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Tips on How to Set Yourself Apart From the Pack

Whether you're querying about a specific article or book or for general assignments, you've got to hook the editor or agent, then deliver a sparkling, well-crafted idea.

Before you write for a publication, you need to write to it. A winning query letter is well written, brisk and energetic. At the same time, it must be highly professional. An organized letter sends a clear message that you know how to get a job done on time and accurately.

It's crucial to accomplish all these goals briefly; a query letter should be no more than one page. The type size should also be at least 11 point and preferably 12 point. Editors shouldn't have to work to read your letter. If they do, chances that they'll set it aside are much, much greater.

Most consumer magazines prefer that you query with a specific article idea. Trade magazines often are receptive to letters in which the writer states his or her credentials and connections and offers his or her services for unspecified assignments.

Article queries
You're selling two things: your idea and your expertise, in that order.

  • The first section, consisting of two to three paragraphs, should explain your idea and why it's important to the magazine's readers. A feature story about a woman's triumphant recovery from breast cancer and subsequent founding of an unusual women's health support group might be of interest to Good Housekeeping or Self; chances are Men's Health or National Geographic Traveler won't care. Check the publication's guidelines to target the right query to the right magazine (see "Beyond Guidelines: Know the Magazine" on page 28). Explain how you envision developing the article: the word length, interview subjects, possible sidebars. Share why this article is right for this magazine.
  • The second section of the query letter explains why you're the right person to write the article. This is the place to list your credentials; it's especially helpful if the credentials are relevant. For example, if you're querying Bon Appétit and have profiled chefs for your local newspaper, include that. If you haven't been published, explain why you're passionate about the topic or share any special access or interest you have. If you've been researching your family history for 10 years and you're querying a genealogy magazine, include that. If your next-door neighbor is a spokesman for an association that's key to your article, include that.
  • Many writers conclude with an estimate of how quickly the article could be written upon assignment. It's also a good place to note that you've enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope or e-mail address and, if appropriate, that this query is being sent to more than one magazine.

Services queries
Similarly, when you're explaining who you are and why you'd like to receive assignments from a magazine, it's important to think about what work each paragraph of a letter is doing:

  • The first paragraph establishes a relationship and lets the editor know your value. The first sentence or two must both sparkle and demonstrate a connection. If someone suggested you make contact, use his or her name.
  • The second paragraph gives your credentials. Boldface or italicize the publications you've written for. Also talk about the time you've spent in your business, and any awards or other honors you may have received.
  • In the third paragraph, you can showcase your skills and demonstrate some solutions. This is where bullets can come in handy. Once again, think of the publication you're targeting. Explain what you can do to meet the magazine's editorial needs.
  • In the fourth paragraph, you can close your letter and set a follow-up. Some people like to set a date, others a week. The key is to let the person know you will be following up, and then doing so.

When you're contacting a publication for the first time, it's a good idea to send three to five clips with every cover letter. If at all possible, the clips should focus on topics covered by the publication you're pitching to.

It's also important to dress up your cover letter. If you're sending via snail mail, perhaps use a double-pocketed folder. Put the cover letter and any queries in one side and your clips in the other. If you have any really punchy clips, perhaps make color copies of them, since color dramatically increases the impact of any package. If you're pitching via e-mail, attach hot links to any work of yours that's live on the Internet.

Although there are no hard and fast rules for cover letters, there are techniques that seem to increase their impact.

1. Establish a relationship. Call, then send mail, then call again—if you tend to deal with trade publications, which are usually not overburdened with staff. That makes it easier to get to people who will speak to you. Almost never shoot for the top; usually ask for the managing editor. Tell them you're an experienced writer, ask if the person would like to see your work, and try to get off the phone as quickly as possible. If the managing editor suggests you send a letter to the editor, make the managing editor's name the lead of your cover letter.

2. Use your intuition. It's all too easy to fall into the trap of making a cover letter something of a form letter. That's a bad mistake. Yes, you can have a couple of stock paragraphs or phrases. But it's also important to think like a reader of the publications you're approaching. Figure out the issues the editors are facing and the problems they want to solve, and mention both in your letter. Identify with their needs and, even more important, the needs of their customers. One potent tactic: If you're dealing with a specific industry segment, use at least one or two phrases of jargon to show you're an insider. People who think you understand their needs will be far more likely to talk with you and hire you.

3. Be clear and precise. Clarity is essential. That translates into simple declarative sentences, clear paragraphs and a minimum of qualifiers. No "maybe this," and relatively few "I believe's." Sharpness also involves using word processing power; bullets are a very good idea; so is boldfacing company names and underlining one or two key points. But don't go overboard.

4. Write as if you've got the gig. Cover letters should radiate confidence and self-assurance. Act as if you're a precious resource. Convey the knowledge that you're the perfect one for the position.

5. Don't lie. It's often a good idea to sit down with someone else and talk about what you really did on your last job—the talents you used, the contributions you made. You'll probably find you have great material without making any exaggerations at all. Remember: If you only have one clip, you're still a published writer.

6. Drop names. The publications for which you've worked are one of the best proofs of your talent and legitimacy. Try not to mention a company more than once in a letter. But use as many different corporate, business, personal and celebrity names as you legitimately can.

Pitching an Idea
Many magazines want to know about your idea before your qualifications.

Jane Doe
11111 Mockingbird Lane
Your City, OH 00000
(513) 555-1212

April 3, 2001

Mr. Michael Goldman
Articles Editor
Boys' Life
P.O. Box 152079
Irving, TX 75015-2079

Dear Mr. Goldman,

Paddling your own canoe is one thing. Packing it can be quite another. One of the biggest challenges a Boy Scout or any camper faces is how to get sleeping bags, tents, food and cooking supplies, clothing and other equipment packed so that the weight is safely and evenly distributed and that items needed in transit are accessible.

I'd like to write a 1,500-word article for Boys' Life based on a strategy I call the ABCs of canoe packing. A is for Action: Always be sure the emergency items you may need—first aid kit, matches—are stored on your body. B is for Below: The heavy items you're toting, such as sleeping bags and tents, should be in opposite ends of the canoe on the bottom. C is for Clutter—eliminate it! This one starts before you leave home. Take one pair of shoes. Leave the deodorant behind. Forget your toothbrush—OK, no need to go that far, but you get my drift. Using the ABCs has helped my son's Boy Scout troop reduce canoe packing time from 40 minutes to 15 minutes.

I am a freelance writer who focuses on family and children's issues. My publishing credits include Parenting, American Girl and Family Fun. I have attached clips from each of those magazines.

Thanks for your time and consideration. I look forward to working with you. An SASE is attached for your convenience.


Jane Doe

Pitching Yourself
Tony Seideman says this letter has gained him several thousand dollars in business.

January 8, 1998
Mr. Richard Pastore
Executive Editor
CIO Magazine
492 Old Connecticut Pass
Box 9208
Framingham, MA 01701

Dear Mr. Pastore:

Anne Stuart suggested I contact you. I'm a freelancer with more than 20 years of experience. Most of my career has been spent helping businesses understand technology's possibilities and pitfalls. In the last two decades, technology has transformed everything from the way businesses move goods to how companies can communicate with consumers.

I know this revolution intimately, because I've lived it and covered it for publications ranging from Multimedia Producer to Rolling Stone to Computer Shopper. Through all that time, my specialty has been making the complex comprehensible. Even more important is understanding the incredibly complex and subtle relationships between technology, the economy, and basic business strategies. I think you'll see from my clips that I'm a real expert at doing this; certainly my editors at American Heritage of Invention and Technology and Reputation Management seem to agree.

XYZ is playing a key role in shaping the information age. I think I can make a real contribution to your publications in a number of specific ways:

  • Writing industry profiles. As the attached article shows, I'm skilled at bringing the tactics, strategies and approaches and attitudes of cutting-edge companies to life.
  • Creating feature articles. Creating in-depth articles that reveal unexpected—and useful—truths is one of my most important strengths.
  • Establishing and writing columns. Coming up with attention-snaring concepts continually is a special skill—one I've exercised for numerous publications.

Attached are some samples of my work. I look forward to talking to you shortly about next steps. Speak to you soon.


Tony Seideman

Tony Seideman is a veteran freelance writer who has written thousands of stories for publications ranging from The New York Times and Variety to American Karaoke, Gourmet Retailer, Reputation Management and Tape/Disc Business. Melanie Rigney is editor of Writer's Digest magazine.

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