Query letters are how writers sell their ideas and themselves for publications. Some may use them to promote book ideas while others sell ideas to magazine publications. This write up will be limited to the topic of freelance writing for magazines. The primary purpose of a query letter in this area of publication is to grab the editor’s attention, tell them exactly how much they need this article and how this particular writer is just the person for the job. Clips may be included too. These are photocopied samples of prior published work, sometimes called tearsheets. Queries are not to exceed one page, include a SASE and if relevant a resume may be sent along as well.

There is some discussion about e mailing query letters. One side says it's more convenient for copy editors by dispensing with opening envelopes and other related sundries of paperwork. The flip side to an e mail is that the delete button is largely a temptation and many queries are not replied to. The written letter remains the best way to get a story idea to the attention of an editor and with a self addressed stamped envelope providing the most convenient way to communicate why the article was rejected. That's important to a writer so they can re work the next idea for another magazine. It's best to start small, look around the community for local publications or magazines that publish stories along the same lines of personal interest and begin submitting to them. Typically two things will happen. The story idea will be rejected or if the magazine is interested in the writer's idea they will call to talk about a contract. If there is no reply to a query it's certainly reasonable to call and ask about its status.

When preparing to introduce an idea for publication it’s best to spend some time reading through several magazines to gather an idea of what the “voice” is of the publication. While 60 Ways to Love His Body may sound like it would fall under Sports & Leisure it really belongs in women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan or Essence.

There are four essential components of a query letter:

  1. Catchy Introduction: Frequently the first paragraph or lead of the query is also the first paragraph of the author’s article. The lead should entice the editor and elicit a sense of excitement. It's the most important part of the query.
  2. Details: This is where ideas are explained along with a brief decription of what will be written about. What sources and, depending on the article, statistics. Magazines love numbers! It quantifies the amount information that readers will get if they buy their porduct. Don't give all of the information away, but an aim for an adequate amount to show legitimacy.
  3. Qualifications: By mentioning his or her expertise the writer is telling the editor why they are the best person for the job. It’s important to talk about skills, personal connections, and previous publishing credits.
  4. Niceties and soft-sell: This part of the query thanks the editor for their time and stresses how this article will benefit the readers of the magazine.

The following sample query is part of an assignment from a class called How to Write for Magazines. Community Colleges offer several kinds of writing courses. A writer who has worked in the magazine industry in New York City and has a great deal of experience as a freelance magazine writer presented this class: She wrote:

    Get insider information on how magazines work and where freelancing fits in. You will learn what kinds of articles they are looking for and how to write a selling manuscript of query letter.
The objective of the course is to learn about how to break into the magazine industry. Part of the coursework is to research a magazine and prepare a query letter. Although the instuctor did a terrific job explaining the magazine industry she didn't provide any examples of query letters. It's hoped that the reader will keep that in mind since this is a first attempt as a novice:
    March 19, 2003

    Lawrence Fagan, Editor
    Name of Magazine
    Address
    City, State Zip Code

    Dear Mr. Fagan,

    Cydonia Mensae the infamous face on Mars, may be an artificial sculpture suffering from nephelococcygia.

    At one time or another, humans have looked up to the clouds and imagined shapes resembling familiar objects. The earth's atmosphere and the system of the weather are complex and self-organizing; the system itself is transient, permanent and fleeting, and transfixed all at the same time. Maybe an imagined letter of the alphabet. Or, it might be an animal or a person's face. This is called nephelococcygia and the word was first coined in the play The Birds written in 414 B.C. by the Greek comic poet Aristophanes. It doesn't cost much to visit the dreamy world of looking for shapes in the clouds

    1. Find a safe spot to lie on the grass. Freshly mown is recommended.
    2. Lay on your back on the grass.
    3. Relax.....
    Many bookworms enjoy learning anecdotes and history of words behind some of our bizarre and outlandish language. "Eight Ways to Look for Shapes in the Clouds" is one example. The narrative captures readers as they drift through heavenly passages beginning with an ancient Grecian farce that gave rise to this wacky word for the place of a perfect city, transcend anecdotal heights as scientists from the late 1800’s employ a considerable amount of quirky and clouded allusions for comic relief among the data-laden battlefield of the earliest ideas of evolution, to the techno-equivalent of website watching for changing shapes of clouds and while it makes the web page impossible to read, it's a brilliantly billowing display of technology.
    I am an Internet bloodhound – if a gee-whiz etymological history of a word or expression exists online, I can find it. I am a writer who lives by words and is keen on word detecting.
    Currently, I'm writing as an avocation from the field of education. When not writing, I evaluate various poetry, short story and manuscript submissions and cyber-mentor aspiring writers.
    Word spying and phrase finding is a fun project to research and create. Take my word for it, these explorations would furnish wit and wisdom to the most avid word worm with a brand new view of where in the world words come from, what has happened to them through time, and places they may be heading for in the future. Since I work from home, I am able to do all the essential research in a timely manner. I am open to editorial criticism will not hesitate to provide any revisions, if needed

    Thank you for your time,

    Name
    Address
    Phone Number


One primary reason people read a magazine is to learn how to do something. Magazines strive to provide information for their readers that will make their lives easier, more enriching or more productive. Possible story ideas for novice writers could be turning points in their lives, places they have visited, jobs, or an area of expertise. Writers know that it’s vital to write query letters for articles that they are absolutely sure they are going to write. They want to deliver on their word. The three common types of articles that magazines publish are:
  • How-to articles: Magazines thrive off of these types of articles and are one of the best ways for freelancers to break into the scene. For example, this write-up is basically an “How-to article”.
  • Essays: This falls under the category of Write what you know with the emphasis on personal experiences that relate to readers. These events usually begin broadly then focus on personal insights into the experience.
  • Personality profiles: These kinds of stories involve people who have become “extraordinary” in some way by having an unusual hobby or interest. These types of stories are a major component of magazines.

To find out who to send a query idea to one can usually find the masthead listing several types of editors, Editor-in-chief, Managing Editor, Copy Editor, Editorial Assistants, and Contributing Editors to name a few. The number of staff mebers varies from publication to publication depending on the circulation and number of subscribers of the magazine. Even though query letters are addressed to the Managing Editor it’s usually first read by an assistant who will then decide if it goes on the desk of the Managing Editor or into a slush pile. Most successful freelance writers do well because they spend a lot of time establishing a reputation and have the uncanny ability of slanting or spinning one idea into five different articles for five different magazines. Larger magazines receive literally boxes of query letters a day; the competition’s tough so don’t quit your day job!

Sources:

Attack of the Query Letter!:
http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/freelance/11340

Fasano, Robin. “How to Write for Magazines.” Tucson, Arizona, 2003 (Lecture presented at Pima Community College.)

Writing a query letter for fiction or poetry is a bit different from writing a query letter for a nonfiction piece.

Short Fiction and Poetry

In the case of short stories or poetry, you in general won't be writing many query letters; editors may be mildly annoyed at getting a query letter about a piece when their guidelines clearly state that writers should simply submit such pieces. Thus, you will write query letters in only a few circumstances:

  1. You're writing to find out if the publication is currently accepting submissions; do this only if your market research has yielded conflicting information. This type of query should be short and to the point:
    Dear (insert title and editor's last name here),

    Are you currently accepting materials for NAME OF PUBLICATION? I have a (5,000-word/50-line/whatever) (science fiction short story/poem/whatever) that I wish to submit. My work has appeared in (list relevant credits).

    Thank you,
    (your name here)
    (phone and email)


  2. You're writing to find out if they're willing to look at a piece that falls outside their submissions guidelines (for instance, you might have a short story that's a few thousand words longer than what they say they'll take)

  3. You're trying to get into an invitation-only anthology or chapbook

In the latter two cases, you will be writing a letter similar to the one for the basic are-you-accepting-work? query above. There are a few things to keep in mind when writing such a query:

  • Make sure you've got the editor's title and name correct; this is basic, but to mess this up really hurts your chances. Not figuring out that Editor Pat Smith is female rather than male and then addressing her as "Mr. Smith" is a common mistake.

  • Do not ever, ever try to summarize your poem or story. This is a huge turnoff for most editors. Give them the length and its genre and, if relevant, its topic.

  • Include your relevant publishing credits ("My fiction has appeared in publications such as NEAT-O STORIES, TALES OF THE UTTERLY FABULOUS, and EEK! IT'S FICTION"). Demonstrating that you are a published writer -- and therefore likely the author of competent, readable work -- will help your cause. If, say, you're an unpublished fiction writer but you've had poems published in magazines that run both fiction and poetry, you can sneakilly rephrase things ("My work has appeared in publications such as TALES OF THE UTTERLY FABULOUS and GRINDSTONE QUARTERLY"). If you are well-published, don't list the whole shebang; pick and choose which publications are likely most recognizable to the editor. A maximum listing of two or three lines is sufficient.

  • Don't include biographical information unless it's quite relevant to the piece you wish to submit (for instance, if you've written a thriller novellette based on the time you were held captive by guerillas in El Salvador)

  • If a better-published writer known to the editor has suggested you send your work to this market, by all means mention this. If you're trying to get into an invitation-only anthology, this is pretty much crucial: "(writer name) suggested I submit this piece to you."

  • Keep a businesslike tone. Don't try to be funny unless you are VERY sure of the editor's sense of humor. It's way too easy to inadvertently offend someone and have your attempt at humor backfire.

A lot of the above advice will equally apply to writing cover letters when you submit a story or poem to a publication.

Novels

Novel queries can be simple documents, or they can be complex works that will take you weeks to properly prepare. It all depends on what the publisher says he or she wants to see. If they say they want a query letter and the first chapter or three of the novel, that's essentially what you send. Piquing their interest is crucial in getting them to ask to see the rest of your novel. You will be summarizing the plot and character interactions of your novel. You will also want to include publishing credits and relevant biographical/expert knowledge. In short, your opening letter will be much like the type Lometa described in her writeup above.

Writing a novel synopsis is a complex topic worthy of its own writeup.

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