By Bob Sassone
For the past 20 years, It’s been the most frequently given advice in freelance writing workshops, seminars, magazines, and books: concentrate on perfecting the art of the query and you’ll be more successful as a freelancer.
Don’t buy it.
I know what you’re thinking: “oh, my God, did he just say what I think he said?” or maybe, “who is this guy who thinks that query letters are not important? Why should I listen to him?” But relax, the world is not coming to an end and you have not just entered some alternate universe. Queries are an incredibly important tool of the trade for the beginning or veteran freelance writer. It would benefit you greatly if you learned how to write a good one, and there are many places where you can find out how to do just that (Including Jenna Glatzer’s fine piece: www.poewar.com/articles/beginner.htm) Simply put, you should know how to write a query letter. It can help you get writing jobs, can teach you how to get to the point quick, and can even help you learn to write more in a more concise, understandable manner.
TIP #1: Learn how to write a good query letter, and then get on with things.
So why did I call this piece “The Query Trap?” Because query writing has become such a mainstay in the freelance writing world that I think that too many writers are relying on them TOO much. Because we live in such a quick, microwavable, I-want-it-now-culture, writers are using queries as a crutch, and forgetting about the ACTUAL WRITING.
First of all, there are several instances where sending the whole piece is better than sending a query letter. For example, it’s better to send a finished humor column along rather than a query letter, because it’s impossible to convey humor in a letter and explain to an editor that it is funny. The same usually goes with very short pieces and fillers. The editor will want to see the entire piece in front of him. Besides, with most fillers, if you write a query letter it will probably turn out to be longer than the piece itself!
True story: years ago I wrote a humor piece, and instead of just sending the piece to an editor, I wrote a query letter (and this was before I had e-mail), explaining the humorous points I made in the piece and how really, really funny it was! Well, obviously, she wanted to see the whole piece, but because I spent so much time writing the query and mailing items back and forth to her, the piece became dated, and she couldn’t use it. And I was out $125.
TIP #2: Writing an article, column, or story is a lot more fun than writing a query letter.
But beyond those examples, writers of all levels (especially beginning writers) should learn to start enjoying the actual writing. That doesn’t mean that you should just forget all about queries and go full steam ahead on your 8000-word piece on Winston Churchill and send it off to The New Yorker. But if you’re a writer, you should at least have started the piece and have a strong interest in writing it regardless.
TIP #3: All writers should keep some sort of journal or notebook, and write something in it every single day. Keep it with you at all times, if possible.
After all, most first novels are written without any guarantee from a publisher that the book will ever get published, though I can’t tell you how many times in the past decade I’ve encountered a writer who thinks that he has a great idea for a book, and writes up a query letter to send to a publisher or agent… and hasn’t even written one word of the book! He thinks if he gets the “go ahead” from a publisher that he can just collect his huge advance and then write the book. But if he hasn’t even started to write down his ideas and put them in order and start the story, I doubt very much that he’ll even be able to finish the book. Besides, when it comes to books, only people like Stephen King and John Grisham can sell a book by writing a paragraph on a lunchtime napkin.
TIP #4: You are not Stephen King or John Grisham.
Sure, if you are a published author, or have many freelance projects going on at once or write a lot in general every single day, then writing a query instead of the whole piece makes sense. But I’m beginning to see too many writers that are more in love with the “idea” of writing than the actual writing itself. Writers should be in love with the writing, and not worry about the marketplace or agents or queries or trends. Writing a good article or story should come first.
If nothing else convinces you, look at it this way: even if the query is successful in getting an editor’s attention and you get the go ahead, you still have write the piece! And if the writing isn’t good, and it’s not well-organized and researched, then you won’t sell the piece anyway.
TIP #5: Write well, and many other aspects of the writing life will be a lot easier.
Yes, query letters are important. They can help a writer find out if a particular editor at a particular publication is interested. But they are just one weapon that the freelance writer has. A query letter should be a tool, an accompaniment to the writing, and it’s certainly nothing you should concentrate on. Learn the basics of writing a great query letter or cover letter, and then don’t fixate on it too much, adding things, taking things out, changing it and polishing it. There’s a common sense limit to how good a query letter can and should be. A writer who relies too much on queries begins to realize after a while that his query skills are fantastic, but his actual writing leaves a lot to be desired. If you obsess too much about queries and rely on them too much, they will become a trap, and you’ll drive yourself crazy.
Besides, you’re a freelance writer. The writing and making enough money will drive you crazy all by themselves.
Bob Sassone is a contributor to The Boston Herald and Ironminds (http://www.ironminds.com), and has written for Salon, McSweeney’s, Tripod, iUniverse, Compuserve, North Shore Magazine, and other publications. A book of columns and essays will be released later this year, as will his first novel. Web site: http://www.bobsassone.com .