6 Query Writing Mistakes

What’s on the iPod: The Busker by We Invented Paris

Friday! The week went by too quickly, but I’m glad to see it end. Weirdness with Verizon yesterday had me without email all day. In fact, I’m hoping by the time you read this I’ll have my email restored. The company said it wasn’t expecting to have things back to normal until 8 am today. One time I’d like to have a service provider actually provide service.

I was reading on some forums this week and I keep seeing the same question: how do I write a query that gets the gig? Query writing is tough. It takes a lot of time to develop your voice and to translate that into a sales letter, which is what queries are. I get it. It took me quite a while. Even with over 15 years of experience at it, I still get rejections. We all do. So now that you know that rejection won’t kill you, it’s time to look at what may not be working for you.

While I can’t guarantee a sale (no one can, and be very skeptical of anyone who promises such a thing — unless they’re an editor and about to hire you), I can give you a few insights into what you may be doing wrong. Here are some of the things I’ve seen go wrong in queries:

Lack of focus. Probably the most common problem in a query is not getting the story focused enough. I’ve seen a lot of writers throw in every aspect of their idea. In this case, less is more. For example, if you have a story idea on how bankruptcy affects inheritance tax, you’re not going to want to include information on what to do with your ashes when you die. Extreme example, but I’ve seen writers combine two very disparate ideas. Think of your idea as one thought — bankruptcy and tax. Now what questions can you answer about that thought? If you can come up with just two or three questions, your idea needs to expand a little. If you come up with seven or more questions, you’re focusing too broadly.

Lack of relevance. If you’ve ever written words similar to “I know your publication doesn’t normally publish this sort of thing, but…” congratulations. You’re not relevant to your audience. For example, you probably aren’t going to publish an article on how potholders can save your countertops in a magazine that focuses on pools and spas. If you have to stretch to make the idea even remotely relevant, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Reluctance to woo. Oh, how many times have I seen query letters that refuse to “give away” details? Too many, I’ll tell you. Writers have this notion that they want to “surprise” the editor when they hand in the article. Guess what? You’re not getting a chance to write it unless you reverse that thinking. Your query is your chance to win over your first audience, which is that editor. Start with your best line — yes, even the beginning line of your article — and back it up with the questions you’ll ask, the people you want to talk with, and the focus you intend to take. Woo them. They expect it.

One apology too many. In fact, one apology is too many.Never apologize for A) bothering them with your query, B) not having experience, C) taking time from their busy day, etc. They need content. You have ideas. They’re not upset to get your query if it’s a match with their needs.

Lack of an “off” switch. Very few queries for magazine articles are going to need to go on for more than three paragraphs total. Sure, you’ll have exceptions to this rule, but in general, your query should be concise and to the point. Notice that I didn’t say “short”, for sometimes the information you need to impart may be longer than usual. Just keep it tight and concise. For example, if you’re selling an editor on a story about global warming, it’s not cool to stuff every fact you can lay hands on in the query. Instead, find one hard-hitting fact (use it as your opening line, if you like), and leave the rest for the assigned article.

Taking too long to get to the point. Your first paragraph shouldn’t be a build-up to the topic. State the topic, either directly or in a statistic. For example, a recent article query, I wrote this:
“Is Risk Management Obsolete? I talked with XX of
YY, who thinks it should be. He thinks risk management shouldn’t be a
profession. He’s not exactly alone. There are a few in the industry who think
that people who become the top 20 percent in the profession do so because they
stay put and have found some way to show value to someone at the top.
Otherwise, the industry is too transient for risk managers to gain any toehold.
I’d love to examine XX’s idea and see how the industry responds to it, and
what the situation for risk managers really is. Are they becoming obsolete? Has
their relevance ever been fully accepted?”

The article title was the first line, and I gave proof that someone else was ready to back up the idea. Also included in that first paragraph are the questions I wanted to ask. Ironically, this was for a risk management publication, but it was relevant to the audience.

What mistakes have you seen or made?
What was your most successful query?

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  • Paula September 13, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    Another important and often overlooked key to a successful query: Timing.

    Do a little research. Track down the magazine's editorial calendar. Not only does that provide valuable information on upcoming topics, it can also lay out the timing. Some publications work a year ahead, some work six months ahead and others can work just three or four weeks ahead.

    Bad timing is a big reason some great queries are rejected. Maybe they just covered the subject, or it would have fit well in the issue they just put to bed. Do your leg work and you can figured out the optimum time to pitch ideas to specific publications.

  • Lori September 17, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Funny how often writers overlook the calendar, isn't it? You can do SO much better just by doing, as you say, your leg work.

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