There are two ways to submit to magazine editors.
One is to send the finished article without it being requested. This is referred to as an unsolicited manuscript. Most editors dislike reading lengthy manuscripts, and many magazines specify that they do not accept unsolicited manuscripts which, when received, are consigned to what’s called the ‘slush pile’ and seldom get read.
Another, more productive way, to submit to magazines is to send a query letter, in which you pitch your idea to the editor before actually writing the article.
A query letter is a sales pitch: your goal is to convince the editor that your article idea is of interest to her readers and that you are the best person to write it.
Query letters save everybody time. In the time that would have taken you to write a full article, you can write a few query letters which may result in more than one assignment. Query letters save editors’ time because they don’t have to read lengthy manuscripts which may not be suitable for their magazines.
Query letters better your chances of working with the magazine you want to write for. Editors are usually reluctant to ask for a rewrite or suggest substantial changes to a finished piece. Query letters, on the other hand, make it easy for editors to offer suggestions to a proposed idea.
Even if your idea is not quite suitable for the magazine, the editor may like the way you’ve presented your idea and yourself and may still be interested in working with you on a different assignment.
I hope by now you are convinced that query letters are essential to breaking into the writing industry, especially if you are just starting out. So it’s well worth the time and effort to compose an irresistible letter that makes the editor want to see more of your writing.
Your query letter is not the only one the editor will see, so you must do your best to make yours stand out from the crowd and get noticed. A single query letter can make or break your success as a writer. Editors remember names. Make sure they remember yours in a positive way.
If your query letter is professionally written and attention-grabbing, even if your idea may not be quite right, the editor will mentally clock your name. If your query is accepted, and you complete your assignment with a well-written, well-researched and error-free article, she’ll remember you even more. And your next query will be viewed in a more favourable light. This means that a good query is often the beginning of a long-standing relationship between you and the editor.
If you send an unprofessional, poorly-written query, suggesting ideas which do not fit the magazine, the editor will remember you, too. But now she remembers you in a negative way. The next time you send her a query, she may just quickly glance at it and put it in the bin. You may be closing the door to that magazine forever by sending a single bad query. Do you really want to take that risk?
Nothing is guaranteed in life. Even a perfect query letter does not guarantee an assignment. But if you following the 10 steps outlined in this book, you will stand a much better chance of producing a professional query letter that gets read and gets assignments.
Note: To avoid cumbersome writing such as he/she and his/her, I have taken the liberty to refer to an editor as a ‘she’.
Step 1: Get the name right
When you receive a letter addressing you as ‘Dear Customer’ or ‘Dear Home Owner’, do you feel the letter is talking to you directly?
It reads like junk mail that has been sent to millions of other people, doesn’t it? If you send an editor a letter addressing her as ‘Dear Editor’ or ‘Dear Sir / Madam’, she will get the impression that not much time and effort has gone into the query, and she’d be right.
If there’s one thing all freelance writers should know, it is that your article must be targeted specifically for a particular magazine. In order for your article to fit in with the style and tone of the magazine, the editor will expect you to have read a few issues of the publication.
A query letter beginning with ‘Dear Sir’ tells the editor that you have not taken the time to research the publication. If you haven’t read the magazine, you won’t know anything about the audience. And if you don’t know who the audience is, how can the editor trust you to deliver an article that is suited to the magazine? So, if you only do one thing to make your query stand a better chance of success, get the editor’s name.
Larger publications often have different editors for different sections, and it’s important to send your query to the right person. When a features editor receives a short story, she may not have the time or inclination to forward it to the short story editor, and your query will be unread. So take some time to find out if you need to send your query to somebody other than the main editor. You can usually find all the information you need in the masthead.
If you don’t want to spend money buying every magazine you want to write for, go to a large newsagent or the library and look up the names there at leisure. Another way is to ring up the editorial office and ask the secretary.
Bear in mind that magazine personnel changes regularly, so check that the name is still valid every time you send a query letter.
Make sure you spell the editor’s name correctly. Some editors are mad about having their names spelt wrong. Besides, if you can’t get the details of her name right, why should she trust you to get the details of the article right?
It is acceptable to address the editor simply as ‘Dear John Doe’ or ‘Dear Jane Doe’ rather than ‘Dear Mr Doe’ or ‘Dear Ms Doe’. Nowadays it’s not always possible to tell someone’s gender by his or her name. In the case of women editor, it is particularly difficult to ascertain if she is a Miss, Ms or Mrs.
Step 2: Know your audience
Imagine this scenario:
You are a 35-year-old career woman. You subscribe to a magazine called ‘Women Today’. You like the magazine because you feel that it caters for women like you. It addresses the needs of those who have to juggle between their roles as career women, wives and mothers. It offers fashion tips for your age group and good advice for busy parents. It also has an inspirational short story in each issue.
Now image this:
At the end of a busy day, after the children have gone to bed and all the dishes have been done, you open your ‘Women Today’ and look forward to a good read, only to find that the magazine is now full of beauty tips for teenage girls; news about pop bands; advice on what to do on a first date; and the short story is gone.
You would be forgiven for thinking that you’ve brought the wrong magazine, and you’d probably stop buying it from now on and look for another one to fill the void.
Driving readers away is the last thing editors want to do. That’s why most magazines stick to a tried-and-trusted formula that suits the targeted readers.
The moral of the story is that there is no point in submitting the wrong type of article ideas to editors. Your article may be beautifully written, well-researched and error free, but if it’s about teenage pregnancy then it’s not going to get printed in a magazine for the over-50s.
Likewise, article ideas about enjoying one’s life in retirement are unlikely to be accepted by editors of magazines targeted at teenagers. Your ideas must be right for the magazines you’re sending your queries to.
You should read at least two issues of the magazine to get to know the tone, style and the average length of the articles. Again, use a library or a large newsagent if you need to.
Don’t forget to look at the advertisements, which will tell you a lot about the magazine’s intended audience. An article about trendy wine bars is unlikely to be of interest to a magazine advertising stair lifts.
Reading the magazine will also ensure that you’re not trying to pitch an idea that has appeared in a recent issue.
Many magazines now publish their submission guidelines on their websites, so check these out first to get an idea about the kind of articles they want. If you can’t find guidelines on the website, write to the editorial office with an SAE asking for writer’s guidelines. Most magazines will be happy to send you a copy.
The bottom line is, editors only print what their readers want to read. So if you have an idea that appeals to a magazine’s audience, it will also appeal to the editor. And the only way to find out what the readers want is to read the magazine yourself.
Step 3: A grand opening
Make your opening sentence work for you. Make it attention-grabbing and make it a masterpiece. Editors are busy people and you have about 30 seconds to get their attention. If you begin your query with a boring statement, she will simply scan through your letter and move on to the next one. Don’t give her any excuse to stop reading your letter. Present your idea as early in the letter as possible.
Your first sentence can be an intriguing question, an interesting fact, a quote from someone you interviewed, an anecdote, a statistic, a riddle or a joke appropriate to your idea.
Don’t ever begin your letter with:
‘Although I have never been published before …’
‘I’m new to writing but …’
‘My mother thinks I should submit this article idea …’
You get the drift. Comments like these scream amateurism. No editors want to work with amateurs.
Step 4: Get to the point quickly
Don’t over-stay your welcome by waffling on about inappropriate personal details. Editors are not interested in the fact that you struggle to find time to write as a mother-of-two, for example.
Explain to the editor why your article idea is unique and how it is of interest to her and her readers. Include a provisional opening paragraph if possible, but only if you think it will grab the editor’s attention and make her want to know what comes next. Say how you will get the information required to write the article; for example, by interviewing experts on the topic.
If you haven’t worked with the editor before, include brief information about yourself. If you have special qualifications to write about this particular article, make sure you let her know. For example, if you have a science degree and your article idea is about making science interesting to the general public, then say so.
Indicate how long your article will be. Make sure this is in line with the average length of similar articles in the magazine. Make it clear to the editor that the length can be varied to suit her needs.
Make your query a single A4 page. If you can’t condense your idea on one page, you need to work on it more to get it more focused.
Don’t include more than one idea in a query. The only exception is when you’re sending fillers. Even then it should be no more than 2 pages. Number your fillers clearly.
Step 5: Be professional
Professionalism is the key to success. The quality of your writing is of course important, but so is the image you project as a professional writer.
Be businesslike. You may be feeling despondent about having received five rejections in a week, but don’t spill your emotions. At this point, an editor is a potential client, not a personal friend, although she may become so once you have worked with her on a regular basis.
If you can afford it, get a professional-looking letterhead designed and printed at a printer. It need not be too expensive. If you own a laser printer, you can design a simple, elegant letterhead yourself on your computer. Make it minimal. Don’t try to use all the available fonts and colours in your word processor, and resist the temptation to include silly clip-arts in your letterhead. If you want to include graphics, get a logo designed professionally.
Include essential details such as your name, postal and email addresses, telephone and fax number.
Don’t expect the editor to pay for return postage. If you want to get a reply, you must include an SAE.
Editors want articles that are well-researched and error-free. If you query is full of mistakes, editors will doubt your ability to produce high-quality articles.
Don’t rely on spell-checkers solely. Read your query letters out loud; this makes it easier to spot spelling and grammatical errors. Get a friend or relative to proof-read your queries. Don’t send them out unless you know they’re error-free.
Step 6: Be focused
It is probably true that everything has been written about at least once. Your task is to find a new angle. Do you have something new to say about your topic? Or can you say something that’s already been said in a new way?
Don’t write to an editor suggesting you want to write an article about cooking or dyslexia. This is too generic. On the other hand, queries entitled ‘Quick Mouth-watering Recipes for Busy Mums’ or ’10 tell-tale signs of dyslexia in children’ are focused.
Editors like ideas that are focused because they can picture how and where the finished articles will fit into their magazines. Make your query focused and editors will love you.
Many magazines have regular sections. If you can indicate to the editor which section of the magazine your article will fit into then all the better. This tells the editor that you have studied the magazine, which will put your in her favour.
Step 7: Mail or email, but no phone
Before you send out your query, check that your submission method is correct. Some magazines will not look at email queries, others insist on them. Do not query by telephone unless you have worked with an editor on a few occasions and are sure that she doesn’t mind.
Sending your query via the wrong method once again shows the editor that you have not spent time studying their publications and guidelines. This will put you on the blacklist and jeopardise chances of acceptance of your future queries.
If you’re querying by email, it is best to paste your query into the body of the email, rather than sending it as an attached document. This is because attachments are notorious for spreading computer viruses, and editors who have not worked with you before will be unlikely to open an attachment from an unknown source.
Emails are great for keeping in touch with friends and family, and we often adopt an informal tone in emails. When you email an editor, however, write it as you would a formal letter. Resist the temptation to use smilies ( ) or abbreviations commonly used on the internet. Don’t over-use punctuation marks, like this!!!!!!! AND DON’T USE ALL CAPITAL LETTERS IN YOUR EMAIL. IT MAKES IT VERY DIFFICULT TO READ.
I would also advice against putting the word ‘Query’ in the subject line of your email. Editors are busy people. On a day when she is inundated with emails and letters, and faced with a deadline two days away, she may well respond to that ‘oh no another query’ by deleting it without reading it.
Step 8: Clips, or no clips
If you’re a published writer, include a couple of your best clips with the query, but only if the clips are appropriate to the idea you’re proposing. There is little point in sending a clip on local history if your query is about fine wines.
If you’ve never been published before, don’t draw the editor’s attention to the fact. If the only places you’ve been published are local church newsletters or obscure websites with dubious reputation, it’s best not to mention them. It’s much better to simply present yourself in a professional manner in your query letter. If you act like a pro, the editor will assume you’re a pro and will treat you as one. Let your irresistible query letter and its professionalism speak for you.
Step 9: Learn from your rejections
It’s waiting time once you’ve sent your query off. Unfortunately editors are busy people and the waiting time can range from a week to three months.
If you haven’t heard from the editor in four weeks, follow it up with a polite letter or email. If you still haven’t heard anything after three months, assume it’s a rejection and move on.
For new writers, rejections can be soul-destroying. Just when you are feeling more confident about your writing, along comes a rejection letter, leaving you in doubt as to whether you are good enough to be a writer.
It’s important to realise that getting rejections is part of a successful writer’s life. It means that you’re making contact with the publishing world. Don’t let rejections stop you from sending out more queries. Be persistent, be professional and you will get published.
While you must try not to let the rejection get you down, you should spend some time analysing why your last query has not produced a positive response before re-submitting it to another magazine. Was it appropriate to the publication? Did you start your query with an attention-grabber? Did you send it to the right person? Did you send it in the post when the magazine insists on email submissions (or vice versa)? Did you include enough information for the editor to make a decision? Did you include an SAE?
Every rejection is one step forward in your writing career. Learn from them and use them to make your next query better.
Step 10: Give it 100%
Some writers, especially new writers, argue that they should be spending their time writing ‘something proper’ rather than writing query letters. The trouble is, if you don’t write query letters, your ‘proper writing’ may never be published and be read.
A query letter is a sales letter. To the editor, it is an indication of the quality and style of your writing. If she is impressed with what she reads in your query, she’ll trust your ability to write the finished article.
Don’t ever dismiss writing queries as a waste of time. To a writer, nothing written is ever wasted. Think of it as the gateway to your success as a freelance writer. Follow the steps outlined in this book and give it 100% every time you write a query letter. Now all you need are good ideas. But that’s another story.
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1. How not to write a query letter
[Do return address and contact details]
123 High Street
Dear Mrs Smith
I have never written to an editor before, but I have a wonderful article idea about horses. I started riding since I was a child, so I thought I could write an article for your magazine about horses.
I haven’t read your magazine but a friend suggested I should write to you to see if you’d be interested in my idea. I have written a couple of items for the local community newsletter and my family and friends think my writing is not bad.
Please let me know as soon as possible if you are interested in my idea. I will give you a call next week to discuss the details.
[no SAE enclosed]
2. Example of a professional query letter
[Professional letterhead, or clearly printed contact details]
20 October 2002
123 High Street
Dear Anne Smith
What.. what.. should a pa.. pa.. parent do if.. if.. if.. a child st.. started stammering ?
Many would simply keep their fingers crossed and hope that the child would ‘grow out of it’. However, research shows that while most children do outgrow this problem, some will develop persistent stammering into later life.
Stammering usually begins between the ages 2 and 5, and early intervention is vital in preventing it from developing into a chronic problem. I am confident that your readers, a large number of whom are parents of 2- to 5-year-olds, will be interested in a 1000-word article entitled ‘Help! My Child Has Started Stammering ‘. The article will be an excellent fit for the Toddler Development section in your magazine.
I am a speech therapist and have worked with children who stammer . I will also interview two experts in this field to include the latest findings on childhood stammering .
Thank you for taking the time to consider my idea. I enclose an SAE for your response.