Monday, January 2, 2012

Freelance Writing for Magazines: The Query Letter

"Personally, I would rather walk to the Yukon barefoot, report the story and write it, than to sit down and write a query trying to tell somebody why a good story is good."
                                                               --Timothy Foote, Smithsonian magazine editor
                                                                
That quote is from the book Magazine Writing That Sells, by Don McKinney, which I recently bought used at my local library bookstore for $2. Though published in '94 and thus without much reference to online writing, the book offers a wealth of knowledge about freelance writing for magazines--including, of course, the dreaded query letter.


Though I firmly believe it's trial and error via experience that will eventually bring success, I hope these field notes might help fellow writers who also want to break in to magazine writing. The following information isn't so much a how-to list as it is general advice I've gained from various sources (in print and in person) and my own (in)experience:

The Query Letter is Your Sales Tool
Similar to a cover letter in a job application, a query letter is a story proposal that pitches your topic, illustrates your approach or story angle, and demonstrates your writing style to an editor. Though writing credentials in the form of published clips certainly help and are sometimes required, it's your query that will seal the deal.


What's Your Story Angle?
Far too many editors receive vague topics like "I'm heading to Paris. Would you like an article?" Keep in mind that you are not only selling an idea; you are pitching a particular subject that you can back up with anecdotes and quotes from source material via research, reporting and interviewing.  To convince the editor that your article will help sell the magazine, you must present a compelling idea with a unique angle. Yours may not be an entirely new topic, but a new spin on an old one. You can cite a previous article on a similar subject, and show how your approach will differ from that.

Grab the Editor's Attention
Every article (and good query) has a "lead"--the hook that grabs the reader and makes him/her want to continue. Rather than simply tell the editor about your article, use the query to show how you'll write it, demonstrating the voice, angle and style with your story lead. A working title, though it will most likely be changed, helps you hone your topic and tells the editor your idea is well thought-out.

Study the Submission Guidelines and Sections
Editors will appreciate (and often require) that you tailor your piece for a particular department. Once you’ve read a magazine's submission guidelines, study the publication. You can often read article samples online, but I’ve found it helpful to use the print version to understand a magazine’s sections. Studying publications also generates story ideas; it's often easier to focus a topic for a magazine section than to just pull one out of the blue. Or, if you have an idea you're excited to write about, adapting it to a particular magazine section will help to give it shape.

Know the Audience/Style
Be specific about how this topic will benefit the readership--thirty-something working dads or adventurous and outdoorsy young women. What does the magazine want--service pieces, profiles or portraits, how to's, investigative articles with quotes from experts? Do they prefer a narrative style or a roundup? Show that your writing style suits the magazine’s own.

Qualifications
Convince the editor that you’re the most qualified person to write it--whether based on your educational background, personal/professional experience, or passion. What kind of expertise do you have on this topic? If not, show you've got access to research and/or sources to interview. Your curiosity about a subject--be it in health, science or child-rearing--along with the ability to write, can be enough. If you can communicate your excitement on a topic, editors and readers will feel your enthusiasm too.

Masthead
Never begin your query with "Dear Editor." Always send it to a particular editor for that section or topic. Assistant editors are more likely to need more ideas than those at the top of the masthead. If you know someone who writes for the publication, get a name from them. Or, reference a piece by an editor that you liked, especially if it's a shared interest.

Nuts & Bolts
It seems like there are as many ways to write a query letter as there are ways to write an article or design a magazine. Generally it’s best to keep your proposal to one idea at a time (and one page), though you might introduce more than one topic in a query--especially if you’ve worked with an editor before. Some editors prefer the inclusion of an outline. A good query elicits feedback; an editor may suggest the form, length, additional research sources, approach, etc. to shape the piece. It should be obvious that grammatical, punctuation or spelling errors are the quickest path to rejection. Always have someone proofread your query. Most important, don't give up!

3 comments:

winsomebella said...

Thank you for this--it is an excellent prompt to get me going on queries I have postponed.

Nicole R. Zimmerman said...

That's great--I love reaching readers I didn't know existed. Glad to be of help and prompt your motivation. The photography on your blog is beautiful and I especially like the post "Maybe Now," which brought me back into appreciating the present. Thanks!

Ruby Claire said...

There are many more career resources in magazine writing work.



Sales letter

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