A query letter (which these days is often an email query) is a sales document. You want to offer an idea to an editor and show them why you’re the best possible writer to write about it so you get the assignment.
Queries are used to approach magazine editors with a specific idea for an article for that magazine. They are also used, often along with a book proposal, to present the idea to agents or publishers, but here we’re talking about magazines and possibly blogs.
Ideas are everywhere
Beginning writers often wonder where they can find ideas for articles that will sell. The truth is they are everywhere. The trick, of course, is to find an idea and match it to a market.
For example, if you truly make great gluten-free brownies you’d want to look at both women’s magazines and food magazines to discover which is the most likely suspect for your recipe – or which one pays the most.
If you've camped with your children, you could very well do an article or two or three on the joys, problems, and how-tos of camping with kids. Women’s magazines, magazines aimed at parents are the most obvious suspects – but maybe you could also adapt it for grandparents and aim it at a retirement publication, or to a travel magazine that sometimes has articles on camping. Actually, you could do all of these.
As you learn your writing career there are magazines about freelance writing. A few of the blogs on the topics also pay.
If you love (or hate) dogs, cats, birds or anything else, there are articles within those topics you can write.
Writers are never short of ideas. We do occasionally feel like we're tired of writing whatever, but that rarely lasts long.
You can learn more about writers and ideas by reading: Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?
A copy of Writer’s Market will help you match ideas and markets. It’s in the market listings here and elsewhere that you’ll discover if email queries are appropriate for the magazine you’re targeting.
A market listing is written by the editors of magazines and describes exactly what they are looking for and how they want you to present your ideas to them. Editors write these because they need freelancers and because they have standards and methods of working they want freelance writers to understand.
Writer’s Market, both the book and the online version, have a ton of market listings.
You can also find them on the web. Try searching on magazine market listings. If you know the name of the magazine you want to target, their website may give you this information.
Follow the market listing instructions exactly. The quickest way to be sure you won’t make a sale is to try to do things differently. You want only your writing to stand out.
I've always been surprised how many writers try to ignore the market listing. Don’t. You won’t be successful over the long term if you do.
Clips, credits and tear sheets
Often market listings will ask for clips, credits and/or tear sheets. Clips and tear sheets are copies of articles you’ve had published. (Actually, tear sheets are technically actually torn out of the magazine or newspaper, but today it means copies.) "Credits" is a list of article titles and where each was published, with links if the piece is available online.
For the most part, editors won’t read your clips etc. closely. They first want to know if you’ve been published elsewhere. If you have, that increases the odds you’ll be able to complete any assignment for them.
They also want a sense of your writing style. If the magazine has a breezy tone, it won’t be happy with a writer who specializes in academia, unless that writer can also demonstrate the ability to match the informal style.
Your query letter should reflect the style you plan to use for the proposed article.
What if you don’t have clips?
If you haven’t yet been published, don’t despair. Every magazine writer was once in your shoes.
The easiest way to surmount this obstacle is to write and submit the complete article on spec. On spec simply means you don’t have an assignment.
When you write the whole article the editor can tell for sure if it works for her magazine or not.
And you may have some clips you haven’t thought of. I did a short video about finding clips you may not recognize called No Clips? No Problems! Videos for Writers and an article called No Writing Clips? No Problem!
Study the magazine
You've simply got to read at least one copy of the magazine you’re querying – preferably three issues. And it's actually more studying than just reading.
Start by reading each article, noting the tone, the style, the voice and the length.
Pay attention to the ads. Advertisers spend a ton of money figuring out where to put their ads and you get a better understanding of who you’re writing for when you also pay attention to the ads.
The masthead, which lists the editors, and contributors (writers) and sometime other information, can also be valuable. You can often figure out which editor to send your query to, and exactly how their name is spelled. You can also discover a new editor has come on board since whatever market listing you’re using was written.
If you don’t study the magazine you’re wasting your time and the editor’s, period.
Query each magazine individually
While I think it’s okay to do simultaneous submissions, that doesn't mean you can blanket a bunch of magazines with the same query.
Every magazine is different, really. Their tone is different, their attitude toward their readers is different – even when they seem very similar like some of the women’s magazines you find at the supermarket. It’s up to you to discover those differences and target each one specifically.
Writing the query
Take a deep breath and draft your query. It should start out with a bang. If you've got a great title, you can use that, centered. Write the opening paragraph, or part of it, as your opening for the letter.
Follow with a short 'graph that explains what you're proposing - a 500 word post or a 5,000 word interview, or a 4,000 word article, or 10 tips... spell it out so the editor immediately understands what you're proposing.
Next, explain briefly why you're the best person to write it. This is where you brag about what qualifies you to write this article.
Finally, say when and how you can delver the article, and, if you're mailing this, the fact you've enclosed a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (known in the trade as an SASE).
Add your signature and you're done.
You'll find a sample query letter here.
Email queries are the same, mostly.
Your subject line should probably include the word, query, like this: Query - 7 Ways to Save Money by Gardening
It's addressed to the right editor, because you called or got the proper email from a recent market listing, so you only need to add Dear (Editor).
Make double sure your phone number as well as your address are repeated at the end... your email may get printed and passed along.
No attachments! Never! Unless you're invited to send them.
Develop a query marketing plan
You need to query regularly if you want to become well known and/or self-supporting with your writing. The first step is deciding how many queries in a week or a month you want to send. A query a day isn’t unreasonable.
You can then set up a simple spreadsheet so you can track this information, using, for example:
Date | Idea/Title | Sent to | Date sent | Response | Sale
With something like this you can quickly see if you’re meeting your goal or not. You’ll also begin to see what’s working and what’s not and make adjustments.
Assignment 6 – Write a query letter and send it.
Post your idea, then your chosen market, then your query draft. We’ll make comments along the way. Send it and we’ll help you celebrate.
The only way to start sending query letters is to start sending query letters - you might as well get our comments which will increase your chances of making a sale.
Forum link to: What you need to know about query letters.