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Advice on Writing Query Letters

Categories: How to Publish a Book, Get Published.

Nonfiction writers have one great advantage over fiction writers: the query letter. Before completing research for a manuscript, the article writer or nonfiction book writer can elicit, through a query letter, the interest of an editor and sometimes even the particular slant an editor prefers. Since the editor has participated in this dialogue before seeing the finished manuscript he has a greater investment in its success. Theses questions and answers will fully explain the query letter and its advantages.

Magazine Queries

Q. What information should a query letter contain?
A. The information in a query letter serves two purposes. It should convince the editor that your idea is a good one for his publications readership, and it should sell you as the best writer to turn out a good article on the subject. The query letter should contain an alluring, but concise, summary of the article’s central idea and the angle or point of view from which you intend to approach it. Outline the structure of the article, giving facts, observations, and anecdotes that support the premise of the article. Don’t give too many facts; the idea is to leave the editor wanting more. The letter should tell the editor why the article would be important and timely and give a convincing argument of why it would fit into this particular magazine.

You should also give the editor some indication of why you think you could write a good article on this particular subject. Share some sources of information and describe any special qualifications you may have for developing the idea. For example, if you were proposing an article on a topic in which you have some professional expertise or of which you have been an interested observer for some time, you should mention that. Samples of your published work will also help the editor see what you can do. The close of the query can be a straightforward request to write the article. You might also specify an estimated length and delivery date. If photographs are available, mention that, too. Don’t discuss fees or request advice.

These are guidelines, of course, not a hard-and-fast pattern for a query letter. Good query letters are as individual as the writers who send them and as unique as the ideas that are proposed.

Q. How long should a query letter be?
A. Most successful query letters run only one page. Two or three pages of single-spaced typewritten copy facing a busy editor is more than he wants to read. If that much copy is needed to give an editor the gist of the article, you probably have failed to focus on a specific angle. If the subject warrants it, you can accompany a one-page query with a synopsis. The letter tantalizes the editor and helps him decide whether the article is right for his readers. The synopsis double-spaced shows the treatment of the subject.

Q. I have very little writing experience, but I don’t want to hurt my chances of having my article accepted by admitting that to an editor. How much must my query letter tell about my background?
A. If you’ve never been published before, it’s best to ignore the subject of past credits and discuss instead your qualifications to write the article at hand. Discuss only those aspects of your background that relate to your subject. If you’re proposing an article about how small businesses use computers, for example, mentioning your computer knowledge through education or employment would be a plus. What’s important to an editor is not how many articles you’ve had published, but how much promise is shown by your query letter. Even if you’ve never published anything, a thorough and professional approach to the query letter will allow you the same chance to sell an article as someone who has a few articles in print.

Q. Should I include two or three samples of my work when sending a query letter?
A. It’s always a good idea to include a few tearsheets of your previously published articles. If an editor is not familiar with your work, looking at other pieces you’ve written is one way he can familiarize himself with your abilities and the quality of your work. The articles you send with your query ideally should be of the same category as the article you are proposing; if you wanted to profile Liza Minelli, for example, a copy of a previously published article on Burt Reynolds would show the editor your skills in this field. A suggestion for an article on making house painting easier could be bolstered by your published article on how to reupholster furniture. Even if the tearsheets you send differ from the type of article you’re proposing, send only your best published articles. Showing the editor of a major publication insignificant tearsheets could defeat your purpose. If you are dissatisfied with something you wrote, chances are the editor will not be too impressed with it either.

Q. Do I always have to query before sending a manuscript or are there times when it isn’t necessary?
A. For certain types of articles, editors prefer to see the finished manuscript rather than a query. For example, personal experience articles, humor, nostalgia and editorial opinion pieces rely so much on the writer’s personal style that reading the finished product is the best way an editor can assess their acceptability for his publication. Articles requiring extensive research, however, are best attempted after an editor has responded favorably to a query. That saves the writer time since the editor may prefer a different approach to the subject than the one the writer originally had. If you have any doubts, check 2002 Writer’s Market for the specific magazine’s policy on various types of articles.

Q. It seems so presumptuous for a beginning and unpublished writer to query first. How much attention would be paid to a beginner?
A. A busy editor would much rather read a query to decide whether he’s interested in a certain property than plow through a lengthy manuscript for the same purpose. From the writer’s standpoint, think of the savings in postage and wear and tear on the manuscript. What is presumptuous is the writer who disregards an editor’s stated request to “query first” and deluges him with completed manuscripts: Editors pay as much attention to beginners as they do to professionals, as long as the query letters are professionally written and the ideas are suitable to the magazine’s readership and the editor’s needs.

Q. Should I send a query for my short stories?
A. Because of the nature of fiction, editors rarely expect to be queried about it. Good fiction usually defies the type of summarization or highlighting used in query letters because so many of the integral elements, for example, style, mood, and characterization, would be lost. Therefore, most editors prefer to receive the complete manuscript. A few magazines that are short-staffed may ask for queries, in which case you’ll want to give a brief statement of the main theme and story line, including the conflict within the story and the resolution. (For more information on short stories, see chapter twenty-five.)

Book Queries

Q. What are sample chapter, outlines and synopses?
A. Many book publishers request sample chapters, outlines and synopses for nonfiction book proposals. The outline gives a brief summary of the entire content of the proposed book, followed by a chapter-by-chapter synopsis showing the organization of the book and what angle of the subject each chapter will contain; the sample chapters show the writer’s style and writing ability. It is a good idea to include the first chapter, a chapter from the center of the book showing some highlight or climax, and the concluding chapter, unless the publisher’s listing in 2002 Writer’s Market indicates he wishes to see consecutive chapters. Authors who send only the first chapter or two (since the latter chapters have not been written) are sometimes disappointed by rejection, since they had not planned the book sufficiently to bring it to a well-rounded conclusion.

Although contracts may be issued on a book proposal, sometimes called “selling the partial,” some publishers accepting general books from freelance writers who are unknown to them issue the contract only after the completed manuscript has been read and accepted.

Q. I have written chapters for two nonfiction books. I have sent the sample chapters and a query letter to publishers for consideration. As you well know, it can take three to four months for a publisher to analyze the market and reply to the query. Both these potential books, however, are topical. If each publisher takes that long to reply, the material I have researched and collected will become outdated. In such a case, can I send sample chapters and queries for a book to more than one editor for consideration? If not, do you have any suggestions to speed up the process?
A. In some cases, and especially when the topic of the book is timely, it is necessary to query several firms at one time. When sending multiple queries, some writers feel each editor should know that others are considering the idea. Other writers feel it is best not to inform the editors of multiple queries, but to work out the best deal if more than one editor expresses an interest.

One matter to consider, however, is whether such dated material is suited to books. Except in rare instances, book publishers work on a schedule involving two or more years. Topical material is better suited to magazines, while books on extremely timely subjects cannot usually withstand the normal delays at various levels of scheduling.

Q. Is it permissible to write a book publisher regarding the status of my book manuscript? I sent the manuscript a month ago, and so far have heard nothing.
A. It’s permissible, but it sometimes takes over three months for a publisher to report on a book-length manuscript. Unless the 2002 Writer’s Market listing for a specific publisher specifies sending the entire manuscript, you’d get faster service on a synopsis, two or three sample chapters, and a short cover letter asking if the publisher is interested in seeing more.

Query Etiquette

Q. Is there any situation in which I can query by telephone?
A. Most established writers query by mail. A written query allows the editor to examine the proposal at his onvenience, and to show it to his associates for their opinions. An editor is better able to judge the merits of an idea if it’s in tangible, written form than if it’s related to him over the telephone.

To the writer, time and energy required to develop a carefully written proposal without an editor’s interest seems a large investment, when a telephone call might sell the editor on an idea, with far less effort. However, a phone call interrupts the editor’s workday and he is forced to answer without proper time to think the matter through. Except in rare instances (for example, when the writer may only have access to a subject for a limited time and needs a fast answer), an unexpected phone query usually receives either a no (which allows you to eliminate his publication and gives you a sense of what other similar markets might think), or a response which puts you back in square one: “We’re willing to look at it if you send a detailed query by mail.” If you receive a negative response by phone, you have closed the door to a query that might have been considered, had it come by mail. A few writers consider sending a query by fax as a hybrid solution a written query sent over phone lines. This is preferable to a phone call for a time-sensitive proposal, but is frowned on for routine queries. Once you have sold an editor several articles, he may be more receptive to faxed or phoned queries.

Q. How soon can I follow up a query letter if I don’t get a response? Should I phone?
A. If you’ve not heard from the editor in three to four weeks (unless the market listing in 2002 Writer’s Market specifies a longer report time), don’t hesitate to write the editor a brief follow-up. The note should describe the query fully so the editor can readily identify it, and should simply ask whether he’s had time to consider your proposal. Be sure to include the date of the original query, since some magazine offices file unsolicited queries and manuscripts by date of arrival. In case the original query never reached the editor, you may want to enclose a photocopy of the original query to save time and correspondence searching for it. Some writers include a self-addressed postcard for a quick reply. This usually elicits a response; if not, you may then want to try a phone call. A follow-up letter, however, rarely fails to get a reply.

Q. Is it permissible to submit a query covering the same article to two different editors at the same time? Sometimes the time element is important and if one editor delays answering it could be too late to query another.
A. It is permissible, but not always practical, to submit the same article idea to several magazines simultaneously. Most writers abhor the long delay it takes to get an answer from a magazine editor, but realize that if they do make simultaneous submissions to editors they are going to face the possible situation of more than one editor asking to see the article and having to be told that someone else is considering it. An editor who is told that he will have to wait in line is not going to look very kindly on the next query from that particular writer. In the case of timely article ideas, many freelance writers use this technique: They either point out in the letter to the editor that it is an extremely timely query and request a reply in a certain number of days, or tell the editor the idea is being sent to several editors. Most editors respect this, and in fact, some editors listed in 2002 Writer’s Market indicate that they are open to multiple submissions.

Q. What do you suggest for mailing queries: a ten-inch envelope with a six-incher for the return, or an eleven-inch envelope with a ten-incher for the return?
A. The eleven-inch envelope with a ten-incher return would probably have a neater appearance, especially since the editor may return other material such as writer’s guidelines along with his answer.

Q. After receiving a favorable reply to a query, how soon will the editor expect the manuscript?
A. When an editor gives you a favorable response on an article idea and doesn’t specify a deadline, it’s up to you to decide how quickly you can get it finished. Acknowledge his letter with a note telling when you will deliver the article. If the editor has a specific issue in mind for your article, it’s up to him to suggest a deadline for you.

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