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Neubauer's Nuggets
By Joan R. Neubauer
February, 2007, 10:30

Each month, award-winning author Joan R. Neubauer answers questions from you, her readers. She will answer questions about writing, promotion, publishing, and any other aspect of the publishing industry you can think of. Send your questions to her at Subject: Neubauer Nuggets, and maybe yours will be the question she answers next month.

Dear Joan,

Iíve always wanted to be a writer and think Iíd like to start out as a freelancer. I have an idea for a magazine article, but I donít have any idea how to sell it. Where do I begin?

Maya Jennings
Clear Lake, Texas

Dear Maya,

Begin by doing a little research. Go to your local library's reference section and find the latest volumes of Reader's Guide. If you can't find them, ask the reference librarian. In fact, take this opportunity to make a new friend. Every writer needs to make friends with their reference librarian. They are an invaluable resource.

Once you locate these Reader's Guides, search on the particular topic of your article for the past couple of years. This will tell you which magazines have already covered that topic and when. You need to know this information for two reasons. First, you'll know which publications like to publish articles on that subject. Second, since magazines tend to republish articles on the same topics every six to twelve months, you'll then know which publications will want to republish an article on your topic in the coming months. This part of the process will probably help you compile a list of four to six magazines that may have an interest in your subject in the next couple of months.

With this list in hand, try to get back issues of those magazines, specifically those with the articles of interest to you. Find and grab whichever ones you can. Read them cover to cover for tone, vocabulary, word count, and article construction. Go online to find their writer's guidelines. If they're not on the Web, then send for them via snail mail. They will tell you exactly what the editors expect from their writers, including format, if they require photos, terms, and payment. The guidelines will also tell you how to submit your work, which editor to submit it to, whether to send a query letter or the entire article, and whether to send these via snail mail or e-mail. Most publications these days want all submissions via e-mail.

Knowing all this, you can then best determine what might be the best publications for your article. Make a list and start at the top of that list and send that editor the appropriate material, a query letter or the article. If you must send a query letter, remember to include the five elements that editors look for (see Jane's question below.) If you need to send the entire article, include a cover letter that tells a little bit about the article and yourself as a writer, and please submit this material exactly per the guidelines, that is, either hard copy or electronically. If you send it through the mail, include an SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope), so the editor can easily respond.

With this submission off to the editor, don't sit by your computer or mailbox waiting to hear from the editor. Get started on your next idea. Feed the freelancing pipeline so that you always have something in the works and are always expecting a check. And keep that freelancer's mindset going.


Dear Joan,

I want to sell my work but everybody, both magazines and book publishers want to see a query letter first. I don't know how to write one or have any idea what editors expect. Is there an easy way to write one or a formula I should know about?

Jane Wilson
El Paso, Texas

Dear Jane,

Ah yes, the query letter formula. If you can count to five, you can do it. Every query letter, whether for an article or a book, has five important elements.

Element 1: The Hook
The first sentence of your query letter must read like a headline, containing enough punch and excitement to make the editor want to read more. Bear in mind, editors have so many manuscripts to read, they don't have the time to dawdle on unpromising material. You have all of three seconds to hook the editor into wanting to read more of what you've written and must make those first words concise and exciting. If it's rambling and dull, your letter will summarily be thrown into the dreaded "File 13" or put into your return envelope with or without a polite "Thank you, but no thank you."

Element 2: The Idea
Briefly state your idea, the focus of your article, in one complete and concise sentence. If you can't, then you don't have a firm grasp of it yourself. Work on it, and once you can present your idea in a succinct manner, do it as eloquently as possible. If you've captured the editor's attention with the hook thus far, you want to keep it when you present the idea.

Element 3: The Development
Give a brief explanation or description of the points you would like to develop in the piece. Obviously, the longer the article, the more points you'll be able to write about. In an article of about 1,000 words, you'll probably want to develop three or four key points. A longer article will allow you to develop more. Be sure to delineate to the editor the slant the article will have. Somewhere in this section, mention the word count of the article and be sure to use the phrase "as per your guidelines." (Example: "Nothing About Elephants, an article of about 1,000 words as per your guidelines, will discuss . . .") Such a phrase indicates to the editor that you have done your research and marks you as a professional.

For a book, briefly discuss plot, characters, and resolution. If it's a murder mystery, please don't tell the editor she has to read the book to find out "Who dun it." She will do away with your query letter.

Element 4: The Benefits
Every editor wants to know that the material they publish will attract their target audience. One of the ways to get an editor's attention is to provide articles that will benefit their readers in some way. In this section, point out those benefits. The best writing educates, motivates, and entertains all at the same time. Emphasize how your article will accomplish those goals for their readers.

Element 5: The Credentials
Editors also want to know that they are dealing with a professional. End your letter by stating your credentials for writing this particular piece. If you've never been published before, don't say that. Instead, focus on what qualifies you to write this. Don't ask the editor for an opinion of your work. That marks you as a rank amateur. If you have a limited number of credits, list them all. If you've been extensively published, then list those credits that pertain. In any case, always be positive, polished, and professional.

When you close your letter, be sure to keep it short and professional. "Thank you for your time and consideration. I hope to hear from you soon," works fine. Sign it "Sincerely" or with some other business-like closing. Avoid such things as "Love" or "Hugs and Kisses."

For an article, confine everything to a single page. Because a book is far longer than an article, you can expand your letter onto a second page, but no more than that. Now get out there and go for it.

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Joan R. Neubauer is a publisher at as well as a published author. Check out her two latest books, A Serpentís Tooth and Shadow Dancing. email at or You can sign up for WordWright's monthly email newsletter at the site as well.

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