You have an idea. Now it’s time to write a query letter, or query. (Remember that query’s a verb, too. You can write a query, or you can query a publication. Both are legit uses of the word.) The query is the way you introduce yourself to an editor. This one-page letter is likely your only opportunity to make a positive first impression, capture her attention with an idea that will work for her readers, and convince her or him to give you your first assignment. It’s important.
I’ve been using the same basic structure for queries for years, and I know it works. Each query includes four elements:
*The lead. This first paragraph or two should capture the reader’s attention. You don’t need to start your query with an introduction; instead, jump right into your story and write the lead of the article you intend to write. You may use a first-person or third-person anecdote; a recent research breakthrough; a surprising fact; or any other introduction that makes your editor keep reading.
*The why-write-it section. This paragraph gives more detail about the article you’re pitching so that the editor can decide whether it’s right for her readers.
*The nuts-and-bolts section. This paragraph describes how you’ll approach the article. Who do you plan to interview? How long will the article be? What angle will you use? What’s the working title? I always like to suggest the section of the publication I believe the story belongs here. It shows I’m familiar with the market I’m pitching, which helps set me apart from other writers.
*The ISG (for “I’m-So-Great”) paragraph. This is arguably the most important section of the query for an unpublished writer. You’re unknown and unproven, so you want to demonstrate that you’re the perfect person to write this particular story.
So when do you send a query? That depends on the publication's “lead time.” Lead time is the amount of time between when a publication assigns stories and when they actually run. Typically, national consumer magazines have the longest lead times—on average, about six months. Smaller magazines and trade publications tend to have shorter lead times, and online publications have the shortest, which may be only a week or two.
You want to think about lead time when you’re pitching an idea that has some kind of “time peg,” or reason to run the story at a particular time. For example, you’d probably pitch a holiday-themed story to a national woman’s magazine in early summer, and a “get ready for the beach” workout for a spring issue of a men’s fitness magazine in fall or early winter. The publication’s writers’ guidelines may tell you what its lead time is; if there’s any doubt, it’s always better to pitch a story a little early than too late.
In fact, I suggest you always review the market’s writers’ guidelines before you write a query. The guidelines may specify what editors like to see in pitches, and tell you which sections of the publication are written in-house or are otherwise unavailable to freelancers. The guidelines will also tell how to send your query (i.e., via email or regular mail) and may also give you a suggested response time.
Here’s an example of a straightforward query using the above template. I’ve included my comments in blue.
When I launched my fulltime freelance business on January 1, 1997, I did so without any help. I had no journalism background, no clients, no connections in the publishing world, and a portfolio that contained only two clips. I made every mistake possible along the way. I wrote articles and sent them to markets instead of sending queries. I took what editors offered without asking for more money. I signed all-rights contracts without negotiating to make them more writer-friendly. I wrote for markets once instead of trying to develop long-term relationships. The list goes on…and on…and on.
But over time, I started to learn from my mistakes. I looked for ways to work more efficiently. I focused on building relationships with editors, experts, and other writers. I cut back on the amount of time I spent researching stories, which boosted my bottom line. And I discovered ways to set myself apart from all the other writers out there clamoring for editors’ attention. It paid off—along the way, I’ve written hundreds of articles, two novels, three nonfiction books, and hit the six-figure mark as a freelancer. [This is a first-person lead. Do you see how I’m catching the editor’s attention with a “true-life” story and demonstrating that I’m uniquely positioned to write this article?]
Yet I see many writers making the same kinds of mistakes I did early on, which prevent them from reaching their monetary and personal goals. “The Biggest Mistakes Even Smart Writers Make” will describe these kinds of errors, how they affect your productivity, and show ways to overcome them. I’m thinking of breaking the article into five to eight sections (depending on how many mistakes you want me to cover), with practical, doable advice for each type of error. [This paragraph explains how I’ll approach the story, and shows the editor how her readers will benefit from the piece. In retrospect, I could have included a couple of examples of these types of mistakes to further strengthen this section.]
Kristin, are you interested in this topic for your “Work Smarter” section? I estimate 1,500 words for this piece, but that’s flexible depending on your needs. About me: I’ve been a fulltime freelancer for seven years, and wrote an article on reprints for Writer’s Digest last year. My work has also appeared in more than 50 national magazines including Self, Shape, Health, Redbook, Woman’s Day, Continental, The Writer, and Marie Claire, and I’m the author of four books including Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money (The Writer Books, 2003) and the upcoming Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer’s Guide to Making More Money (Random House, February, 2005.) If you like, I’ll be happy to send you clips via fax or snail mail. [Note that I’ve suggested the section of the magazine where I think the story belongs. I’ve also given her a word estimate that is consistent with the writers’ guidelines, and told her a little bit about my background.]
Please let me know if you have any questions about this idea. I believe readers will appreciate and benefit from this story. [Oops! I forgot to thank her for her time. Otherwise, I think this is a great query, and it sold.]
Feel free to use this template and my four-paragraph structure to create your own queries. A model will help you create a compelling, professional query that will help you nab assignments.
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