Myths About Queries

Welcome to a new week! Since so much of last week was spent in direct contact with new-to-this-blog writers, I’m assuming there were some newbies in the crowd. And hopefully, a few have stuck around. If so, this post is for you. And veteran writers? You, too.

Remember what your first query letter looked like? No? Is it because, like me, you’ve blocked it from your memory? Those first attempts were pretty awful, weren’t they? But worse is the lingering misconceptions we cling to – those query-writing myths that could be keeping us from getting the job. Time to change that.

I can’t give it away. Yes, I committed this crime. I wrote a query to an editor that was so veiled, there’s no way that editor would’ve known what I was trying to sell. You’ve done it too, right? You’ve sent a query and thought “I can’t give them my best opening because I’m saving it for the article!” Wrong! The editor is your first audience. Write that query beginning as though this is the article. Put in the excitement, the drama, the anecdote, or the stunning facts that are going to land the assignment. More importantly – most importantly – address this question: What does it mean to this publication’s readers? For example, “I will talk with XYZ Company’s Todd Doe for his impressions on how Crater Explorer readers can improve their equipment function and gain more accurate crater measurements.” If you can make the correlation between the article and the readership, you’ve shown you get who they are and you’ve increased exponentially your chances of acceptance. If nothing else, you’ve impressed them with your ability to present strong, relevant ideas.

I need to remind them of how important this topic is. So you think saying “Your readers really need to hear about this” is going to help? Try this – present the facts, the angle you’re taking, and show, don’t tell why it’s important.

I’ll let them decide on a focus. No you won’t. They’re not going to enjoy doing your job for you. It’s a tough market out there right now. You need to present everything, including your understanding of their audience, slant, advertisers, etc. If you can’t be bothered, neither can they.

I’ll tell them the idea and figure out what I’m doing later. Guess what? Later’s not coming. That’s because presenting an idea with nothing to show you’re capable of following through, or that you have a clear direction is just lazy. Try this – locate potential sources with the right credentials to contribute to the topic (if you haven’t joined PRNMedia and used ProfNet, here’s your chance). Show the editor some of the questions you’re hoping to answer with this article. Give that editor a mini-summary of your topic, who’s going to be quoted, and where it’s going. Otherwise, it’s going nowhere.

This query is going to six magazines. Tell me you don’t do that. Every magazine – EVERY magazine – has different audiences, viewpoints, advertisers, needs, etc. If you send an idea for crocheted tea cozies to Crafts Monthly, don’t think it’s going to fit into the scope of what Redbook or Marie Claire. Extreme examples, but the point is no two magazines are alike. You have to approach them with different sales pitches.

I don’t have to read their magazine. They’ll buy the idea if it’s good. Right. First, they may have already published a similar story – have you looked at the last six or more issues? Second, who’s their reader? You might not want to sell a “cheap family vacation” story to a magazine catering to the over-$100K crowd. You’d know that if you looked at the advertising. If there are high-end jewelry ads, ads for luxury cars, or ads promoting exotic destinations, these people don’t care about how to save a few bucks on family vacations when the family may have a permanent place in Martha’s Vineyard.

I should apologize for my lack of experience. Oh no you shouldn’t. You should present the idea, and add any of your experience that’s relevant. Read that again. Relevant. No one at Scientific American is going to care that you wrote filler pieces for Pittsburgh Magazine unless those fillers are directly related to Scientific American’s main focus.

They say no email queries, but I’m sure they don’t mean it. Hell they don’t. Do you realize how many emails the top magazines receive in a day? When I was on staff at the trade magazine, I was wading through hundreds a week, of which few were actual queries. If we’d been a high-profile magazine accepting email queries, triple that number. Give them the information in the way they expect to receive it.

In fact, read all the submission guidelines and follow them. Experience shows that many writers don’t. If they want snail mail, send it snail mail. If they want clips, give them clips. If they don’t want phone calls, don’t call. Don’t think you’re the exception. If they don’t know you personally, you’re not.

Anything you’ve learned about query letter writing?

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  • Devon Ellington October 26, 2009 at 11:03 am

    What I've learned from teaching — and what I tell my students — is that if you can't read and follow for the guidelines for something as simple as an exercise, don't think you can get away with the same thing in a query or submission to a magazine and get any better response!

  • Lori October 26, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Amen. It shocks me how many writers won't follow simple directions.

  • Devon Ellington October 26, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Some of it it carelessness, but I've also noticed that a lot is ego — they think they're so brilliant, the rules don't apply.

  • Wendy J. October 26, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    I admit that I haven't written too many Query letters. The ones I have, weren't successful, because I basically did everything that, I now read, you're not supposed to.

    My first query letter was a doozy. I was great at selling them on NOT buying the article. It would go under the category of apologizing for lack of experience. I think I spent about half of the letter telling them how inexperienced I was at writing, even though I knew the topic. I wonder why they rejected it? LOL!

    One of these days, I should brush up on that and do one right for once.

  • Paula October 26, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    The only thing you left out, Lori, is clips. Some beginners don't have any clips they feel are adequate, but others send in way too many irrelevant or mediocre clips. The magic number I try to stick with is three. Never inundate and editor with tons of clips. More it not better. Even one decent clip is good for a beginner. While published clips are best, many magazines will also consider high-quality unpublished clips.

    As for snail mail vs. e-mail, I agree. I was shocked to read some replies in a huge LinkedIn Group (I may have quit that group by now) where a "professional" was telling newbies that ALL editors now prefer e-mail queries. I set him straight, also pointing out that some spam filters trap e-mails with words like "opportunities" or "freelance" in the subject header. I still wonder if that guy may have been attempting to undermine his competition.

    Lastly, new writers need to realize queries are much like highly-targeted direct marketing campaigns. I don't know what the actual statistics are, but when writing a direct marketing article several years ago, I believe a source said they were happy if they got a 7% response, but 2% or 3% was closer to average at that time. (Someone please correct me if you know the actual figures!) Of course, a well-written query will be specific to a publication and/or editor, so the response rate should be higher – maybe 10%. When you're pitching to editors who already know you, your odds should go up dramatically.

    I'm about to send a few ideas to one of my long-time editors, and the odds are about 100% that at least one of the ideas will be assigned, but far less that all will be assigned.

  • Eileen October 26, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    In direct marketing, a 2% response rate would be stellar. 1% is considered excellent these days. And one major direct marketer, who measures these things down to the tenth of a percent, is thrilled with a 0.45% response rate. But different industries will have different benchmarks, so these numbers may not apply to any one specific situation.

  • Eileen October 26, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Okay, I've been thinking more about Paula's comment that queries are like direct marketing campaigns. They are and they aren't. They are alike in that you must really understand your target audience and know what's important to them. But queries aren't like DM in that each query must be custom-crafted for a market of one (the editor of the publication). If you want to reach out to three editors, you have to slant three different queries. With DM, you slant your pitch to the characteristics of the people on the mailing list. The letters I write to marketing directors of dietary supplement companies are written to go to 200 people at a time, not one. As a marketing method, I find it to be one of the most effective, right alongside word-of-mouth referrals.

  • Lori October 26, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    Don't we all suffer the lack of confidence at some point, Wendy? You live and learn. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Devon, that's a problem that can't be fixed. Egos don't belong in writing – not that kind, anyway.

    Yes, clips have to be relevant. Totally agree, Paula. I send two to three – no more unless they ask for more. And I send them ONLY if they ask for them, and always in URL form. No attachments – most emails will ferret out attachments to the Spam filter.

    Eileen, right now I'm working within a 1-in-8 ratio. Not bad for queries in this market!

  • Amie October 27, 2009 at 3:38 am

    Completely off-topic . . . did you sense a disturbance in the Force today (Monday)? If so, that was me, flying into Philly.

  • Diane October 27, 2009 at 10:55 am

    I DO send the same idea to several magazines, but they're all slanted specifically towards said magazines. In the old days I'd send the exact same query to 6 different magazines thinking I'd be lucky if 1 took it on let alone 6 … and then I had 3 pick one up at once, which was lovely but scary. It went to the highest bidder. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Lori October 27, 2009 at 11:27 am

    You go, Diane! Fantastic news. Don't you love those sweet dilemmas? ๐Ÿ™‚

    Amie, I did notice – the sun came out! That was you? I wonder – are you still around?

  • Paula October 27, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Thanks for the DM figures, Eileen.

    When you wrote: "But queries aren't like DM in that each query must be custom-crafted for a market of one (the editor of the publication). If you want to reach out to three editors, you have to slant three different queries. With DM, you slant your pitch to the characteristics of the people on the mailing list."

    That was sort of what I'd intended to get across when I said queries were much like highly-targeted DM campaigns. (Of course, what direct marketer won't argue that his or her campaign is highly targeted just because they insert a person's name. LOL.) Perhaps I should have said "with targeted pin-point accuracy" or something more, well….specific.

    For clarification, I never send identical queries to different publications. Even when the subjects are similar, the specifics within each query are slanted to the particular publication.