You’re in line at the grocery store, waiting to check out, when it hits you. It’s a fantastic idea for an article. It seems like it came out of nowhere, but you know the idea is perfect. You quickly begin brainstorming possible leads, and as soon as you get out to the car, you start scribbling your thoughts on the back of your grocery receipt.
On the way home, the idea turns over and over in your head, and you get more and more excited about it. No sooner have you turned off the ignition than you rush upstairs to your computer (hey, don’t forget to unload the groceries from the trunk!) and start typing. In a few minutes, you have a query letter pounded out. You rip out your Writer’s Market, and select a publication you think may be interested.
But hold on a second. Step away from the “send” key. There are a few steps you can take which will turn your great idea into a fantastic query letter, and, hopefully, a well-written, attention-grabbing article. These steps do not involve hours of painstaking work, nor do they require any special training. In other words, anyone can do them. But they just may help you turn your brilliant idea into a published article.
Ask yourself what you want to know about the subject. If the idea you have, for example, is about how to save money on your electricity bill, start out by asking broader questions. Pretend that you haven’t ever thought about where your electricity comes from (or maybe you really never have, which makes this part easier).
List questions that you, and in turn, your potential reader, will have about the subject. For example, you may list questions like “How is electricity generated and transported to private homes?,” “What companies in my region provide electrical delivery?,” and “What appliances in my home use the most power?”
Scour your brain for possible slants or angles your article could take. Write these ideas down, even if you don’t think you’ll use them (they may turn your great idea into multiple articles!). This process will also help you hone in on the research questions you need to pursue, as well as background knowledge you need to develop before you start writing.
Develop a fascinating narrative hook. For the query letter, and for the article itself, ensure that your readers keep reading by snagging them with a witty, startling, captivating entrance.
Imagine that you’re attending a party, and you want everyone to notice your new haircut and stylish clothes. You wouldn’t slouch in and head straight for the punch. You’d take confident steps in to the center of the action, catching people’s eyes, smiling, and radiating assurance.
That’s what great writers do when they start a piece, whether it’s a novel, short story, or nonfiction piece. Perhaps for your query letter about saving money on electricity, you could startle the editor with a statistic about how much power the average consumer uses in a day. Or, you may choose the witty route, and make a play on words, such as “Is your monthly electric bill zapping your bank account?” Whatever you do, hook the editor and make him or her want to continue reading your query-and buy the article!
Eradicate boring passive voice. Print out a copy of your query and get out your red pen. And yes, every writer should have one! Go through your query and circle every time you use “to be” or any of its versions (is, are, were, was, will be, etc.). Whenever you find these sneaky, insidious little words, you’ve got to root them out by their hair, because they weaken your writing and make it bland.
Writing in the passive voice, which is what most of us do most of the time before revision, tells instead of shows. After you’ve circled all the “to be” verbs, rework the sentences so that the subjects do something. For example, you may have originally written, “The refrigerator is the most electricity-hungry appliance in your kitchen.” Not a bad sentence, but it could be better. Try something like “Your refrigerator guzzles more electricity than any other appliance in your kitchen.” You can’t change every “to be” verb, but the fewer your query includes, the more active-and interesting-it will be to read.
Published writers start with a great idea. But a great idea doesn’t make money if you can’t turn it into a great query. Take these simple extra steps and you’ll probably get a byline and a check for that great idea.
Janel Atlas is a freelance writer and editor from northern Delaware. Her articles on parenting, theater, and writing have appeared in regional and national publications. To contact Janel, visit her website at http://www.thewriteatlas.com.