Thursday, February 14, 2013

How To Write A Compelling Query Letter

Join me in welcoming Edie Melson, a gifted writer and social media guru, as she explains how to write the dreaded query letter. Edie’s latest book, Connections: Social Media Techniques for Writers, was released in 2013.

Edie Melson
A query is basically a written pitch. As you advance as a freelance writer, you'll have to write less and less of these, because you'll have editors coming to you with assignments. But believe me, the skill you develop writing these will stand you in good stead.

This simple concept has caused more anguish for writers than anything else around. But in the freelance world, it’s a necessary evil. Your queries may find their way to the editor's desk in hard copy format or email, but the principles are the same.

It may seem unfair that your writing ability is judged on a single letter or email, but that is the hard truth in this industry. And, having sat behind the editor’s desk, I now understand why. Invariably a poorly written query previews major problems in the writer’s submitted work. I have rarely found this to be the exception. But rather the rule.

The query letter serves two equally important purposes:
  • Get the assignment.
  • Showcase your writing ability.

The Parts of the Query 
  • Salutation. Make certain you get a name – not Dear Editor. If you can’t find the name listed anywhere, call the office, just don’t let them connect you to the editor. Also, check the spelling and the GENDER. You don’t want to use the wrong pronoun. Here's a post I wrote about the Importance of a Name for more details.
  • First Paragraph. You should start with your hook. Don’t use anything corny like, “Don’t miss out on this opportunity.” Instead, it should be a legitimate hook. You also need to reference what part of the magazine/website you’re pitching. Don’t say something like, “This idea would work well anywhere in your magazine.” It's a neon sign that screams amateur. Also give the approximate word count.
  • Second Paragraph. This is where you pitch your idea. It’s good to include specifics—even bullet points—here.
  • Third Paragraph. This is your bio, your credentials for writing this article. Be honest, but don’t over inflate your merits. As editors, we've seen it all and can spot a fake from a mile away. Also don’t criticize or run down yourself by saying something like, “I don’t have any writing credits, but I’m willing to learn.” 

NOTE: If you don't have any writing credits, include experience you have that would make you a good fit for writing this article. Are you pitching an article about how to get kids ready for to go back to school? It would be important for the editor to know you have six kids in school or that you're a teacher.

Here are the basics you need to achieve these goals:
  • Keep it short. Your query letter/email should NOT exceed one page…ever! If you're not sure what one page would look like in an email, write it in a word document first. Then copy and paste it into the email.
  • Use a standard font. Times New Roman 12 point font.
  • Use standard formatting. For an e-query use block formatting (no paragraph indentions, single spaced, double space between paragraphs). For hard copy use traditional letter formatting (indented paragraphs, single spacing, no extra lines between paragraphs).
Here are some red flags to avoid:
  • Too long.
  • Strange fonts.
  • Improper or mixed formatting.
Also, it’s vitally important not to waste time when sending a query. I don’t mean hurry to send it off, but rather, get to the point. Don’t waste the editor’s time with things that are understood, or have no bearing on the article you’re pitching.

Here are a couple of examples:
  • Just say the word and I’ll send you the article. (I really doubt you'd be pitching something and then not agree to send it.)
  • I've spent hours researching this subject. (I would hope so.) 
There are a lot of good resources on writing queries out there. The best I’ve ever seen is a screen cast, Anatomy of a Pitch by Alton Gansky. He goes through an actual e-query and explains what works in it and why.

There is also a free e-book, How to Write a Great Query, by Noah Lukeman (You may remember another book he wrote, The First Five Pages). In this book he deals with queries for agents regarding book length manuscripts, but a lot of the tips are also relevant for freelancers—particularly the section on non-fiction books.

Now it's your turn. What experience have you had with queries? What questions do you have?
Don't forget to join the conversation!


Edie Melson is a freelance writer and editor with years of experience in the publishing industry. She’s a prolific writer, and has a popular writing blog, The Write Conversation. She’s the co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, as well as a popular faculty member at numerous others. She’s also the social media columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and social media coach for My Book Therapy. Connect with her through Twitter and Facebook.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's valuable to hear this information from someone who has been on both sides of the desk. Nice pointers. Thanks!