By Diana Burrell
When I’m speaking at conferences, teaching, or chatting with other writers, I’m often asked how long I spend writing a query letter. The answer’s a little embarrassing: anywhere from five minutes to five+ years! It’s usually my lede giving me all the trouble, the first few sentences of my query letter. If my lede isn’t just right, I’m physically unable to hit send, thus why some of my pitches spend years percolating on my hard drive.
Last week Melissa Breau blogged about the importance of a great kicker — also known as the ending — in a magazine article. A great lede, however, is not only necessary for an article, but a query, too. I just released a short eBook, the first I’ve written for the new Renegade Writer Press, called Rock-Solid Queries: The 10 Surprising Reasons Why Magazine Editors Reject Your Ideas … and How to Write Queries That Get More Acceptances Today. My ebook excerpt below tells you why a great lede is so important to making a sale and shows you how to craft a lede that will entice an editor — and eventually your readers.
Freelancers spend way too much time worrying what to say about their clips when they should be worrying about the first paragraph of their queries, or in journalism-speak, their ledes. If your letter doesn’t grab your editor’s interest in under 2.2 seconds, she’s going to click to the next letter in her inbox and never even make it to your bio! Many a good story is sunk by a bad lede.
Sometimes my students will develop a great idea in my class, and if time allows, I’ll review the query they—ve written for it. It’s unfortunate, but beginning and experienced freelancers usually make one of these mistakes:
- They bury their ledes. I have to read two or three (boring) explanatory paragraphs before I get to that “a-ha” sentence, the one that should come before everything else.
- Their ledes put readers to sleep. The writer will start by asking the editor a question, then go on for a couple sentences answering it for them. Or they—ll start with an anecdote that goes on for what-feels-like forever or present research, with lots of numbers, that knocks editors out faster than Ambien.
What’s sad is that these letters contain good ideas — I know because I urged my students to write them up! So if I can’t spot the lede or I’m drifting back to sleep at 11 a.m., I know these are problems less informed editors will have, too.
Many, many freelancers bury their ledes, even those of us who—ve been writing for publication for years. I do it all the time! Writing is a lot like running: it can take a couple miles (or paragraphs) to hit your stride. But here’s where less experienced writers trip and fall. Freelancers who—ve been around the block know that once you—ve written a draft, your lede is often lurking somewhere in that second or third paragraph. It can be as easy as cutting and pasting; most of the time, however, it takes additional thought and tinkering to get your lede over the finish line.
When I write queries, I can spend hours crafting my ledes, especially on an important story I’m keen to sell. It’s a worthwhile investment of my time because I know editors often scan first paragraphs, and if the writing doesn’t grab them, rejections ensue. My goal is to write an opening paragraph that teases editors into reading my whole pitch, so I do everything I can to make my initial words irresistible. Here’s how I accomplish this goal:
- When I’m writing a first draft of my pitch, I just write. I get everything in my head on paper and don’t worry about the lede, or anything else really. The real work comes during editing, or “tinkering,” as I call it. Sometimes I’ll spot my lede in the second or third paragraph, so I cut and paste it to the top — but my lede still needs a ton of work.
- I study the first paragraphs of articles in my target magazine and rewrite my lede in the same format. If stories tend to open with a personal anecdote, my query will open with one. If stories open with a startling fact, I’ll open my query with a startling fact. I mimic the style so closely and craft my lede with such care that I often use the lede from my query in the story I write on assignment.
- I avoid asking questions in the first line of my query. Any query that begins, “Have you ever wondered ?” or “Do you wish that ?” should be deleted by the writer and put out of its misery. The answers to questions like these tend to be “No,” which leads to a rejection.
- I spend a lot of time crafting the last sentence in my lede. If I’m going to ask a question of my reader/editor, I put it here. This sentence needs to be interesting enough to move my reader to the second paragraph, where I explain (concisely) what my proposed story is about now that I’ve got them hooked. (In journalism this is called the nut graf.)
- I open my query with a “hed” and “dek” that matches the magazine’s style. (“Hed” is shorthand for “headline” and “dek” stands for “subhead.”) I want the editor to imagine what my story will look like on her pages, and the hed and dek can help. If you’re not good at writing headlines/subheads, just skip it. I put the hed and dek right after my salutation and before I launch into my query.
- I let my query rest before I hit send. Rarely do I dash off a pitch, unless I know the editor very, very well. Instead, I let it sit for a day or two, then give it another read with fresh eyes. My critical faculties improve and I’m less emotional about making changes to my lede. It’s almost as if I’m editing someone else’s work.
Editors will forgive a lot in a query — an idea that’s interesting but needs more development, a misspelled name, minimal credits, even a typo — but few, if any, will forgive boring writing. Don’t derail a great idea by hitting your editor’s snooze button. Study how other writers write first paragraphs. What kind of writing draws you in to a story? Write down first sentences that feel particularly effective, especially in articles similar to ones you write and see if you can do something similar in your next query.
Do you spend a lot of time perfecting your ledes? How long does it take you to craft a lede you’re happy with? Any other tips you can share with readers? Add your comments below. — Diana Burrell