Freelancer writers fighting to break into magazine markets often ponder the age-old, chicken-or-the-egg dilemma of whether to submit a piece on spec or to write a query letter to editors. Let’s put that question to rest. Unless a magazine’s guidelines state otherwise, you query. Simple. But then you might wonder what makes for a good query letter – you know, a query letter that makes an editor read your submission, sit up straight, scratch his chin, and email you, asking for your entire piece for his publication.
Brevity and Tightness
Before you get into content, cute hooks, and marvelous ideas, you must give the impression that you know how to write tight. Space in magazines cost money. Every inch on those pages either cost the editor in terms of freelance payment or advertising lost. You must convince the editor that you know to make each and every word count like an ounce of gold. Each fluffy word reduces your odds of acceptance. And keep in mind that this query represents your full-fledged ability as a writer. It has to sing as well as your best feature article, because it opens the door.
The opening line can make or break the query letter. There are several types of hooks you can use: the eye-popping statistic, the breath-taking cliffhanger, the beautifully-worded visual, the emotional lapel-grabber, the eager sentence that reads like a headline. If you want to see some of the worst opening hooks, consider these: http://voices.yahoo.com/seven-worst-opening-lines-magazine-query-letter-179313.html
You have several WHYs to answer here, and each needs to be keen, tight, and pertinent. WHY does this piece fit the magazine and its readership? WHY are you qualified to write this piece? WHY does this article matter to anyone? Many writers omit these WHYs, and as a result summit a query that an editor will pick up, read the opening, and wonder WHY should I care?
Your bio has to pop just as much as your headline or hook. Don’t put your entire resume here, but instead, only list the parts of your history that matter to this magazine, for this piece, for this editor. For instance, I once wrote for Landscape Management Magazine. I’d written for many non-landscape magazines, but to land this gig, I emphasized first and foremost that I held a degree in agronomy from Clemson University. Then I mentioned I’d written for many magazines, but only listed anything remotely related to the outdoors. Never did I use my most renowned title, editor of FundsforWriters, because they wouldn’t appreciate it, and it didn’t matter for this piece. They assigned the article to me via email, thirty minutes after I sent the query. To best qualify yourself to an editor, each query letter must contain a unique bio, written specifically for the gig and magazine you pursue.
Get the facts right. Know the word count the magazine wants, and state yours is within that number. State when you can have the entire piece submitted upon request.
Notify the correct editor. If the editor’s name is not in the guidelines, or if the magazine doesn’t specify how to address the query, then look at an actual masthead and note the editor that manages the proper department that fits your piece. Mastheads are usually online, but if the one you want isn’t, pick up the magazine.
Include all your contact information to include name, address, email, phone number and website. Nothing frustrates an editor more than to like a piece and not be able to contact the author. I strongly suggest your website include your resume somewhere.
Last But Not Least, Pitch Something Interesting
Before you query, do your homework. Has the magazine done a similar piece in the last two years? Has the magazine’s competition done a similar piece in the last year or two? If either has, then make sure your piece throws a new spin on whatever was covered before.
Is this topic an evergreen piece? Meaning, is this a subject that the magazine likes to cover? An environmental magazine will talk green living. An educational magazine will discuss keeping children’s attention. A parenting magazine will talk about vacations, preparing for school, getting kids to eat vegetables. A magazine’s readership will rotate, so the editors like to cover the same topics each year. Your job is to paint the topic in a new light that can’t be construed as mundane, repetitive, or cliché, because the magazine ALSO has a lot of old readers, too.
So there you go. Now you know the secrets of a successful query letter. Now, add your unique voice, your wit, your wordsmithy prowess, and you’ve got a query that can’t miss.