Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mastering the Query Letter

You have a brilliant story idea. You’ve identified what you think is the perfect publication to pitch the story to. Now it’s time to write a query letter explaining the article you want to write, why it’s perfect for the publication, and why you should be the person to write it.

Writing a stellar query letter is key to landing a freelance assignment. If you can’t catch the editor’s interest with your opening lines and keep her reading until your signature, you don’t stand a chance. And with fewer editors on editorial staffs doing more work than ever before, you’d better make one heck of a first impression if you want to snag work with any publication.

Here’s how to write a query that gets results.

Make sure you’re pitching to the right place.
It’s all about picking the right publication and making certain you’re proposing a story that fits that magazine.

If you try to propose a story about pointers for tackling fall yard care quickly and easily to a parenting magazine, busy editors (or their assistants) are going to toss your letter without a second glance. Obviously, you didn’t take the time to look at the types of articles the magazine typically publishes, and your lack of familiarity with the publication will show. If, however, you propose a story on easy ways parents can get their kids interested in and involved with fall chores outdoors by turning easy tasks into games, you may be onto something.

Get to the important stuff. Treat the opening sentences of your query letter like you would the opening lines of a story. Make them snappy, interesting, appealing, compelling. You want to hook the editor you’re writing to and get her to keep reading. Jump right in with an anecdote you’d use in the story, a startling fact or statistic, or a brief bit of description. Then, just as you would with a magazine article, quickly transition to the “hardworking” details—in other words, tell the editor exactly what the story is about, why you think it’s a great fit for the magazine, and more.

Be specific. Don’t just say you want to write an article about fall lawn care or moms with minivans and leave it at that. Give the editor details. Who will you interview? Include names. How long do you expect the story will be? Give an estimated word count. What form will the story take? Give a brief outline of how you see it progressing, and mention if it’s going to be presented in quick bullet-pointed tips or if it’s a long feature divided into subheads. If you think the story fits best in a certain department in the magazine, say so.

It all comes down to proving to your editor that you’ve thoroughly thought this through—and that you’ve done your homework on the types of sources, the length, and the format of other similar stories in her publication.

Tell a bit about yourself.
As much as a query letter is about the story you’re pitching, it’s also about you and what makes you qualified to write the story. So once you’ve spent a paragraph or two on the story itself, talk about yourself. What qualifications do you have? What else have you written that you can mention to prove to them you’re a published writer who can pen the type of story you’re proposing?

If you’re a beginner, you might have limited experience to mention. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by saying you’re new to the field or apologizing for your lack of experience. Just state what you have done and move on. If your idea is the perfect fit, the editor may be willing to overlook that you haven’t done much magazine writing yet.

If, on the other hand, you have a fair amount of experience, be selective about what you include. If I’m introducing myself to a “green” magazine, for instance, I’ll write about my passion for the environment and will focus on my experience working on other green publications, my educational background in environmental studies, and any other relevant info. Other experience that isn’t as relevant in this instance—such as small business writing—might be left out this time around.

Show some personality.
Writing a formal letter that provides a basic rundown of the story, who you are, and what you do—and nothing else—won’t get you anywhere. This is your one shot, your first impression. You have to convince the person you’re sending this letter to that you’re interesting, that you’re reliable, that you’re a talented writer, that you’re everything they’ve ever wanted in a freelancer and more.

What are you going to say in the lede that’s witty, that’s intriguing, that will convince your reader that they have to keep going to learn more? Is there a turn of phrase or an aside you can insert into your second paragraph to give the person you’re writing to a glimpse of what you’re like or what you’re capable of? How will you close your letter to leave the reader wanting more?

This isn’t to say you should go over the top. But a well-crafted letter should leave a lasting (positive) impression on the reader. When you read back over your letter, does it bore you? Does your attention wander? Odds are, it’s going to bore the person you’re sending it to too.

Get the facts right.
Make sure you know the proper format to send your query, whether it’s by email or snail mail. Check that you have the editor’s name right. If you use formal salutations like “Mr” or “Ms,” be darn sure you know that Pat Cameron really is a man. It just may be a woman, and if you start out with the wrong salutation you’re not going to earn any points in her book.

Keep it short.
If you think an editor is going to take the time to read a five-page proposal for a 500-word story, you’re crazy.

As with the writing you hope to ultimately do for the magazine you’re querying, your letter should be written clearly and succinctly. Don’t waste words or ramble. Write well, make it interesting, but keep it brief. Unless you’re proposing a particularly in-depth, heavily researched feature, your query letter shouldn’t be longer than a page.

Then proofread again. Once you’ve penned that letter, set it aside for a while—a day or two is ideal. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and read it closely. Set it aside. Repeat. Have a friend proofread it too if possible to catch errors you might have missed. That attention to detail matters, because rest assured that if you let a typo sneak in, it will jump out at the person reading your letter immediately.

Follow up.
Your job isn’t finished just because you hit send or slapped a stamp on the envelope. Keep track of your queries, and when a reasonable amount of time has passed—say, a month—be prepared to follow up with a brief email or phone call. Sometimes that follow-up makes all the difference.