The Blog of John Hewitt

How to write a query letter

Query letters are a much-debated practice in the writing community. Many writers swear by them, but others feel they are a waste of time. Formal query letters were the accepted practice in the magazine and book market, but submissions have become much more casual in the age of blogs and other web-based publications. There are many successful writers who stick to sending completed manuscripts or informal, ultra-brief queries.

Here are some advantages to writing a formal query letter:

  • A well-written query letter helps prove to an editor that you are qualified to write the piece.
  • Sending completed articles blindly can indicate to an editor that you either failed to sell the article before, are submitting an article that was not written specifically for their publication, or are attempting to resell a previously published article.
  • Short, informal queries will often go unread or will be given less weight by an editor if they are a stickler for the formal process.
  • A formal, detailed query gives you the opportunity to do preliminary research for a piece that can then be quickly converted into an article.
  • When submitting a query to an online publication, your query will look better than 90% of the other queries being submitted to that publication.

Here are some disadvantages to writing a formal query letter:

  • Writing a good query letter takes time. The freelance market pays less for articles than it did in many past years due to a glut of writers and the low profit margins of web publications. This means that the amount of time you spend querying takes a bigger piece of your profits.
  • The quick turnaround time to publication for web sites means that timely topics grow stale quickly. Sometimes it is better to be fast than formal.
  • Building relationships with publishers is easier and can happen in a number of different ways now (Facebook, Twitter, Blog Comments). It is possible to build relationships before sending queries.

Below is a point-by-point description of how to write a query letter.

Know your target

  • Study any publication before you submit a query letter.
  • Get writer’s guidelines for the publication if they are available.
  • Study the publication’s masthead (or “about” page) to identify the appropriate editor for your query. Do not rely on Writer’s Market. Editors change jobs frequently.
  • You may send the same subject query to more than one publication, as long as they do not compete and you have taken the time to make sure the subject is appropriate for both publications.

Your query letter should have a professional look.

  • There should be no spelling or grammar errors.
  • Be sure to include the date on your letter. This can be important if you feel later on that your idea has been stolen.
  • It should be addressed to the appropriate editor. Use their full name and do not use Mr. Mrs. or otherwise. The exception to this rule is Dr. or other professional title.
  • The publication name and address should be correct.
  • The salutation should be formal.
  • If mailed, the paper and the letterhead should be clean and professional. Standard 8 1/2 x 11 inch paper should be used.
  • Single-space your paragraphs and double-space between paragraphs.
  • If mailed, the Query should include Self Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE)so that the editor can return your article or reply to you conveniently.
  • Include your name, postal address, email address and phone number in the letterhead or at the bottom of the letter.

Your query letter should be interesting

  • Your query should introduce a fresh idea/topic/angle.
  • The idea should be set off in the type so it is easily viewed.
  • Your idea should be presented at the very beginning of your letter.
  • Your lead-in should excite the editor.

Your query letter should be specific

  • Keep your query letter concise.
  • Lay out exactly what you intend to include and exclude from your article.
  • Give a proposed article length. Round to the nearest 100 for under 2000 words and to nearest 500 for articles over that length. The length should be appropriate for that publication.
  • Identify which section of the publication you believe your article fits within.

Your query letter should be persuasive

  • Include writing samples that are appropriate to the publication, article topic, and writing style you believe the publication is looking for.
  • Present any credentials or awards you have that show you are qualified to write, especially about this subject.
  • Identify other similar publications that have published your work.
  • Identify any sources you have that you feel would help persuade the editor.
  • Your article should show why you are the best and only person to write this article for them.
  • Close your letter with a phrase such as: “I look forward to hearing from you. Please write or call if you have any questions.”

Respond promptly when a query is accepted

  • When an editor expresses interest in (solicits) your article, send it to them promptly. In your cover letter, remind them of their request.
  • You do not need to enclose an SASE when sending your article.

What you should not do in your query letter

  • Do not mention who has rejected the piece before.
  • Do not include other people’s statements about your article.
  • Do not tell the editor how long and hard you have been working on this article.
  • Do not mention the assistance of others.
  • Do not tell them that the piece still needs work.
  • Do not request advice, comments, criticism or analysis.
  • Do not talk about how thrilling it would be to be published.
  • Do not include inappropriate or off-subject information about yourself.
  • Do not discuss the rights you wish to sell.
  • Do not discuss price or payment.
  • Do not give your social security number.
  • Do not give or discuss copyright information.
  • Do not wear out your welcome by writing too much or failing to get to the point.
  • Do not query without studying the publication enough to know whether your idea is appropriate.
  • Do not waste your time querying an unreceptive editor over and over again.
  • Do not present ideas for several different articles in the same letter. This can be done once you have established a rapport with an editor or website publisher, but should not be done in a blind query.
  • Do not use obscenities or inappropriate content.
  • Do not send inappropriate, off-subject samples.
  • Do not present the article as a way to increase SEO or otherwise explain the benefits of publishing an article on the web. Your publisher already knows these things.
  • Don’t try to pitch articles that are more to promote your your own web site or client site. Pitch article that are a clear benefit to the publication. There is no quicker way to a person’s spam filter than to market articles like this.

Sample Query Letter:

Max Swif
Securities Editor
Money Bucks Magazine
1010 E. 10200th Street
New York, NY

August 22, 2013

Dear Max Swif,

Proposed Article:

You’ve Got Fraud! How Internet con artists can crush your portfolio

Last Monday, the Enforcement Section of the Massachusetts Securities Division ordered a temporary cease and desist order against three men it accuses of manipulating the stock market by flooding Yahoo.com with tens of thousands of false and misleading statements about Biomatrix Inc (BXM.N) and Genzyme Corp (GENZ.O). This is the latest in a growing series of civil and criminal lawsuits against people who manipulate stocks through mass emails or in this case, by posting misleading statements on financial discussion boards. My article will detail the trend from the perspective of three people.

  • A securities trader whose legitimate stock analysis email newsletter has contended with fake announcements by people who acquired his mailing list.
  • A lawyer who represented a client in a case similar to the Massachusetts case.
  • An investor who blames her loss of $70,000 in the stock market on fraudulent discussion-board posting.

In my article I will discuss the negative effects of fraud on investors and companies. I will also discuss how you can protect yourself from fraud. More importantly, I will show how you can be victimized by the trend even when you don’t receive a fraudulent email or read a misleading post. Because such fraud can cause an individual stock to both rise and fall dramatically, investors who never see the misleading information can still end up investing in a bad stock or dumping a good one.

My article would be an excellent fit in your Caveat Emptor section’s ongoing coverage of investment potholes. As is customary for that section, I will include a sidebar of ways you can protect yourself from Internet investment fraud. My advice will include: verifying any news through conventional sources, keeping an eye out for any unusual email from online newsletters, never trusting blind e-mails, and carefully watching or avoiding discussion boards altogether. The last point, that discussion boards rarely result in good investments, will also be a focus of the article. If you would like, this can also be turned into a sidebar.

In addition to the three sources above, I have access to dozens of other securities professionals, legal authorities and investors. I have been a professional investment counselor for the past fifteen years and was one of the earliest adopters of Internet trading. As a former state representative, I authored several investment fraud bills that are still on the Arizona law books. For the past two years I have written a weekly investment article for Phoenix Business Insider. I have also published investment-related articles in Worthwhile Investor, Smart Stock Analyst and Fund Advocate.

Enclosed are reprints of three of my recent articles covering investment and the Internet. These articles will demonstrate both my knowledge of the subject and my ability to convey that knowledge to the reader. Your readers need to know about this looming crisis and how it can affect their investment strategies. Please call my office to discuss any further details or resolve any questions. Thank you for your consideration.

Regards,

John Doe
Box 901010
Scottsdale, AZ
85528
408-101-0011

Enclosures:
Clips
SASE

About the letter

This author of this query letter may or may not have some advantages over you. The author is someone who has all of the experience and credentials necessary to write the article, and has already secured sources. You may not have everything he has, but you need to know how it sounds when you do.

Note that the query is timely. The author may have been researching Internet fraud for months, but he went out and found an article that ties his research to that week’s news. Also note that none of his sources are from the particular case he mentions. Instead, he uses that case as a selling point for his research. Quite possibly he has already written a related article for his column, and he now wants to reuse part of it to make a national sale. There is nothing wrong with this practice. Selling similar articles (not just reprints) to different markets is perfectly acceptable.

Poetry writing tips

Listen to criticism and try to learn from it, but don’t live or die by it. When I was in college, I would always take my best reviewed poem from the previous class and submit it to the professor for the next class. Invariably, the next professor hated the poem, and could provide good reasons why it failed.

When you write a good poem, one you really like, immediately write another. Maybe that one poem was your peak for the night, bit maybe you’re on a roll. There’s only one way to find out.

The bigger your theme, the more important the details are. A poem with Love, DestinyHate or other huge themes in the title already has two strikes against it (and I like love poems).

Say what you want to say. Let your readers decide what your poem means.

Feel free to write a bad poem.

That one perfect line in a thirty-line poem may be what makes it all worthwhile. It may also be what is ruining the rest of your poem. Keep an eye on it.

Don’t explain everything.

Untitled poems are like unnamed children.

People will remember an image long after they’ve forgotten why it was there.

Develop your voice. Get comfortable with how you write.

There are many excuses not to write. Try using writing as an excuse not to do other things.

The more you read, the more you learn. Read poetry often.

The more you write, the more you develop. Write poetry often.

Poems that focus on form are rarely my favorites, but most of my favorite poets learned how to write in forms before they discarded them. Writing in forms is a challenge. It makes you think.

Don’t be afraid to write from a different point of view. Write a poem that says exactly the opposite of what you believe. If you can, do it without irony.

When you cannot write, lie on the floor a while, go for a walk, or at least twirl around in a circle. Do something that changes your perspective.

Write in different places. Keep a notebook. Write in a park or on a street-corner or in an alley. You don’t have to write about the place, but it will influence you whether you do or not.

Listen to talk radio while you write. Listen to the people who call. Great characters and voices emerge that way.

If you don’t like a poem or poet you read, figure out exactly why. It may reflect something you don’t like about your own poetry.

When nothing is coming, start writing very fast. Write down any and every word, phrase or sentence that comes to mind. Do that for about a minute before you go back to working on your poem.  I call this trick flushing.  Feel free to use anything you came up with, but the purpose of flushing is to clear your head.

<Make a list of poems you can remember specific lines from. Go back and read those poems. Figure out why they stuck with you.

Keep a dream journal. Dreams are your mind at it’s most creative so pay attention to them. Don’t feel you have to write a poem about your dreams unless one truly inspires you. The main goal is to see what thoughts the dreams lead you to.

Analyze other writer’s poems. Figure out what works, what doesn’t work, and why. Think about how you would work with the same material and concepts.

Use humor, irony, and melodrama, but don’t abuse them.

Write the worst poem you can possibly write. Use clichés, use pretentious words, and beat your reader over the head with your point. Felt good, didn’t it? Now get back to work. The point is, don’t be afraid to write a bad poem. Every great poet has written a bad poem. Most great poets have written hundreds, even thousands of bad poems. The great poets kept writing though, and so should you. If it takes a hundred bad poems to produce a poem you like, finish those hundred poems.

Limericks can be fun too.

Every line of a poem should be important to the poem, and interesting to read. A poem with only 3 great lines should be 3 lines long.

Poems should progress. There should be a reason why the first stanza comes before the second, the second before the third, and so on.

Follow your fear. Don’t back away from subjects that make you uncomfortable, and don’t try to keep your personal demons off the page. Even if you never publish the poems they produce, you have to push yourself and write as honestly as possible.

Find a way to publish your poems. Sooner or later you have to send your babies out into the world to find their way. Emily Dickinson was a fluke. Most people who don’t publish while they’re alive will never be seen or heard of — no matter how great their poems.

Buy poetry books, especially books by current writers. Give back to the poetry community by reading (and paying for) the works of others.

Go to poetry readings. Check your local arts publications for upcoming events. Almost any sizable town has readings every week or every other week. This is a great opportunity to meet poets and people who care about poetry.
When you go to readings, donate money and buy books if you can.

Host a poetry event or organize a reading.

If you want to swap poetry and criticism with your peers, form your own group. Many local arts publications let you list your group for free.

Publish your own poetry journal or web site. Even a few sheets of paper stapled together gets the word out.

Whatever else you do, keep writing.

Creating a believable world

By Sharon Caseburg

One of the greatest difficulties Speculative Fiction authors experience when writing stories in this genre is in their ability to provide a believable environment for their readers.

Any kind of speculative fiction, whether it be hard-core Science Fiction, Time Travel, Horror, or Fantasy requires readers to put aside the conventions they have become accustomed to in the “real world” for the world the author presents in the story. This of course holds true for speculative romance stories as well. For the most part, readers of these genres are more than willing to put aside the customs of the world they live in, for the environment the author has created. However, when the author does not provide a believable realm, readers can easily become disenchanted with both the author’s world and in turn, the story itself.

Basically, this translates to the more the author knows about the world he or she is creating, the more confidently the author can write about it. If it is obvious to readers that the author fully believes in this alternative world, then, more than likely, readers will follow.

So how can the author successfully prepare for the creation of an alternative environment?

The answer may sound easier than it really is: work out ALL the details of your story before submitting your final draft to a publisher.

Although this point may seem obvious, it is more difficult to perform than it sounds. No New World can successfully come into being without the author first performing proper research. Whatever you do, don’t entirely make up your New World as you write your story! Map out everything you can possibly think of before you write about your realm. This activity will help make the actual writing about the environment much easier and will prevent any glaring inconstancies, the bane of any speculative fiction reader, from occurring.

One easy way to get started on creating a believable environment for your story is to pick up a reference book on world building from your local library or check the Internet for good sources of information. Use a variety of search engines when doing your research on the Internet. This will give you the widest pool to draw from. Be thorough in your background exercise and consider questions about your realm that may never come to figure in your story. You would be surprised at how knowing details that do not figure prominently or at all in your story can enrich your story-telling technique and help you in creating a lush and vibrant landscape for your readers.

Here are a few things to consider about the world you are creating. Answering as many of the following questions as you can will help you shape a strong, believable world; a realm you will be confident in writing about; a world that your readers can believe in. As well, don’t limit yourself to this list. When you get down to it, there are thousands of other details you can consider; however the following list can help you get started:

  • Is the New World predominantly like the one we currently live in? Is it different? How is it different?
  • What is the environment like on your New World? Is the air quality good? Is the air polluted? Is there an Ozone layer? Do civilizations live in protected environments? How are these environments constructed? How are these environments controlled?
  • Is there water on your world?
  • How does the sun rise? How does it set? In fact, is there a sun?
  • What are the life-sustaining factors of your world?
  • What is the nature of your society? For example, is it predominantly agrarian or is it technological? Is it modeled after a real civilization that once lived on this earth? If it is, research everything you can about that civilization. It will help you decide what is similar and what is different. If the world is technological, to what degree?
  • Is your world contemporary, futuristic or alternatively historical? If it is futuristic, is it far-futuristic or near-futuristic.
  • What year does your story take place in?
  • What calendar does your civilization observe? In fact does it even observe a calendar?
  • What seasons exist in the realm?
  • What is the plant life like in your realm? In fact is there any plant life?
  • What is the style of clothing worn?
  • What currencies are used?
  • What mode of transportation is used? If you are inventing one, how does it function? Is it petrol powered? Solar powered? Powered by another source? Describe the source in detail.
  • Does the military exist in your world? How is the military structured?
  • What is the hierarchy in the elected officials of the realm? Are there elected officials in the realm? Is it a monarchy? A democracy? Do elders exist in the community? What role do they play? Is there a hierarchy that is adhered to with these individuals?
  • If you are inventing new races of life forms, be prepared to make detailed notes about their societies as well.
  • How do people communicate with each other? Is communication verbal?
  • Are there computers on the world? Are they the same as here?
  • Do people read and write?
  • Does telepathy exist?
  • What is the same in the New World as in this world?
  • What is different?
  • How do people celebrate?
  • How do people grieve?
  • How are the young in society treated?
  • How are the elderly in society treated?
  • What is the average life span of your characters?
  • What is the diet on your New World?
  • And anything and everything else you can think of about your New World.

Remember that you are the creator of your New World. And you are all-powerful. While you may choose not to answer every question on this list, or perhaps you will create new questions to consider, knowing as much as possible about your New World will result in a more believable environment for your readers. The more intimately you yourself know your new environment, the more deftly you can convey its intricacies, even the unseen ones, to your audience.
Sharon Caseburg’s work has appeared in Visions and Voices, The Writing Parent, Freefall, Backwater Review and forthcoming in Pottersfield Portfolio.

How to Choose a Major and Minor for a Career in Writing

Choosing a college major can be difficult for anyone, but it is especially difficult for people who want to write for a living. In many ways, your choices are between art and commerce. The more a degree focuses on literary pursuits, the less likely it is to lead to a job straight out of college.  The more a major focuses on job skills, the less fulfilling it can be for creative people.

In many cases, the best choice is to pick a career-based major and a more creative minor, or to pick a creative major, but find a minor that will help your job prospects. When choosing that way, you have options beyond what is listed here. For example, a major in creative writing might be well complemented by a scientific or business minor.

That said, below are the majors that appeal most to people interested in writing.

Creative Writing

If you intend to be a fiction or poetry writer, this is the most obvious choice of major. It will get you grounded in the practice of creative writing and get you used to the process of getting your creative work reviewed, criticized, and edited. If there is a downside to this degree, it is that it trains you for very little besides creative writing. Making a living as a fiction writer is hard, and as a poetry writer it is much harder still. Pick this major if you are truly committed to that path, and that path only.

Journalism

This major is focused on writing for newspapers, magazines, broadcast news and new media. If the idea of being a journalist excites you, than this is a solid major.  Beyond writing skills, you will learn valuable research and editing skills. The downside to this degree is that journalism is an increasingly hard field to make a living in, so your job prospects aren’t dramatically better than those of a creative writing major.

English / English Literature

As an English major, you will study literature in-depth. There are far worse was to spend college than reading great literature. Teaching you how to write won’t be the primary focus, but reading literature does a great job of teaching you what to write about. This is not a major that leads to many job prospects straight out of college, but learning to read, write, and think critically is a skill that you can find handy in many professions.

Theater Arts

If you want to write plays, a theater arts major will give you a great all-around education in the stage. This major does not focus exclusively on writing, but a good playwright should know more about theater than just writing for it. In addition, there are  theater jobs besides writing and acting that may keep you afloat while you write. This is not a major that will give you a lot of career prospects straight out of college, but theater is very community oriented and good people generally find some work.

Media Arts

If you want to write for film, video, and new media this is an excellent major. When it comes to the creative mediums, film and television can be some of the most lucrative areas to write in. It is still not a major that will get you a lot of jobs right out of college, but the long-term prospects are good for people who stick with it through the first few years.

Liberal Arts

Majoring in liberal arts gives you a broad overview of many subjects such as languages, philosophy, literature, humanities, history and of course, writing. It won’t make you an expert in any one thing, but it will give you plenty of things to think about and write about. It won’t lead to a lot of jobs right out of college.

Linguistics

Linguistics is a far more technical approach to language than creative writing or English literature.  It isn’t a common choice for aspiring writers, but it does offer many advantages. It is an in-depth study of the way we put words and thoughts together and how we communicate as a species. Good linguists have reasonable job prospects, and most undergrads go on to get a graduate degree before entering the job market.

Communications

A communication major studies interaction between people, from face to face encounters all the way to broadcast and social media.
This choice is more common for public relations and marketing writers than it is for creative writers. It provides you with some job prospects, but many people still find it a challenge to get work out of college.

Marketing

A major in marketing will give you the foundations for copywriting and promotion, which is one of the more lucrative careers for writers. Marketing is an excellent minor for people who decide to major in creative writing or literature. Marketing is a competitive but profitable field with solid job prospects straight out of college.

Technical Communications / Writing

Technical Communications (or Technical Writing) is a major that has increased in popularity over the past fifteen years. The major focuses on researching and communicating complex topics, both through text and visual communication. Technical communication is one of the best paying career paths for writers, but it provides a much different skill set than creative writing.

Dialogue (Dialog) Exercises for Writers

Dialogue is one of the most difficult aspects of writing to master. There are many pitfalls to avoid.

Stilted Language

This is dialogue that does not sound like natural speech.

Filler Dialogue

This is dialogue that does not advance the scene or your understanding of the characters.

Expository Dialogue

This is dialogue in which the character explains the plot. It can also be dialogue in which the character repeats information for the benefit of the audience.

Naming

This occurs when one character uses another character’s name to establish identity. People rarely say another person’s name back to them. It is the character trait of a stereotypical used car salesman.

Overuse of Modifiers

This is the overuse dialogue modifiers such as shouted, exclaimed, cried, whispered, stammered, opined, insinuated, or hedged. Modifiers such as these can be useful is small doses, but don’t rely on them to convey your character’s moods or thoughts. Use the word “said” unless you have a good reason not to.

Exercises

  1. Write down the things you say over the course of the day. Examine your speech patterns. You don’t have to get every word. You may find that you say less than you think. Many people speak in short statements. You might find you rarely speak in complete sentences.
  2. Find a crowded place such as a restaurant, a bar, or a shopping mall. Write down snippets of the conversations you hear. Avoid trying to record whole conversations. Follow along for a brief exchange and then listen for your next target.
  3. Test responses to the same question. Think of a question that will require at least a little thought. Ask it of several different people. Compare their responses. Focused on their words. Write them down as soon as you can.
  4. Record several different TV shows. Some choices include: sitcom, news, drama, talk show, infomercial, sporting event, etc. Write a transcript using just the dialogue and people’s names. If you don’t know the names, just use a description such as announcer or redheaded woman. You can also transcribe two shows of the same genre. Use one show you like and one you dislike. Compare dialogue between fiction and non-fiction shows. Look for such things as greetings, descriptions of physical actions, complete sentences and slang. Look for verbal ticks such as like, you know, uhhhh, well, etc. Compare how these dialogue crutches change according to the show format and quality.
  5. Rewrite one or more of the shows in exercise 4 as prose. Try to recreate the show as accurately as possible. Note how easy or difficult it is to work in the entire dialogue from the show. Does it seem to flow naturally and read well? Does it get in your way? Rewrite it, eliminating any dialogue you feel is unnecessary. Try not to change dialogue until your final draft. Work with what you have. You don’t have to rewrite the whole show. Do enough to be sure you have the feeling for it.
  6. Rewrite one of the the transcripts from exercise 4 using as much of the dialogue as possible, but changing the scene. Change the setting. Change the people’s intent. Change the tone. Observe how easy or difficult it is to give the same words a different intent.
  7. Write the dialogue for a scene without using any modifiers. Just separate each statement by line. Write down the conversation as it flows. After you complete the dialogue, add narrative description. Don’t add dialogue tags such as “said”, “shouted” or “ordered”. Instead, work the dialogue into the action as a logical progression of the statements. Finally, add any dialogue tags that are absolutely necessary. Keep them simple such as said, told, or asked. Again, only put them in if you cannot find other options. Compare this to the previous dialogue you have written. See what you like or dislike about the changes.
  8. Write a scene in which one person tells another person a story. Write it as a dialogue, not just a first person narrative. Clearly have one person telling the story and the other person listenin. The second person should ask questions or make comments. The first goal of this scene is to have the story stand alone as a subject. The second goal is to have the characters’ reactions to the story be the focal point of the scene.
  9. Write a scene in which one person is listening to two other people have an argument or discussion. For example, a child listening to her parents argue about money. Have the third character narrate the argument and explain what is going on, but have the other two provide the entire dialogue. It is not necessary to have the narrator understand the argument completely. Miscommunication is a major aspect of dialogue.
  10. Write a conversation between two liars. Give everything they say a double or triple meaning. Never state or indicate through outside description that these two people are lying. Let the reader figure it out. Don’t be obvious. Don’t let one character accuse the other of lying. That is too easy.
  11. Write a conversation in which no character speaks more than three words per line of dialogue. Again, avoid crutches such as explaining everything they say through narration. Use your narration to enhance the scene. Don’t use it to explain the dialogue.
  12. Write a narrative or scripted scene in which several characters are taking an active role in the conversation. This can be a difficult aspect of dialogue to master. The reader must be able to keep track of the motivations and interests of all the characters. This can be especially difficult in prose. The time between one character speaking and the next is often interrupted by action or description. See how many characters your can sustain within the scene. It must still make sense and be engaging.