Learning how to write a query letter is an essential step to take for any writer who wants to make a career out of their work, especially those who want to write for magazines and newspapers. Fiction writers can certainly make use of them as well when looking for agents and publishers or submitting to literary magazines, but this article will focus on pitching articles, news, and features to magazines and newspapers- we will cover fiction queries in a future post.
The purpose of a query letter
Query letters are short, succinct summaries of ideas for articles that contributors send in to editors of publications for a chance to turn those ideas into published pieces with their name on it. Many magazines, newspapers, and other publications buy a large portion of their content from freelance writers and contributors, and they do this by reading queries- mostly through email but some still prefer physical copies.
It’s easy to see the importance of an effective query letter- it’s the only chance you have to get your idea in front of an editor and success relies on just a single page. The idea is to convince the editor that your idea is a perfect fit for their publication and that you are capable of writing it, so it’s essential to showcase your writing skills and experience in your queries.
The right idea for the right publication
Pitching the wrong idea to a magazine is setting yourself up for failure and will often get your query sent straight to the trash bin, so prior research is absolutely necessary. The number one rule is to know the publication inside and out, read any magazine that you plan on contributing to religiously- read back-issues and the latest releases, stay on top of their competitors and become an expert in the industry. Become familiar with the magazines style, the type of articles that they publish and what they’ve already recently covered- it is all necessary if you plan on making an attractive query.
Look into the magazine’s editorial calender and take note of when they publish articles on certain topics and where your idea would fit in best. Don’t overlap with subject matter that regular contributors might be covering. Also, don’t quit just because you didn’t get a response right away or your response wasn’t an acceptance- keep trying until something sticks if you think you are a good fit for a magazine.
Attention grabbing headings
The heading of your query will determine whether the editor even bothers to open your email or not, so it’s crucial that you start off on the right foot. Make it very clear that you are querying an article idea and submitting a proposal, something like “Query: 7 Style Tips for the Office”.
Strong, clear lead
The first paragraph should read very similarly to what you’d write if you were making a lead for the actual article- this is your chance to show the editor your writing skills while presenting your case as to why the article fits their publication. Your lead should summarize the subject matter of the article and the direction you plan on going with it, make the story sound relevant and interesting to the publication’s audience and really sell yourself as the right freelancer for the job.
Writing a query letter is an exercise in your technical skills as a writer and the editor will take your word choice and the structure of your paragraphs into account. Try to use the style and format of the magazine as much as you can and demonstrate to the editor that you are familiar with what they are looking for at least in terms of technique.
Unique and interesting hook/angle
Your article needs to fit nicely into the magazine and provide value and entertainment to it’s audience, so once again knowing the publication is essential. Pick up a subscription or head down to your local library and see if they have some issues in stock- you may also be able to read a large portion of it online. Do whatever it takes to get familiar with the magazine and the kind of ideas that they publish.
No one wants to publish an article that’s generic and uninteresting, magazines want pieces with an original twist or fresh angle that really grabs people’s attention. Don’t submit “How to Lose Weight” to a health magazine, instead put a spin on it and propose something like “How to get rid of that extra chin”, an idea that fits the tone of the magazine and makes the audience want to read the article.
Establish credibility as a writer
The last part of your query should contain some information about you as a writer and prove to the editor that you are capable of handling this assignment. Some clips of your work are necessary, if you haven’t been published in any magazines or newspapers before then try to get your work on some websites and blogs with as much clout as possible- it’s much easier to get published online than it is in print. Show them your best work, preferably related to the topic of their magazine.