I learned how to write query letters early on in my writing journey, when I took an article writing correspondence course through the mail (yes, it was ages ago, before online courses were the norm). The course guided me through the process of writing queries and completing article manuscripts.
A query letter is a way to introduce yourself and your project to an editor or agent. You write a query letter to magazine editors (who want to see a query before reviewing a full manuscript for publication) and to agents and book editors (who want to see a query before agreeing to represent you or before agreeing to see a full proposal.)
But it’s a mistake to view a query letter as simply an intro. Nor is it wise to think that writing a query is easier than writing a complete article, simply because a query is usually just one page long.
The truth: a query letter is a sales pitch. Its job is to convince the editor or agent that she wants to see the full article or book proposal.
It’s your opportunity to get your foot in the door. If your idea doesn’t capture an editor or agent’s interest, then you won’t have the chance to send a full manuscript. No manuscript submission, no article/book contract.
That’s why you want to know how to write query letters that grab an editor’s attention and make her think, Hey, this idea is worth my time! Then, she clicks “Reply” and quickly types, “Great idea. Please send along the completed manuscript (or full book proposal).”
So unless you’re going to self-publish for the rest of your life, you need to know how to write query letters.
Here’s how to distill your enticing idea onto one sizzling page that an editor or agent cannot resist.
Be sure to include these 7 elements in your query letter.
If ever there was a time to be professional, this is it. Don’t address the query letter to a nebulous, “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Editor.” Do your homework. Find out the editor’s name and make sure you spell it correctly.
And while you’re doing your homework, make sure you’ve researched the publication. Does your idea resonate with their audience, style, topic, and slant? Make sure you can honestly say to the editor, “Your readers are passionate about this topic.” For instance, don’t even think about querying the editor of a professional UNIX users publication with your article on children who raise champion ribbon-winning pet iguanas.
Open your query letter with an enticing hook that illustrates the main idea of your writing project. Try using a provocative quote, a funny anecdote, an intriguing fact, a common misconception, a problem or mystery to be solved, an inspiring promise, a surprising statistic, a comparison, contrast, or conflict, a zinger or punch statement – an usual or unexpected approach that arouses curiosity to draw in the reader. (Get more tips for writing an introduction with an interesting hook.)
Now that you’ve got the editor’s attention, present your project’s main idea – with a specific slant. Your hook grabs the editor’s interest, but your idea and how you present it is a key tipping point in your query letter.
Summarize your idea in one sentence. Some writers call this a thesis statement.
This thesis statement needs to present more than just a topic. You need to zero in on a specific angle you’ll take with that topic – one that’s fresh, substantial, and customized for that publication or publishing house.
Let’s say you want to write an article about preparing for childbirth. It’s a topic with ongoing appeal in parenting and women’s publications.
But the topic, minus a specific slant, is too broad. You cannot expect a go-ahead from an editor if you write, “I’d like to send you an article about preparing for childbirth” or even, “I’d like to send you an article about preparing for childbirth under unusual circumstances.”
Instead, offer a unique twist on the topic, such as, “No matter how stringent their self-care, the fact is that every year pregnant women get sick during their ninth month. My article shows a new mom how to manage childbirth successfully when she has the flu or a cold.”
Explain why want to write this piece and why you’re the best person to write this particular piece.
Plenty of people are qualified to write about your topic. But your slant and approach are unique. Here’s where you can cite your writing qualifications, but also explain your personal interest in this piece, like this:
“Twenty-four hours into my bout with the flu, I had my first labor pains. And I want to share with other women how they can manage both simultaneously and successfully.”
If the editor gives you the go-ahead, how soon can you deliver the completed manuscript? Tell her.
“I can send you the completed article within a week after I hear from you.”
Graciously thank agent or editor for her time. Then close respectfully and sign your query.
You’ll send out completed manuscripts, which lead to contracts, which lead to published credits and clips.
So get going. What’s one step you can take right now to get started on a query letter that sparkles?
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