Playwright and novelist Saul Bellow once said, “I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, “To hell with you.”
Saying “To hell with you” might relieve the tension that follows hateful rejection letters, but it doesn’t pay the bills. So what’s the answer? Write the kind of queries that result in fewer rejections and more acceptance notifications. You know the kind I’m speaking of. The ones that say, “Congratulations. We are pleased to inform you that Blah Blah Magazine would like to publish your article entitled, “Getting the Editor’s Attention.” We plan to feature it in our August edition. We look forward to working with you.”
Do you want to do something to insure more congratulatory announcements like the one above? I thought so. Read on. It’s easier than you think.
For starters, write a query letter that will prompt the editor to want to learn more – about you and your idea. Make your query unique, but not bizarre. Provide an outline of the points you intend to cover, not a condensed version of the entire piece. Give enough information to tweak the editor’s interest, but not so much that he takes your idea and assigns it to someone else.
Be professional. Remember, there is a big difference between friendliness and gushing. Editors are less than impressed with our undying admiration for their publication. In my day we called it “brown-nosing.” I believe today’s term is a bit more graphic. Furthermore, an editor couldn’t care less whether a potential writer does or does not subscribe to his magazine. Don’t waste your precious space telling him trivia that is unrelated to the article you are pitching. Creative ideas and competent writing sells magazines; superfluous compliments and inflated “facts” do not. Give them what they need rather than what you think they may want to hear.
Follow the writer’s guidelines to the letter. When they ask for a one-page query, limit yours to one page or less. If they want clips, send clips. If they request three writing samples, don’t send four. If they request double spacing, don’t try to sneak by with 1.5 – no matter how much of your brilliance you’re forced to omit.
Become familiar with the publication you are targeting before you write your query. What type of articles do they feature? Is there a particular section where your piece would fit “perfectly?” Do they include some humor, or is it a no nonsense, “just the facts” publication? If the magazine (or Internet site) you are considering doesn’t fit into your style, save your time and energy for one that does. You’ll be doing yourself a favor, and you’ll have one less rejection letter to mourn over.
Several publications provide a one-year calendar of scheduled topics, but it usually takes some sleuthing to find it. Begin by going to the magazine’s homepage on the Internet, and then let your fingers do the walking. Locating the calendar gives you one extra tool in your box. (“I think my proposed story, ‘Working With the New Teacher’, would be a perfect fit for your September back-to-school issue.”) Another idea is to search your favorite search engine for the name of the magazine and the term “editorial calendar.”
Grab the editor’s attention with your opening statement or question. I like to begin with a question that will prompt the Big Cheese to read on in order to find the answer – but that’s simply a personal preference. You may want to stick with the more traditional opening statement method. Either way, remember that you are trying to evoke an “I didn’t know that” or a “That’s amazing” response instead of a “Here we go again” reaction.
Try to use a format other than the traditional six, seven, or eight paragraph letter. Many editors receive fifty to seventy-five query letters every day. After an hour of reading queries, they probably all look the same. Make your query letter stand out among the multitude by utilizing bullets, lists, columns sidebars, or even a sparse amount of bold print. But remember this: There is a big difference between creativity and a bizarre practice. Stay as far away from the latter as you possibly can. Editors don’t walk away from “doofus” writers – they run.
If appropriate, make reference to at least one statistic in your query. Statistics suggest you have done your homework, and they make you sound like the expert you are.
Editors are turned on by the slightest mention of a high-profile person – either famous or infamous. Why? Because readers lap up this kind of drivel. Remember, publishers issue checks – give them what they want.
If you have a sidebar in mind, mention it. If you don’t have one in mind, dream one up. Editors love sidebars. They add interest to a page and present important ideas in a nice, neat, concise package. I suspect my “paint and draw” sidebar inclusions have been directly responsible for more than half of my article sales. They can do the same for you.
And finally, study query letters written by successful writers. Eat, drink, and sleep with the master query writers until you understand what makes their letters work for them, and what you can do to make your query letters work for you. Learn from the experts’ experience and expertise, and adapt their knowledge to suit your personality and fit your style.
My query bible is QUERY LETTERS THAT WORKED! Real Queries That Landed $2K+ Writing Assignments by Angela Hoy. If you don’t already own this gem, go for it. After reading this book, one new writing assignment like the ones featured therein will buy copies for you and 100 of your closest friends. Life just doesn’t get any better than that. Now grab yourself a cup of coffee, sit down at the computer, and write one of those killer query letters. I’m rooting for you out here in heaven. Oops, I mean Iowa.
In 2001 Jacquie McTaggart of Independence, Iowa retired from a 42-year teaching career and, out of boredom, began to write. Her hobby quickly became a passion and her passion evolved into a second career (make that plural) – writing and public speaking.
Booklocker.com released her book, From the Teacher’s Desk, in December 2003. She writes weekly education and parenting-based columns for two daily newspapers, maintains an interactive teacher-to-parent website, and writes a monthly online newsletter. She has written articles for Better Homes and Gardens, This Active Life, Teacher Magazine, ByLine, Family Circle, and numerous websites.
You can catch a glimpse of and learn more about this remarkable senior by visiting her web site at http://www.theteachersdesk.com. To read some of her articles, enter “Jacquie McTaggart” in your favorite search engine.