Q: Why is it important to include a suggested length for a magazine article in a query? I would think that my job, as the writer, is to sell an editor on the idea, but it's the editor's decision to determine length. I feel like, no matter what word count I suggest, the editor could think either why so long? or why so short?—Greg W.
You’re 100 percent correct that it's up to the editor to decide how long she wants the article to be. But when you are querying an editor, that editor needs to know what you believe you can deliver on the topic you're pitching. That's where the estimated word count comes into play.
Good freelance writers do legwork before shooting off a query. They look into the topic to make sure there's an angle and then estimate how much space the information will occupy. They also study the magazine they’re pitching to get a clear picture of where their idea fits best, and the word count of that section. Freelancers then use their estimated word count as a selling point when querying.
Dear Writer's Digest editor,
I'm a big fan of Writer's Digest and one of my favorite sections is the WD Interview (I especially enjoyed the recent one with Adriana Trigiani). I'd like to pitch you a 2,400-word interview with Stephen King, focusing on the challenges of writing a sequel to The Shining nearly 35 years after its original release. I have access to Mr. King and would be able to interview him and turn this piece around in four weeks. My writing credentials are below.
OK, so this example is a little simplistic, but you get the point. By mentioning the section you want to write for (the WD Interview) and the word count (showing you know the section ballparks around 2,400), you not only have given the editor a clear idea of how this pitch fits in the magazine but also have shown that you're confident you can reach that goal. This is why it's key to include a tentative word count in your pitch.
It's certainly possible that the editor will look at the idea and say, "I'm not sure I want a full interview on that topic, but I think it'd make a nice 800-word piece in our upfront section," and then offer the assignment under those conditions. Or, perhaps, the editor will already have an interview subject that month, so she will assign it as a 1,500-word profile. Either way, by including the word count you've given yourself a better chance at landing the gig than you would have had you left it out.
(And, note to Mr. Stephen King: If you're reading this, know that we would never turn down an interview with you. Our pages are yours, word count be damned!)
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.