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January, 2008

Torrey Meeks

The Query Letter
More art than science
By  Torrey Meeks

When writing that first query don't sweat it, it takes time, and it's time well spent.
After the initial decision to freelance for a living has been made the next step has a way of coming on like a freight train. One that flattens, deflates, and otherwise mangles to bits the first blush of excitement and adrenalin.

In other words, you're trying to write your first query letter. Never fear, it's far more science than art. My guess is you're approaching the process artistically. That's not to say there's no room for art in a query letter, but when you set out to craft your first pitch, it's best to approach it like a mechanic.

Let's say you've been staring at the screen for what feels like the sum of your natural life, and all you have so far is the heading and the "Dear Mr. Blank."

First, here's what your heading should look like:

John Smith
555 Rose Ln.
Clovis, NM 88990

November 1, 2006

Bob Griffith
Big Timber Magazine
1234 Aspen Rd.
Truckee, CA 87999

Dear Mr. Griffith:

If the first part of your query letter looks like anything but this, you're doing it wrong. First and foremost you want to come across as professional. Why put addresses and dates in, you might be thinking. It's just an e-mail, right? Wrong.

This is the first impression an editor on the other side of that computer screen is going to have of you, so make it count. The professional heading tells the editor that you've taken the time to get the magazine's address and the editor's proper title. Are they an editor, editor-in-chief, associate editor, senior editor? Which means you have either read a hard copy, perused the website, or looked at a market listing.

The devil is in the details, so don't rush your first query letter. Make sure you spell the editors name correctly. If you don't, most won't even read past the heading before throwing it in the trash. Go through and check for punctuation and spelling errors two or three times after letting it sit for awhile.
The next part will be the body of your query, and it should progress in a logical fashion. Instead of starting the message out, "I would like to write for your publication," which is an acceptable way to start a cover letter, start with something that could double as a first paragraph to your proposed story. For example:

For most loggers, the days of harvesting trees with a hand held chainsaw and packing the logs out by mule are long gone. But for Earl Ray, the labor-intensive process is still a part of his every day routine, using the low impact method to access difficult to reach high-dollar specialty hardwoods.

Now, that sounds better than, "I have this great idea and I think you'll really like it," or, "If you just listen to the idea I have for your magazine, I promise it won't disappoint."

With the first paragraph you've done a few things: 1) Showed the editor you know how to begin a story and write, 2) Proved you can speak the industry lingo to an extent, 3) Given the editor just enough to get them interested and keep them reading.

In query letter writing, less is quite often more, so don't overdo it. In the next paragraph you'll want to explain why this article is relevant. It's known as the "nut graph" where you try to pack in the thrust of your story:

Specialty hardwood harvesting is a much underappreciated segment of the logging population. With advances in technology much of the focus is put on big timber machines, making it easy to overlook exciting niche methods.

Now you want to lay out exactly what you plan to do with the story. Is it going to be a full-length feature on the specialty hardwood business? Did you just want to do a profile on Earl Ray? Let's say you're planning a full-length feature story:

Using information provided by small businessmen such as Earl Ray and others in the timber industry, I'd like to put together a 1,500-word feature story on the current issues surrounding the hardwood timber industry. Because many hardwoods are difficult to access, the above mentioned method of pack mules and hand held chainsaws is often used. This story will give your readers a look into the innovations and difficulties in updating old time methods to work efficiently in the present day.

So, you've introduced your story, you've managed to get the editor to read this far. Let's say this is your first query letter and you don't yet have a single clip or publishing credit. Guess what? It's not that big a deal. If you write a good query letter that piques the editor's interest, many times they'll go ahead and give you a shot.

When I landed my first assignment, I was in this same position, so don't sweat it. If you have a publishing credit or two, this next part is where you'll list them. If you don't have a publishing credit, just skip this entire paragraph!

That's right. Just don't mention it – bringing attention to your lack of previous publishing experience won't do you any good. All it does is, well, highlight your lack of previous publishing experience. So, if you have a clip, you want it to look like this:

As a professional journalist I've worked for the highly accredited state business publication, Louisiana Entrepreneur, covering business profiles, real estate developments, and government regulations.

Now. If you've skipped the above step and an editor writes you back saying they like the idea and they want to see clips, don't fake it. Be upfront and honest, this is always the best policy.

Tell them straight up and sincerely: I don't have any previous professional publishing experience (if you worked on a high school newspaper, go ahead and mention it). Tell them you've been studying freelance journalism, feel that you have a good handle on news writing, and are still trying to break in. Leave it at that. Don't beg, don't tell them you'll be the best writer they've ever seen. These are amateur red flags.

My guess is, they'll take a chance on you and float that first assignment your way. If you take time to format the story to their specifications, turn it in on deadline, and keep a line of communication open with the editor, not only will you have that invaluable first clip, they'll probably assign you more

Finally, the closing. Here's how that works:

Thank you for your time and consideration. A resume is available on request.


John Smith

Not too difficult, huh? Keep in mind, the above example is just an example. After you get your first clip, you can close by mentioning that you have clips available on request as well as your resume.

There is plenty of room for leeway in the query letter. For instance, in the paragraph where you list your professional credits, if you're an expert on the subject matter, you should definitely mention it. Editors love subject matter experts.

Additionally, if you have any sources lined up that are experts, it helps to mention this in the query letter. The presence of experts who are already willing to interview for your story can tip the decision to assign the article in your favor.

So putting the query letter together doesn't look that hard anymore, but coming up with good topics to write on can be pretty difficult. Don't sweat it on this count either.

Here's where a tool known as the "editorial calendar" comes in handy. The editorial calendar is a break down of topics for the coming year month-by-month that the editorial staff has already decided to cover. All stories published in a given month must in some way relate to the topic at hand. You can often find the editorial calendar posted on a website, or simply e-mail the editor a brief message (make sure you include a professional heading) requesting a copy of the year's calendar.

More often than not they send you a copy right away. Editors are always looking for new, motivated writers in the trade market.

Many times sending in a timely query letter with a novel idea or fresh approach to a pre-slated topic is what gets your foot in the door, so always check for an editorial calendar.

Feeling a little better about the process? Good. Finally, don't sweat it when you're writing that first query. It'll probably take much longer than you think it should, but it's worth spending that extra time to catch the minor spelling and punctuation mistakes that can sink your chances. Be patient and don't be dejected if your first query letter doesn't land you an assignment. This is an industry where persistence really pays.

So what are you waiting for? Get crackin' on that stalled query!

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Torrey Meeks is a full-time freelance writer for a variety of trade and consumer publications. After a stint in the US Army as a combat medic, he traveled around the country holding a motley handful of jobs. He has been a long-haul trucker, stone mason, waiter, and pizza slinger. Contact Torrey at torrey-dot-meeks-at-gmail-dot-com.

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