The Renegade Writer

How Mastering the Query Letter Will Change Your Life — and 6 Steps to Doing It

Dawn Witzke-checkmarkBy Susan Finch

I’ve been writing query letters since I was 19, when I sent out pitches to the likes of Penguin Press, assuming they would immediately buy my novel and scribble out a check for an enormous advance. I’m sure you know how that turned out. A tiny rejection slip of paper appeared in my mailbox a few months later.

More than a dozen years later, I’m still writing query letters, only now I get more “yes’s” than “no’s” and my work appears in guidebooks, websites, iPhone apps, and national and regional magazines.

Sure, I’ve mastered how to write an effective query letter, but more importantly, I’ve learned how to position myself for lifelong success.

The ability to craft a compelling query letter means you’ve figured out how to sell something: Yourself. It’s not just about selling your idea or credentials to an editor — a query letter announces you are capable and deserving of an assignment. And if you can write an effective query letter, you can tap a pool of success across your career and life as a whole.

Is it magic? Well, suddenly writing a cover letter for a new job just doesn’t seem so hard. Drafting persuasive emails to rally donations for your favorite organization now feels seamless. Going freelance and convincing potential clients to hire you feels like a fun challenge instead of a dreadful experience akin to coaxing a cat into water. Emailing an unbelievable story about what happened to you over the weekend to a friend yields compliments of what a great storyteller you are.

Something else happens when you master query writing: You gain a certain sense of confidence and self. You develop a keen sense of when your query is spot on with the writing style and reach of the publication you’re targeting. You stop typing with a feeling of closure instead of frustration, knowing you’ve done all you can do to write the best query possible. And you know if your idea is rejected, it has more to do with the timing or other factors than your query or writing as a whole.

Writing a good query also means earning better rejections. I still get rejected frequently, only now a rejection is an information packed gem. Consider the difference between getting a quality query rejected, but with useful feedback, and getting a form letter rejection that starts “Dear Writer.”

Editors who notice your writing skill, quality ideas and ingenuity in a query are more likely to offer real feedback. You find out why they didn’t like the piece, why they’re passing on it and if they have any advice. A rejection can also swing a door open to touch base with the editor again.

I’ve always wondered why more writers don’t launch query letter writing groups and workshops instead of just focusing on the story. Testing your article idea with a query saves an extraordinary amount of time and headaches.

And in most cases, you don’t need to write the article before pitching an editor anyway. More often than not, it’s better if you don’t. The editor can tweak your idea and make suggestions accordingly.

But don’t confuse a good query letter unlocking all kinds of career doors as an easy task. Writing a good query usually proves more difficult than writing the piece itself. You need a careful balance of objectivity about your idea, persuasive but subtle selling skills, and insight to the publication to get the formula down just right. It takes even longer to skillfully put it all together without losing your unique voice.

I’ve got good news and bad news, and they’re both the same thing. The only way to write a sparkling, actionable query is by diligent practice — and anyone can do it. Start regarding query letter writing as a craft in and of itself. It’s just as important, if not more so, to hone your query craft as it is to develop your essay or travel or citizen journalism writing skills.

A query letter instructor once told me anyone can train to write a good query, just like almost anyone can train for a marathon. Aspiring marathoners don’t wake up one day and run 26.2 miles. And while good query letter writing is about practice and dedication, it’s also partly intuitive, which can also be learned.

The more you write, rewrite and rewrite your query yet again, the more you get a sense of its tone, if it’s flowing and where the holes are. You start to see where it’s dragging or snapping the reader to attention. And as you send out your dog-eared queries to editors, you get a feeling of what’s working and what’s not based on their feedback and response.

So how do you master query letter writing? No one writer or query is the same, but the techniques and skillset involved are similar. Here’s the method I usually follow, though I’m known to break my own rules to nail down a query just right.

1. Write a Captivating Hook


You need to give an editor a reason in the very first sentence to keep reading. Think about it this way. If you wanted to make a great impression on a future boss, would you show up to an interview in sweats and nothing interesting to say? So why would you treat your query opening as anything less than a crucial step in making a first impression?

When Trisha Ledbetter’s football sailed through the air and slipped out of the opposing team’s quarterback, I knew she was more than just an athlete. She was a force to be reckoned with.

2. Build up to the Idea


Don’t jump from the lede to, “I’d like to write an article about Trisha Ledbetter, college football star.” The editor needs a little context to your idea to want to read the entire article.

Who is this Trisha person? Why is she important? Why would readers care about her? What’s unique about her beyond being a football player? Did she win awards? Was she the first on her team?

3. Make Sure Your Story Is Actually An Idea


I previously served as an Associate Editor at a travel website, and I can’t tell you how many submissions I received that were just destinations. “I’m going to Puerto Rico and want to write a piece about it.” Well, okay, but that’s a destination, not a story.

Try something like, “With female football players now recruited into college sports, where can they turn after graduation to fulfill their athletic dreams of turning pro?”

4. Tell the Editor What You Want


Start a new paragraph and tell the editor exactly what you want. Don’t make her guess you want to write a feature. And remember it’s not always clear from the masthead if the editor you’re contacting works on features or not. She could end up reading your query about your feature idea and pass it onto an appropriate editor.

If the editor doesn’t think it will work the way you have in mind, she will tell you and make suggestions if interested. You won’t miss out on an opportunity because you got specific, you’re simply clarifying your vision and helping along the process.

Get specific. “I’d love to write a feature on Trish Ledbetter and the rise of female football players tackling the competition as early as elementary school.”

If the editor wants it to be a scant FOB (front of book) piece instead of a feature, she’ll tell you. If she hates the idea but thinks you’d be right for a similar sports-themed piece, she will tell you. If she just ran something like it, but wants you to pitch again, she will tell you.

Trust the editor to do her job, but you have to do yours as a writer.

5. Give Your Credentials


I know. For new and aspiring writers, this one will make you break into a sweat. If you have clips, include them. But if you don’t, avoid apologizing for it or begging for an assignment. It’s a huge turn-off and editors will hit delete. Instead, give insight into why you should write the piece.

“Breaking barriers as the first high school female football coach in my state, I’m uniquely qualified to give insight on Trisha’s challenges and triumphs.”

6. Say Thanks


Editors are busy. Everyone wants to hear a simple “thanks.” “Thanks so much for your time, I can be reached at (your info here) at your convenience.”

So if the list above looks straightforward enough, that’s because it is. But the real sparks fly when you bring fluidity and storytelling to your query. And you can easily achieve such compelling writing by…practicing.

Practice every day until writing a query letter feels like winning a well-deserved gold. Make your query letter as interesting, compelling and exciting to read as any article or story you’ll ever write.

Susan Finch is a freelance writer specializing in travel, lifestyle, and multimedia projects. Sign-up for a chance to win a free query letter critique with Susan at WordGlam.com.

Stick figure by Dawn Witzke. Thanks, Dawn! Renegades…submit your stick figures to lindaformichelli@gmail.com!

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May 6, 2013 Advice, Query letters

8 Responses

  1. Rio H says:

    Thank you – Great examples made all the difference to so many other “How To” essays.

  2. Susan says:

    Thanks! I find telling the editor what you want is often overlooked. Sure, they’ll tell you where they see a piece fitting, but they’ll also listen to your ideas. And they might have something else in mind than where you’re headed.

  3. What a fabulous little info-packed piece, Susan! Wow! Just saved this puppy to my Evernote clipping file. I had the privilege of taking a class with Linda and Carol Tice recently, and query letters are one of the items they counseled us on. Definitely a bit daunting to begin with, but as you say, they’re becoming more fun (and more fluid) with every attempt. Thank you for this handy list of tips for making one’s query come to life!

  4. Paolo says:

    Great piece of advice. I noticed the many mistakes is not identifying to the editor what the writer wants. By the way, I like the pencil illustrations. They make it easier to match the article than trying to find photographs, and non-copyright photograph providers are hard to find.

  5. [...] Kennedy explains how to write the perfect pitch; Susan Finch lists 6 steps to writing a great query letter; and Ava Jae reminds us that query letters need critiques, [...]

  6. [...] How Mastering the Query Letter Will Change Your Life — and 6 Steps to Doing It [...]

  7. The Complaint Lady says:

    Excellently written article on query letters — the perpetual bug-a-boos of most writers. Your writing, Susan, exudes your love for your craft, and I think that’s half the battle of getting an editor or publisher’s attention. Thank you for sharing this. — The Complaint Lady

  8. H.M.C says:

    Brilliant. Saved to my favourites. I look back at old query letters and cringe.

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