The Blog of John Hewitt

How to Talk About Yourself in a Query Letter

QueryA great article idea is the most important aspect of a good query letter, but it isn’t the only thing that matters. You don’t just need to sell the publication on your idea; you need to convince the publisher that you are the best person to write the article. Part of this process has to do with your overall writing style and the professionalism of your presentation. The other part is your discussion of your experience, writing credits and other qualifications. You need to show your potential publisher that you can handle the assignment. This is not the time to be humble. This is the time to brag a little about your abilities and experience.

Before I discuss what you should tell a potential publisher, I should make sure you know what you should NEVER tell them:

  • Never tell them that you are a first time writer who is looking for a break.
  • Never tell them about your personal or money problems.
  • Never tell them you don’t know the subject well but are looking to learn more.

Publications don’t care about your problems. They are looking for good writers. The last thing a publisher wants is to take a chance on someone who may not be able to deliver what they promise. Your goal should be to fill the publisher with confidence, not pity.

The best location to discuss your qualifications is just before the concluding paragraph of your query letter. You don’t want to waste time or space, so limit the discussion of your qualifications to those that are most relevant to the article you are proposing. For example, if you are proposing an article about retirement investment tax issues, it is relevant to mention that you are a financial planner with a track record in retirement planning, but those same facts would be irrelevant in a query for an article about living with chronic back pain.

You will want to mention a few of your past article credits. Again, they should be the most relevant credits you have. If you have nothing relevant, go with the most prestigious credits that you have, but relevancy trumps prestige. If you are employed as a writer for a particular publication, be sure to include that. If you have very few credits, just include the best that you have and don’t apologize for them. Just put them in and move on. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Here is a sample paragraph from a query letter:

I have been a certified financial planner for twelve years and a freelance writer for eight years. I have written extensively about the tax issues associated with retirement preparation. For the past two years I have written a weekly financial planning column for the Springfield Business Journal and have made several appearances on Good Morning Springfield as their retirement planning expert. I have also published retirement planning articles in Savvy Investor, Golden Years,  and Family Advocate.

Finally, you should include, along with your query letter, from one to three writing samples. If you are emailing your query, it is acceptable to include links to articles, but if you are sending a query by regular mail, you need to include the actual articles. Remember that you want to include whatever samples are most relevant to your query.

How to Send an Effective Press Release

Capturing a publication’s attention can be a difficult task. You are competing against a variety of other people, causes and events. To win this competition you must do two things. First, you must gain their interest. Second, you must present your story in a professional manner that will make it easy for them to give you the coverage you desire. Here are some tips to help you send effective press releases.

Know Your Target

Find out who the publication’s editor / reporter / blogger is for the section you want your press release to appear in. Include that person’s name on the press release, not just on the envelope or in the email address.

Pick One Person Per Publication

Once you’ve chosen the appropriate person, stick with them. If the article needs to be passed off to another reporter, the publication will make that decision. If you send your press release to more than one person, any problems that develop from duplicate coverage and effort will be blamed on you.

Don’t Just Send, Call

To increase your chances of getting coverage, call the intended recipient before you send the press release and call a few days later to make sure they received it. Making first contact by phone will also help you find the appropriate person to send your press release to.

Give it Time

Don’t email a press release the day before an event and expect your event to receive coverage. Give the maximum possible amount of time for the publication to decide how they want to cover the story. If you feel the event is so far in the distance that they might forget about it, then simply send another release as the time for the event draws nearer.

Know Your Deadlines

Magazines, even weekly ones, are planned months in advance. Seasonal events such as Christmas and Thanksgiving are great examples of this. Holiday issues are frequently developed in the heat of summer. For calendar items, know when the publication’s submission deadline is. Do your research.

Keep it Short and Informative

Reporters and editors are notoriously busy. Most press releases should be kept to a single page. Two pages is acceptable but not optimal. If the publications want more information, they’ll ask.

Write it in a News Style

Put the primary information (who, where, what, and when) into the lead (first paragraph), and avoid a heavy sales pitch. No exclamation points!!! Use short words and sentences. Make sure what you’re saying is very clear. Many publications will directly reprint a press release, as long as it is written in a professional news style. Buy either the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style, and learn the general guidelines for abbreviating words, writing numbers and capitalizing names.

Use Postal Mail or Email

You should check with each publication to find out their preferred system for receiving press releases. In general, email is acceptable and postal mail is fine. Faxes are hard to read or to include photos with, so avoid faxing.

Help keep it Together

For printed press releases, always include, at the top corner of every page, a two or three word description of the story, the name and contact information of key contact people (no more than two), the page number (if there is more than one page) and the release date (usually “for immediate release” or “please hold until ??/??/??”). For emails, include this information at the beginning of the email. Be aware that most people will hit the reply button to respond to an email, so send your press release from an email address that you will be able to follow up from.

Show and Tell

If you have good photos, send them or include the words “photos available upon request” with your information at the top of the first page. Only send high quality photos, however, and only when they add to your story. Place photos between cardboard when mailing. Don’t tape or paper clip the photos or you risk damaging them.

Make it Easy on the Eyes

When sending mail. use standard 8 1/2″x 11″ paper typed on one side only. Never break a paragraph across two pages. Leave wide margins for editors to write notes in. A 1 1/2″ or 2″ margin on each side is fine. Also, use a standard font. Fancy text may look nice, but it is hard to read.

Dress for Success

When sending mail, don’t fold your press release like a letter. You should fold it so that the headline and date will be the first thing the editor or reporter sees upon opening the envelope.

All Good Press Releases Must Come to an End

End a press release with either “###” or ” -30-” typed across the center of the page, three lines below the end of your text. If a release has greater than one print page, type “-more-”, centered at the bottom of the pages preceding the final page.

Why they Rejected your Perfectly Good Submission

“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias.  They do not sell. ” A publisher’s rejection letter to Stephen King

Rejection is an unavoidable part of the publishing world. If you want other people to publish your work, you are going to have to accept rejection and criticism.

Some of the reasons writers get rejected are entirely the writer’s fault. These reasons should be obvious, but some people just don’t seem to understand. You will probably be rejected if you do any of the following:

  • Send an inappropriate submission or query, such as an article about guitars to a magazine about drums.
  • Send a poorly written or unprofessional sounding submission or query.
  • Address your submission or query to the wrong person or department.
  • Fail to follow a publisher’s submission guidelines.
  • Fail to study the publication well enough to be clear about what they want and use.

Those are major errors that will almost certainly get you rejected without a second thought. Lets assume for the moment though, that your submission or query is appropriate, well-written, properly addressed and follows the publisher’s submission guidelines. There are still a number of legitimate reasons that it might be rejected, which do not reflect poorly on you. For the sake of brevity, assume that “editor” means anyone who is deciding whether or not to publish your work.

Because of tastes or requirements

Every publication’s editor has tastes that may not be reflected in the submissions guidelines. They may prefer a specific approach to the subject matter that they publish. They may prefer that their writers have a certain background that you do not have. They may not like your sources or your use of commas. None of these things mean that you did something wrong, it just means that the editor wants something different from what they are seeing.

Because the editor prefers certain writers

Just because a publication says that it is open to new writers, doesn’t mean that they are specifically seeking new writers. The editor may already be comfortable with the freelancers her or she is working with, and not be willing to break in someone new. Some writers are especially good at building relationships with editors, and those relationships pay off down the line with additional assignments. If you are a new writer to this editor, and don’t have a reputation that matters to them, then you may lose out on that basis alone.

Because your submission was not unique

Your idea may be similar to a submission that the editor has already received or published. Some publishers have long lead times between submission and publication. The idea you had may have already been pitched by another writer, or it may have appeared in their publication a year or two earlier and you just didn’t catch it. These things happen.

Because they are saturated with submissions

Some publications receive more submissions than others. This is especially true of major magazines, web sites, and book publishers. If an editor has one slot and twenty worthwhile submissions, then you might get pushed out by the sheer numbers. It doesn’t mean that your submission was bad. It just means that someone else’s work met their needs in a way that yours did not.

Look for positive signs and helpful feedback

In many cases, you won’t receive any feedback with your rejection. Some editors are just too busy to give feedback to every writer that approaches them. If you do receive feedback though, and it isn’t overwhelmingly negative, then the editor is trying to give you some hope or advice for the future. Listen to what they have to say. If they tell you to submit again, do so. If they tell you specifically why they rejected you, look for ways that you can overcome that obstacle in the future. Also, remember that a rejection by one publisher doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try another publisher. If you like your idea, find an editor who does as well.