Write Knock-Dead Query Letters

Query letters can make or break a writer. Here are tips on how to write the perfect query and land the ideal freelance job.
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Dear Sir or Madame, I am a freelance writer who will handle just about any assignment under the sun. I was browsing a newsstand recently, saw the cover of your magazine and looked through the pages just enough to find your name and mailing address.

Sure, I know nothing about your magazine, area of interest (though I assume it's about car repair for the stars since the title is Popular Mechanics) or even whether you publish in English. But I know I can write for you, because, well, I have written for my community newspaper for a year or two. I've also included an article I wrote for my school newspaper in 1987 on How to Pass Shop Class.

Please send me an assignment, and I'll get to work as soon as I'm able.

Hackney Scrybe
Return to sender

OK, so now we know how not to write a query letter. Let's pretend we're in Biology of the Business of Writing 101, and dissect this lemon from the top.

From admittedly knowing nothing about the target publication, its area of interest or even the name of the editor, to providing no relevant information about himself or herself—or pertinent clips that could reveal his ability to write coherently for the magazine—Hackney's query will no doubt find the shortest path from some editor's desk to the junk heap.

What's worse is that since Hackney left the burden of contact on the unidentified editor, let's assume he'll never follow up with a phone call, and the relationship will die at introduction.

Relationships with new magazines and editors must begin on solid ground, and build from there. This is especially true for first-time freelance journalists or contract writers who often are reaching out to publications and editors with whom they've never corresponded.

This is the perfect time for you to shine—to show off your skills and business savvy, and to exude professionalism amid a horrible traffic jam of queries from other freelance writers.

The perfect letter
Like any new business solicitation (and that's what this is), it all starts with the sales pitch. Assuming you're not acting on the referral of a mutual friend, it's all up to you, your skills and your ability to pitch them well. If this query were the result of a referral, that person's name should be mentioned in the first paragraph ("Bob Smith recommended I contact you").

Here are quick tips on what you should include in a query letter:

An explanation of your writing background. Three to five recent clips, press releases or other work examples. A few story ideas to show the editor that you understand the publication's focus. A mention that you work on a computer, as well as the software that you are proficient in. Full contact information, including your phone number and e-mail address. A brief thank you for the editor's time. A mention that you will call the editor within several days to follow up.

The perfect query should have several elements that make it a dead-on hit with the right editor or client. Those should include:

• An explanation of how your knowledge base and writing history directly benefits the potential client publication or company. It's not enough to have been a generalist who has written on "a variety of topics" during your career. Highlight how your knowledge of the genre will yield content and insights the client cannot get from any other writer.

• A flair for the written word. Publications—both print and online—are competing for reader's eyeballs and mind share. Flat verbiage just doesn't cut it anymore.

• While keeping to the style of the given publication (you're not going to write an edgy or humorous query letter targeting The Economist), use your query to show—not tell—how you write. The query is your personal and professional introduction.

• Recent clips or other collaterals that show your style, knowledge of the industry and how your experience compliments the needs of the publication. Showcase your best three to five clips, press releases or other work examples. Don?t inundate the editor—if your work is on target, one example likely will suffice. Also, steer the editor back to your Web site for other clips on the topic, if appropriate.

• The right editor as the target. While it's usually pointless to shoot for the editor in chief (he or she is usually too busy) of any publication, peruse the staff listings for a more appropriate editor or staffer who might receive in-bound queries.

• A few story ideas. Bring something to the table—the more insight, understanding and vision you show that you have about the publication, the more useful you become to the editor.

• A mention that you work on a computer and are prepared to file in any format they require.

• Full contact information, including your phone number, mailing address and e-mail address, and a mention that you will call them within several days to discuss the possibility of working together. Then, follow up within one week.

• A thank you for their time. Time is a precious commodity to editors. A gracious thanks for their time and effort in reviewing your letter shows editors that you realize this.

Sender beware
Inclusion of an unsolicited manuscript is an iffy proposition. If it's a specialized publication and the editor declines to purchase your article, you could be stuck with a manuscript that cannot be sold.

Some editors don't accept such submissions; others accept them only if they include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Always offer to e-mail the editor the sample so, if he or she decides to run it, a staffer won't spend a half-hour typing it into the computer.

Query letters are no place for discussion of fees, usage or ownership rights. You're simply opening a door to a new relationship. Once you have followed up on your letter and have been received favorably by the assigning editor, then you can discuss these issues.

Stamp and send it
Of course, writing a query necessitates that you will have actually read the publication or know the company before writing your query.

If it's a magazine or other printed periodical you're targeting, one place to start is with a newsstand copy of the publication. Drop the (tax-deductible) investment on the cover price and spend some time reading the pages. Get a feel for its style, article concepts, topic areas and other elements that will both help you understand the publication, and help you portray to the editor that you understand the publication. Then, search the Internet for the publication's online version. This way, you can read past issues and get even more insight to what the publication is all about.

At the very least, your letter should reflect your understanding and insights; at most, your follow-up conversation should be peppered with concepts, vernacular and even names of players or organizations germane to the industry.

Central to this entire exercise is to sell yourself honestly. As small business owners, our clients are hiring a partner as much as they are buying a service or widget. Your ability to communicate directly, succinctly and honestly in either a pitch letter or a conversation speaks volumes to your professionalism. That, ultimately, is what our clients are hiring.

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