How to Write a Query Letter

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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. See Bob Sassone’s article The Query Trap if you want to look further into that strategy.

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.

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