How To Write a Query Letter (May 29, 2012, from China)

Hello again.

My apologies for the weird code that begins this category. I’m traveling and writing in China now, where blogs are mostly illegal.  Editing a blog is particularly horrible.  I think this is the best I can get it, so bear with me. If you’ll go to Transitions Abroad magazine online and enter my name (Mary Ann Davis) you’ll get many travel stories to use as samples.  

Having explained that, let’s get to today’s blog:  how to write a query letter.   

The global financial crises have intensified freelance writing competition a lot, and we’re all in the same boat now. Everybody must write polite, tightly-focused but entertaining query letters.  

A query letter is a one-page business letter you write or email to a magazine (one that publishes both on-line and off-line is best, I feel, though it’s your choice).  This article is for non-fiction travel-writing, though the basic query letter is the same for all non-fiction genres.  It’s different if you’re looking for a publisher for your book, though, and fiction does have its own ‘language.’  (You’d discuss characterization and dialogue, for example.)

A query letter nudges an editor, enticing him/her  to  publish a particular item.  Query letters submit your idea for an article..  The reply, if favorable, will be for you to write the article, but they won’t promise to buy the article until they’ve read it.  If they decide to publish it, that has some more steps involved (a contract, etc.).  

Today’s blog is about selling them on an idea for an article “on speculation” — for their approval, so to speak.  Then — you’ve taken your first step toward being a professional freelancer. 

You need to keep in mind that publishers/editors confront huge obstacles now.  Think about  the technological changes you’ve seen in the last year!  Add to this the world’s financial situation, plus newspapers and other publications that have simply gone bankrupt in the last few years.  If it’s not too depressing, consider all the out-of-work writers who’re floating around now, too.  

Despite –or because of all this — you must be cheerful, entertaining, and very clear.  Spit out what you want from them —  politely and swiftly.  Don’t omit anything that will speed your pitch to their hearts, and  don’t waste their time.  (They must see thousands of letters a day…)

  1. Address your query letter to the correct staff person.  Review yesterday’s blog for specifics about finding a publication.  Using the guidelines you got from them, write the editor that deals with queries/submissions, or the person indicated in their reply to you (about guidelines).
  2. If you’re not certain of the editor’s sex, I’d suggest, writing out the whole name, prefaced by “Dear.”  Example:  “Dear Mary Ann Davis:”.
  3. My theory is to begin and end the letter with “thank you.”  Your first paragraph would state that easily and quickly, moving on to state what you want to write for them.  
  4. You must know the exact position the magazine takes toward freelance submissions and where they’ll publish freelance stories. Nowadays, it’s best not to hope for getting into an area that they’ve got covered by a staff person or a service.  (By the way, writing for guidelines is important for that,too:  many newspapers, etc. use services for their copy now. When the editors reply about guidelines, they’ll almost always tell you if they use a service and won’t publish freelance work.) That is, mention the exact location where you think your piece will fit best.  It’s OK to say, ‘…but I’m flexible on this issue!’
  5. Make sure you’ve done your homework before you write them, but —  keep your spontaneity and joy during this process. 
  6. After the basics in your letter, describe what the piece will be, as specifically as you can.  Tell why you’re the person to write it, too.  Mention credentials that support your claims and what work you do now.  Again:  be creative and spontaneous.  For example, maybe they’ve seen very little epistolary work dealing with their subject matter.  At any rate, let your heart dictate a new approach to their topics.  Be brave!
  7. I suggest you offer to ‘build sidebars’ (columns with additional information) and say what each will have.  A sidebar is a glossary of terms in the native tongue, for example, or important dates in that country’s history, or train times.
  8. Make this query letter no more than one page.
  9. Professionals now suggest that you don’t badger editors about pay, and that you get that information from the guidelines.  They also say not to  insert a copyright symbol in your query for your work there.

Writers Market 2012 has a good query clinic, as well as Writers Digest.  Don’t get hung up in other people’s suggestions, but it does help to get all your ducks in a row.  After 20 years of writing and getting ink, I decided to become a bit more visible. (Social networking, a blog, a few professional associations, etc.).  Here’s a sample query letter. 

Dear Mr. Wicharatt:

Thank you in advance for your time. Drayhorse International and I are on the same wavelength, and here’s why…. <fill in the blanks…>

“Drayhorses in Thailand” will have your readers gripping their sides and howling!  The folks you talk about in your articles — not to mention the drayhorses themselves — are exactly the ones I spend all my time around.   

Reading your magazine, I’ve planned an article for speculation.  “Drayhorses in Thailand” would appear in your “Travel Newsroom” column, though anywhere you’d place it will be fine with me.   I’ll fill the piece with humorous anecdotes — from my heart.  I love my drayhorses and the times we spend together in the fields….the drayhorses in Thailand are similar in behavior, though their appearance is different.  The article compares them, while also discussing, in detail, travel through Thailand. 

I’ll build a sidebar, two if you have space.  My sidebars will make reading fun and easy.   One sidebar will gloss any unfamiliar terms, and the other one will be a smaller one for ‘further studies.’

The projected word count is about 1,000 and high-quality photos are available.  My blog is mdaviswrites.wordpress.com; writing samples are online at … One published clip is attached; you’re welcome to see more. Just let me know. Last winter I wrote a short piece for Pepys Diary online.  That address is http://www.pepysdiary.com/p/5344.php.

I graduated from Arkansas State University, where I specialized in Agriculture in Action.  My M.S. isn’t finished yet, though the Graduate School considered this trip to Thailand as part of my studies.  While visiting Chiang Rai, I tutored the local farmers in animal husbandry, emphasizing drayhorse management.

Thanks again for your time.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Mary Ann Davis

That’s easy, isn’t it?  I hope this helps you.  See you in a day or two, when we’ll start discussing How To Write Fiction…  Mary Ann Davis

 

 

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