When you receive a response, hopefully an acceptance letter but possibly a rejection, file the response with your submitted material. If the response was a rejection, move on. Come back to the article you wrote in a few weeks, re-read it and decide if you still think it’s all that hot. Still convinced the article works? Great – research a new magazine to query that article with, and get back to work.
Acceptance letters are what we all hope for, and after all the rejections we learn to live with, an acceptance is a breath of fresh air. So yeah, go ahead and do your little touch-down celebration dance … and get to writing. Most magazines ask for a query before you submit an article, so now is the time to sit down and get that fabulous piece of work written. Send a brief cover letter in the same format as your query, this time stating, “Thank you for your response to my query. As requested, the article is enclosed…”
Query letters that are accepted show you a lot about what worked for your writing. Compare those queries with the ones that didn’t work. Are there any major differences that you can pinpoint? Often, it’s just the way we format the letter or how we get our point across, but there’s always something to be found that will set one letter apart from the other.