WHEN WRITING A QUERY LETTER TO MAGAZINE EDITORS, HOW SHOULD I START THE LETTER? IS IT BEST TO BEGIN WITH "DEAR SIR OR DEAR MA'AM" OR SHOULD IT JUST TELL WHAT THE ARTICLE IS ABOUT? — G. Harrison
As the former editor of WD's InkWell section, I used to deal with query letters all the time. Some are brilliant and get assigned. Others are good but just not a fit. And the rest are, well, better suited for making paper airplanes.
The opening is the key to any good query letter. You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you don't hook the editor with your first couple of sentences you might as well start folding the airplane wings yourself. It's important to begin with a pleasant salutation to the acquisitions editor (or editor of the section your are querying). Something like Dear Brian A. Klems is your best bet. You can typically find that online or in the front pages (masthead) of the magazine.
It's also important to always, always, always spell the editor's name correctly. My name is all over the magazine, in the weekly newsletter, on this blog—you can't trip without falling into it—and yet folks still seem to spell it "Clemms" or "Kelms" or "Handsome." Other than the latter, the first two will immediately warrant rejection. Also, if you can't find an editor's name or are unsure which editor to send it to, just say: Dear Acquisitions Editor.
Now, write the first paragraph of your query letter like you would the lead to your article. In fact, I highly suggest using the lead of your article. If it's catchy enough to hook readers, then it will be catchy enough to hook the editor. An excellent example comes from Jordan E. Rosenfeld, a freelancer who contributes to WD often. For a piece she one wrote for WD, she began her query with this lead:
While reality still rules TV, when it comes to fiction, what used to be relegated to science fiction and fantasy genres has now made its way through the well-guarded gates of literary fiction and appears to be there to stay. From time-travel to potato babies, contemporary surrealist (or "fantastic") writers write literary prose that asks readers to alter their expectations and perceptions. Some would argue this form offers an even deeper understanding of our human experience. Plus, it's fun to read.
Even though we eventually made some changes, this is a great opening for a query. It's catchy, hooks you and gives you a sense of her voice. It's also fairly short and to the point.
If you follow these tips, you'll have the makings of a query letter that editors love. If not, don't be surprised when your query ends up in the airplane pile next to all the letters addressed to "Mr. Clemms.