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Turning Your Expertise and Creativity into Cash, Part 5
In session 4, we focused on creating ideas for a magazine article, using the rule of 7.
In session 5, we’ll look at the important elements of a query letter and how to craft them to catch the attention of editors.
Overall, query letters sound scarier than they are. After all, in what other context do you use the word “query”? When you get down to it, though, the components simply include:
- Your idea
- Why it fits so well into the magazine you’re querying
- Why you’re the perfect person to write this article
When presenting your idea, it’s crucial to include attention grabbing text, whether you dive right in with an anecdote, present a startling statistic or provide a relevant quote from one of your experts.
For example, when I queried Cobblestone with my idea for an article, I started my query with what ended up being the opening two paragraphs of the article itself; this is a technique that I’ve used often:
Fanny Ricketts was in church on the morning of July 21, 1861. She desperately tried to focus on the service, but found it too difficult. Fanny kept hearing the gunfire echoing from nearby Manassas, where her husband, Union army captain James B. Ricketts, was fighting. Knowing she needed to be strong, Fanny fluttered her fan to cool her face and prayed for the hostility to end.
Unfortunately, Fanny received sad news. Her husband had been wounded, his body was missing, and he most likely had died from his injuries. Fanny was given Captain Ricketts’s sword along with this message from him: “Give this to my wife. Tell her I have done my duty to my country . . .”
Here’s another example. When I queried Women’s Sport + Fitness, I wanted to write a profile piece on a woman who competed directly against men in the quirky sport of boomerang throwing. To match the fierce can-do tone of the publication, I started my query letter with something like this:
Betsylew Miale-Gix is fearless. She knows what she has to do and she just does it. Compete directly against the guys in boomerang throwing, that is.
What you don’t want to do is start the query in a tentative manner. As an extreme example, you don’t want to start with, “I have an idea about this woman who throws boomerangs and she’s really good. I’ve gone to watch her and she’s as good as the guys.” That’s what you might say to a friend when explaining your idea for a query letter, but you need to put your best stuff at the top of your query so the editor doesn’t lose interest – which can easily happen, especially when she has lots of queries to review and time is short.
After your opening paragraph or two, include some nuts and bolts information about your idea and indicate how it fits within the theme and scope of the publication. For Cobblestone, I stated that:
- this article was a supplementary nonfiction piece (using language from their guidelines)
- this article would be 600 words in length (their guidelines said that supplementary articles should be 300 to 600 words and I wanted all the word count I could get!)
- this submission was intended for the issue that focused on the battle at Manassas
- I was also including my outline for the article (not typically needed but it is for Cobblestone)
For Women’s Sport + Fitness, I indicated a word count and the name of the column where this piece would fit well. If you’re a regular reader of the magazine and want to compliment the editor on the publication in general or a specific article in particular, that works, too, as long as the compliment is genuine and written professionally. I told the editor of Cobblestone, in my query letter, that our family had read back issues on Civil War themes before going to battlefield and we found them very helpful.
After you create the nuts and bolts paragraph(s), you need to convince the editor that you’re the perfect person to write the article being described. For Cobblestone, I shared how my family recently visited the battlefield at Manassas where I learned of Fanny’s story from a ranger – and how I was able to obtain a photocopy of Fanny’s diary. For Women’s Sport + Fitness, I had the advantage of already having published a book on boomerang throwing, along with other magazine articles.
For your query letters: this is where your expertise and/or the expertise of friends and family comes in handy. This is where you use that expertise to highlight to editors your stellar ability to provide the article that you’re promising in the query letter. In other words, very specifically sharing how the expertise you have or have access to will help to create an outstanding article.
Here are some things NOT to do in your query letters:
- Do not mention that you are unpublished or otherwise new/newer to professional writing. You certainly shouldn’t lie, but don’t highlight a lack of experience or published credits. Instead, because you’ve developed this idea so strategically – by lining up experts first – you can focus on all of the resources you have gathered to write the article.
- Do not mention that others really like your idea – meaning a friend or family member or your children’s friends. That can brand you as new to the world of freelancing and you don’t want to do that. The only time you would mention this type of information is if a person with influence in the publishing industry has given you permission to use his or her name. In that case, broadcast it! Shout it from the rooftops.
Action item: write a draft of a query letter. Put it away for a day or two and then review and revise as necessary. Then, continue on to Week 6.