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E-Etiquette

Although e-mail can be a time saver for writers, never underestimate the power of etiquette in the age of the Internet.

Once upon a time, a writer's query or correspondence to an editor came stuffed in an envelope, a paltry 20-cent stamp affixed to the corner. Tucked inside was a pitch letter, some clips and possibly some lucky mojo from fingers crossed in hopes that the editor would reply with an eagerly enthusiastic response.

Today the Electronic Age has supercharged the query and submission process and how we communicate with our clients. What used to take a week or more now takes just a few hours, assuming the two parties are willing to go digital. But electronic submissions and queries take skill and tact to ensure you don't get branded as a difficult or bothersome writer. And using the Internet to stay in touch must be handled appropriately to maintain a human touch.

Simply put: The digital age requires electronic etiquette.

Know how to query

E-mail queries and contact should suit an editor's personal preferences. If such submission guidelines are not listed in the publication itself, call the editorial office and request them.

You also can hit the reference desk at the local library and review your prospect publications in Writer's Market or Bacon's Media Directory. These and other media guides often list editors' names, contact information and even their preferred means of contact. Doing your research beforehand shows you're a professional.

Though electronic submissions can be simple, the mail merge concept isn't the best way to pursue a prospect. While you don't have to make a personal appeal to an editor begging acceptance of your story, any hint of a broadcast query or multiple submissions could scare off the editor. Instead of some high-tech mail merge, which would lose much of the powerful information and personality you've gleaned from your research about the publication and its editor, create a blended query letter. The guts of the query can be standard, but lead and conclude the query with personal appeals to the editor or publication.

The blind carbon copy (Bcc) also should be avoided in many instances. You run the risk of the list accidentally being viewed, which would let each editor know who else received the submission. Bcc can be used if you're blasting a notice to existing clients—to let them know about travel plans, office downtime or changes in contact information, for example. But leave it at that.

And certainly, don't share your editors' contact information with friends or peers whom you believe would be a good fit writing for the publication. E-mail their contact info to the editor, and let the editor pursue if interested.

Submit accordingly

Ready to submit the article to the publication? How will you file? You may have learned this already during your conversations with the editorial staff. Whether to send a document as a file attachment, or copied and pasted as text into the body of the e-mail, is a matter of importance.

Some editors prefer your file attachments be saved in a very specific format—as PC, Mac or .txt files for instance. However, many refuse to accept any attachments for fear of viruses or worms. And, unfortunately, many attachments are also digital renditions of the sender's fancy, four-color letterhead. Frankly, most editors don't need or want colorful graphics; they hog memory and clog bandwidth during downloading.

If you want an editor to see your beautiful letterhead, mail it.

Track your contacts

All the data you collect about your editorial contacts should be gathered in a database. A contact management program, like Act!, Goldmine or Outlook, helps you keep track of names, data, dates and notes, and follow-up information. A spreadsheet, like Microsoft Excel, would be good for building that database as well.

But one of the simplest programs for tracking contacts is your word processor. You can format an informal template of fields with all the pertinent information. This creates a workable list of your contacts that you can edit and expand as your needs demand.

Keep your humanity

Just because we have digital capabilities doesn't mean we have to rely on them exclusively. Even in the digital age, don't forget the phone, fax and, yes, U.S. Postal Service. While they may seem antiquated and slow, some assigning editors prefer these communication media—at least as a tool of introduction.

When was the last time you called a client editor just to chat? E-mail is a good way to acknowledge a recent accomplishment or good issue of the publication. But hearing a voice can work wonders to solidify a relationship.

Speaking of faithful and traditional correspondence tools, mail service also is preferred by some as the best way to say thanks. If you want to get remembered, mail a card, don't fire off a quick e-mail.

Fast, efficient and functional tools of the digital age help us do our jobs better. Let's just try to retain our humanity along the way.

This article appeared in the July 2002 issue of Writer's Digest.

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