Free Advice Friday: Writing a Terrific Query

What’s on the iPod: Katharine Song by Runaway Dorothy (link below)

It feels like the world is starting to return to its normal orbit. Not that things were completely a-kilter, but I did get the sense that my work life (and home life, for that matter) were a bit on the random side. Given the volume of projects that came in — and needed to be dealt with — at the same time, I wasn’t sure I’d have energy to continue marketing. What if more came in? What a delicious, fiscally sound dilemma!

So I sent out a few magazine queries. Now is the time — most magazines have new budgets come January 1, and they’re able to hire freelancers again.

That brings me to this week’s Free Advice Friday question: What goes into a good query?

The answer depends, but in general you can look for a few constants in a query that gets noticed:

The hook. The first sentence should be as engaging and compelling as the first sentence of your article will be. Don’t “save it” as some writers do, thinking you can’t give it away. Your editor is your first, and in many ways your most important, audience. That first sentence has to sell them on your idea. So go on; sell them.

The approach. Once you’ve introduced your idea with that introductory paragraph, tell them how you’re going to present that idea. I like to mention experts, if not by name by at least the company or association, etc. Also, I like to include questions I hope to answer.

Your background. If you’re new to writing, you can skip this part entirely. Don’t try to make that newspaper article on cleaning products correlate to your proposal on bullies in the classroom. If you don’t have published clips, skip it and go to the next step, which is…

Ask for the job. Yes, ask for it. Don’t lead them to the well and forget to give them water. I say something similar to “May I write this article for your readers?”

Thank them. Always say thank you for their time and attention.

So let’s put this into an example. Let’s say Magazine B is looking for articles about cyber crime. You want to write about how consumers can protect themselves against identity theft. Let’s put it together using the constants listed previously:

Dear (editor’s name):

(The hook) Michelle Dooley has lived two very different lives. In her regular life, she’s a working mother of two who lives in a middle-class suburban Chicago neighborhood and belongs to the local PTA. In her other life, she’s a high roller, spending thousands of dollars in one hour at a casino in Monaco and opening up six credit cards, all with $50,000 limits that she quickly reaches. If only the first Michelle Dooley had any clue about what her other life was doing; Michelle is a victim of identity theft.

(The approach) In my proposed piece, This Maxed-out Life, I will chronicle Michelle’s story and provide insight into how consumers can prevent their own identity from being stolen. Besides Michelle, I’ll talk with experts from the FBI’s Fraud Prevention program to understand how widespread the crime is and to get advice on how to better protect one’s identity. Also, I’ll talk with Bert Ernest, nationally recognized investigator and author of Give It Back: Taking Back Your Identity From Thieves. Some of the questions I hope to answer include:

  • How thieves get our information
  • What information is most vulnerable
  • What the repercussions are for victims
  • How to recover from identity theft
  • How to protect against/prevent identity theft
  • Where to turn for help

(Your background) I am a veteran writer with more than four years of experience. My work has been published in publications such as Baby & Me, National Syndicate Times, The Tuscaloosa Journal, and Women’s Daily. 

(Ask for the job) May I write the article for your readers? Thank you for your attention and consideration. I look forward to working with you soon.

If your idea doesn’t fit within the hook or the questions, you’re thinking too broadly. Try narrowing down your topic so that you can ask five or six questions that cover the subject well.

What do you include in your queries? What have been your more successful pitches?

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  • Anne Wayman January 31, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    Asking for the job is something I learned to do and to teach clients when I was a headhunter back in the day… I usually phrase it as a statement – I'd really like to write this for you.

    Not sure if statements or questions like you have get the same results… can't think why they wouldn't.

    Employers are so reassured when you tell them you want the gig.

  • Paula January 31, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    Like Anne, I phrase it as a statement: "I'd love to write this article for [name of publication]."

    Even better: check the magazine's editorial calendar and see if your idea fits well in one of the upcoming issues, then change it to: "I think this article would be a great addition to your [X-themed] April issue, and would love to write it for you."

    One other thing that's good to do is give the editor an idea of length. Are you pitching a short front-of-the-book story? A quick filler? An 800-word article? Or a 2,000-word feature?

    Sometimes I'll suggest a couple approaches. "I could write this as an 1,800-2,000 word feature, or as an 800-word article with a 400-500 word sidebar." This works especially well when one facet of the story is strong enough to stand on its own.

    I've always called the background paragraph the Me-me-me section. These days I've got it down to a sentence or two and a link to my LinkedIn profile in case they want more information.

    One thing I'm glad to be done with? SASEs. I probably spent thousands of dollars on unused return postage over the years. Even before e-mail became the norm for queries an who editor called to assign a story asked what the stamped envelope was for!

  • Lori Widmer January 31, 2014 at 6:14 pm

    Yes Anne, I think either way works just fine. I've never had a problem with the question, for sure.

    Paula, you and me both! Those SASEs were a waste of good postage. Used to be editors were exceptionally good at responding, even with a "No thank you." Now they're so overworked and understaffed they don't have time to answer even with the free post-paid envelope.