What is a Query Letter?

Talk with a successful freelance writer for more than a couple of minutes, and one term will inevitably come up. The term describes one of the most important steps you must learn as you start on the journey to get published in magazines and other publications. Mastering it is vital to a freelancer’s success in getting published.

Many new writers, though, are intimidated by it. They sincerely want to write for magazines but nevertheless balk at it. They worry that they won’t do it correctly, or that an editor will reject them after they’ve worked so hard at it.

What is it?

It’s the query letter. In plain language, a query letter is a proposal for an article that a freelancer sends to an editor. It is a critical, essential part of the business of freelancing. Even though many wannabe writers see it as a major hurdle, writing good query letters is straightforward and easy to learn. You shouldn’t be intimidated by the process whatsoever.

Aspiring freelancers sometimes are surprised to hear that they must write query letters. In fact, one of the most common questions I hear from aspiring freelancers is this: “You mean you write a letter and not the entire article?”

The process seems confusing to them … that it’s backwards in some way. But writing a query letter will save huge amounts of time, and it’s what the editor wants.

Queries are important for several reasons:

1. They are what most magazines demand.

Yes, a few editors like to get complete manuscripts, but most want query letters. Freelancers should always do what an editor expects. By not following a publication’s guidelines, a writer reveals herself to be unprofessional.

2. They save the editor time.

An editor can read a one-page synopsis of an article idea much quicker than a complete article. Working at a job that places demands on time, she is able to make a quicker decision about an article idea.

3. They save the writer time.

By writing a query letter, you are saving yourself a lot of time that you would otherwise be spending on writing a complete article. A query letter keeps you from wasting time and energy on an article that no magazine might ever accept.

Let’s consider the importance of query letters from the perspective of those who know best — real-world editors and experienced writers.

Queries, explains Moira Allen, the owner and administrator of the popular writing website, are important for a variety of reasons.

“Queries benefit both editors and writers,” she says. “Editors much prefer to review a one-page letter than a 10-page manuscript, so queries spend less time in the slush pile. They also enable an editor to determine, quickly, whether you can write effectively, have a coherent, well-thought-out idea that fits the publication’s content, have a basic grasp of grammar and spelling, have read the publication, have the credentials or expertise to write the article, and are professional in your approach to writing.”

Full-time freelancer Kelly James-Enger, who has written for such magazines as Cosmopolitan and Bride’s, says it’s a challenge to make your query letter stand apart from others. To get a letter read and an idea accepted, writers must prepare a well-researched, well-written, efficient query.

“Editors at national magazines receive hundreds of queries every week, but the competition isn’t as bad as you might think,” she says. “At least 80% of the queries they receive simply aren’t targeted to the magazine’s readership. Pitch an idea that will interest readers — and show why they will care — and you’re halfway there.”

It’s important to make a query letter stand out from others, James-Enger adds. “When I pitch a story, I suggest possible sidebars, quizzes, resource boxes, and other pieces to complement the main piece,” she says. “I give [the editor] an idea of who I plan to interview and suggest a word count.”

Make it easy for the editor to accept an idea, James-Enger says. Give her all the important information about your proposed piece so that she can visualize what the article will look and read like. “If she likes my idea, and my angle, all she has to do is pick up the phone and assign the piece. Think like your editor, and offer her a package that will make her job easier. You’re more likely to get the assignment.”

Of course, if you want to write a complete article for yourself, that is fine. Just be sure to send only a query letter to the editor.

Parts of a Query Letter

A query letter consists of four parts. Each part runs either one or two paragraphs in length, with the letter never exceeding one page in length. The four parts all work together to create a cohesive letter.

1. An attention-getting introduction

Don’t begin by just coming out and saying, “Would you be interested in an article about castles in Europe?” Instead, introduce the topic in an interesting way — perhaps by describing one of the castles or by asking some interesting questions about them. The important thing is to capture the editor’s interest from the very first line. Make the idea intriguing so that the editor wants to know more about the story you’re proposing.

2. The basics of the article

The editor needs to know as much as possible about the proposed article. Tell what the article’s theme is. What are the main points you will cover? If you have six or seven points, briefly list them all. Provide a tentative title. Name the sources you plan to use. Give an approximate word count.

The editor needs to understand the article you’re offering. Don’t leave him asking, “Is Cheryl going to include something else about this part of the topic?” or “Why isn’t she talking to expert Smith?” Don’t leave the editor wondering about anything.

3. A little about yourself

This part of the letter offers your chance to tell the editor why you should write this article for her. If you are a freelancer and already have published credits, mention them. If you haven’t been published before, though, don’t worry about it. Do NOT say, “I have not been published before.” Be positive. Give reasons why you’re qualified to write the article — such as personal experience with the topic, professional expertise in the area, or access to sources.

4. A closing

End the query letter by thanking the editor for his time and saying you look forward to hearing back about your proposal.

After finishing the letter, but before you send it out, ask yourself these quick questions:

* Does my query letter provide adequate details about my proposed idea?

* Is my letter interesting to read?

* Does my letter match up well with the magazine I am sending it to?

* If I were the magazine’s editor, would I want to buy this article?

* Are there any grammar, spelling, or punctuation mistakes?

* Have I eliminated all other mistakes, and is the letter as professional looking and sounding as possible?

Now … send out that query letter!

(This blog post is excerpted from the ebook Query Letter Secrets: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing Queries and Getting Published, by SCWC Books. The ebook includes further information, including sample query letters. You can find the ebook for Kindle and other devices HERE on Amazon.)


Cheryl Wray is the coordinator of the Southern Christian Writers Conference and author of numerous books on writing topics, such as Writing for Magazines (McGraw-Hill Publishers), Feature Writing (Vision Press), Query Letter Secrets (SCWC Books), and Just Write: 101 Creative Exercises to Jumpstart your Writing (SCWC Books). She's published more than 3000 articles in a variety of newspaper and magazines. She lives in Hueytown, Alabama and is married with three daughters and six grandchildren.

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