Query Writing Series: The Query Letter, Part One

The Query Letter, Part One
Get Creative!
It amazes me how many creative writers churn out boring, unimaginative query letters. I once received a query letter from a writer who wrote – “I saw your ad. Here’s my resume. Call me.” Did I call? Hell no! If that writer couldn’t be bothered to sell himself to me, I didn’t have much faith he’d do any better at the actual job. What’s worse, he didn’t bother to get creative. Nowhere did his personality appear, nor did he leave any lasting impression (beyond my thinking how lazy he was). You’re a writer. Your job is to wow people. So wow them!

Let me give you an example from my own query letter pile. The ad read: “Can you write strong marketing headlines that draw consumers in? Can you write engaging marketing copy that convinces consumers that they need to know more? Can you combine these two skills to get consumers to register for a health site that provides samples, information, coupons and more? If you answer YES to all of the above we want you to write our copy! Experience: You must have experience (examples) writing copy for banner ads (consumer), lead generation sites (consumer), sites that require registration (consumer).”

Thinking about the ad and the particular client, you can see that this is someone who needs an imaginative copywriter. In this ad, you see the three things this client wants more – strong headlines, engaging (and convincing) copy and an understanding of the healthcare market. Also, the client wants someone who has written advertising copy. So how are you going to approach this person?

Let me tell you how I did it. My response:

“Why Diets Fail – Are you making these common mistakes?
-Plus tips on how to follow a more foolproof diet and see results!

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-Exploring common kitchen ingredients that can help to heal the rash and remove the itch.

Your Online Health Quiz
-How well are you, anyway?

Eat Better Tonight!
-Check out our recipe section for healthy meal suggestions.

Save Money Now!
-Click here for discounts on your favorite brands.

Hire This Writer!
-She understands how to address the audience and make the consumer want to know more. She’s also a veteran writer with over 15 years of experience, and she’s published over 150 articles both in the trade and consumer markets. Her articles have appeared in publications such as Health & You, Emergency Physicians Monthly, InformationWeek and more. She’s also worked with the marketing and copywriting departments of companies such as Universal Health Services, Journal of Clinical Oncology, Intracorp, Nationwide Provident and more. Her website copy may be viewed at the URLs listed below.

Contact Lori Widmer Now!
-Let her expertise and skill be part of your team!”

The fact is you could easily write a standard query for this. But why? Why not approach it as though you already have the job? Yes, I got the gig. I approached it knowing that copywriters have to be creative and have to grab the consumer’s attention. Plus I delivered on the engaging headlines, attention-getting copy, and I made it apply directly to the market they were in.

Now, if you’re applying for a gig writing financial articles for The Wall Street Journal, this particular approach isn’t going to work. But there’s a way to get the attention of WSJ and any other magazine or gig – give them what they want when and how they want it.

Suppose you want to write about the top five richest Americans and what similarities they share in their approach to business and investing. You could write a query something like this:

Dear Editor:
The top five richest Americans surely have something in common. In my proposed article, ‘Rich by Design’, I plan to talk with these five people and find out what similarities they might have.

Not exactly earth-shattering prose, is it? Why not let your own personal style show through? Do it using a method widely used in journalism: the hook. When I studied journalism in college, these were the first two elements that were taught, and it’s because they work to get your story read.

A hook is your introductory paragraph. It draws your reader in, and since your editor is your first reader, it’s an essential part of your query letter. So let’s try writing that query again:

Dear Editor:
What do Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump and Lori Widmer have in common? Besides being the wealthiest people in America, they are all members of mensa, as well as former Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts. But more importantly, all five were breastfed as children. And they learned how to compound interest early.”

Okay, so this is total fabrication, but it’s your job, not mine, to fill in the blanks there. But you’ve hooked the reader with the first sentence. Who doesn’t want to know what I have in common with all those rich people (besides once dreaming of being rich)? And you’ve delivered with the answer. That’s the gravy to your meat and potatoes.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the rest of the query letter.

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  • mike July 18, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    This was a great post. I’m guilty of writing boring queries. I never thought of actually making the letter a sample of your abilities.

    I’m sold!

  • Leigh July 18, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    Lori, great post! I’ve been trying to get away from writing Web content and into magazine/newspaper writing lately, and the query letter has been my toughest obstacle. I posted over at the AW forums and got some good critiques (and apparently, I didn’t do as bad as I thought) and send a few in…and I’ve heard nothing so far. Now I’m caught in the wondering if they’re busy or if my e-mail query is sitting in a spam folder along with Viagra ads and poorly-written headlines trap!

  • Lori July 18, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    You’ll get there, Leigh. I have no doubt you know what you’re doing! 🙂

  • Anne Wayman July 19, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Great advice kiddo… can hardly wait until tomorrow to see what other tricks you’ve got up your sleeve.

    Anne Wayman