The Craft of Querying

Adapted from a thread on nasw-freelance from 10 March, 2002, originally entitled "querying on querying"

Yep ... I guess I fall into the category of "those who do more querying," so I'll try to weigh in on the subject. First of all, I must say that aside from the obvious (the ability to write and a story idea) I think the most important requirements for writing successful queries are persistence, thick skin, pre-query research, more thick skin, and more persistence. I have several publications that I write for regularly that I don't have to cold-query, but I'm always trying to expand my client base, so I try to have at least two queries in circulation at all times. I do send these cold, usually by email, but not without making sure they're okay with email first. I try to aim my queries at editors I've either met in person, heard speak at a conference, who friends/colleagues have worked for and/or recommended, and those who've written about writing/editing in ways I've found interesting or who've published similar stuff to mine.

Here's how I do it: first, I email the editor a very short note introducing myself, saying who I've written for and something about how I know them (either 'so-and-so recommended I contact you,' or 'I saw you speak at Blank Conference, and was struck by what you said about Blah, which inspired me to contact you,' or 'I read your piece about editing/writing in Blah Magazine, which inspired me to contact you' ... or something along those lines). From talking with editors (both those I've queried and those I haven't) this seems to help get in the door -- editors want to know why you chose them, and adding this kind of personal note often helps get their attention and makes them feel more inclined to respond.

After introducing myself and making it clear that I've done my homework about them or their magazine, I say that I have a story idea I think they'd be interested in, and I ask how they prefer to receive queries -- email, fax, snail mail, etc. I usually get a response to this preliminary email within a day or so, because it's easy for them to fire off the information. This is good for several reasons: you don't end up sending a query by email to someone who despises email queries, and most importantly, you've planted your name in their brains, shown up front that you did your homework, and chances are they'll then open your query when you send it (BTW: I can only think of one time an editor didn't respond to say email queries were fine). I try to keep my actual queries to one page, and I structure them as I would structure a story: I make sure to have a lead, a nutgraph, and an overall structure to the whole thing (like coming back to my lead in the end, or something like that) to show them I know how to put a story together.

One of the most important things, as others have said, is to know the publication you're pitching. Don't pitch a profile to a magazine that doesn't do profiles; don't pitch a news story to a magazine that does mostly literary or historical stuff. I always throw at least one line in the query to indicate that I know their magazine and/or audience, like 'since readers of Blah Magazine are primarily women of blah age, this story would appeal to them because of blah.' Or something like that.

As for sending clips: At the end of my query, I say if they'd like to see samples of my writing they can do so on my website, which I provide a link to (they often don't look for it in the sig line so I give it in the text of the email). Then I say if they'd like hard copies of clips I'd be happy to send them if they provide me with a mailing address. I've only had one editor reply and ask for hard copies of clips.

The kind of follow up I do depends on the timeliness of the story. If I'm pitching a story that needs to be acted on quickly, I say so in my query and end with something like, 'given the timely nature of this story, I hope to hear from you soon so I can market it elsewhere if you're not interested.' I've found this to be effective, partially because editors are people too and it's good to remind them that you're trying to make a living, and also (I think) because it gives a hint of competition, like if they don't grab it someone else will, but that may just be in my head.

On a story like this, if I haven't heard back in a week (or a few days, depending on the story), I'll send an email saying I wanted to check to see if they got it, and I'll often paste my original email at the bottom so they don't have to go digging for it. If I don't hear after a week (maybe less, depending on the story), then I'll call, which has worked for me several times. If I call and get no reply, then I move on to another publication and don't waste my time with that editor any more. If it's a less pressing story, I'll give them several weeks to reply (this is usually about five or six weeks -- my rule of thumb is to fight the urge to email them a follow up until I can't stand it any more, then wait another week after that). Then I follow a similar path (email, call, move on).

Usually the follow up email gets some response, even if it's a simple "we're not interested." I don't follow up on these to try to find out why they weren't interested, I just send it to someone else. One rule I follow is to never let a query sit on my desk for more than a day -- once it's been rejected or ignored, I try to send it right back out so I always have something out there. This strategy has worked well for me.

Once you work out a system for this, it's not too much work. I usually spend an hour, two at most, developing the idea and writing the query. In terms of pre-query research, I read what I can on the subject and make quadruply sure that no one has written the story I'm pitching (I learned this lesson the hard way after pitching a big national magazine a profile of a man who'd been profiled by one of their competitors only a few weeks earlier, which made me look like a doofus), I often do a preliminary interview (these are usually very short) to make sure I have access to the story I'm pitching, and to get quotes to use in the query that show this access and give it some life.

I've sold many stories this way, and sometimes queries that an editor didn't want still got me work with that magazine: I've had editors reply saying they liked the query but couldn't commission the story for one reason or another, but that they'd like to hear other ideas from me and I didn't have to bother with a whole query next time (which makes sense, because the point of a query is really to prove that you can find and write a story). From that point on, I queried those editors with a quick email saying 'would you be interested in a story about blah,' and if they said yes, we talked about the idea over the phone. Some of these turned into good relationships where ideas now come from both directions.

Richard Robinson wrote: Wow--can you really do all that, and write the letter, in two hours?

Okay, so maybe I'm busted. I must admit, I've never timed myself, but I'm pretty sure it only takes a few hours (probably between two and three ... one hour is definitely wishful thinking on my part ;-). But it sounds like more work than it actually is ...

I use databases like Lexis Nexis, and a good friend who covers the media to figure out whether my story has been done by a national publication, which doesn't usually take long (I also read at least the table of contents and leads from zillions of magazines on a regular basis so I can keep up on what's being covered by which publications, but also because I'm a nerd like that).

Before writing the query, I read some background materials (but not tons) on the subject, and my preliminary interviews (when I do them, which isn't always) are usually 15 minutes or so. I must admit, I often find my story ideas while doing interviews for other stories, so I usually have a lot of the necessary background information when I start this process, and I often have quotes from those interviews that I can use, which makes it easier (that work is done on another story's clock, so in my head, it doesn't really count).

I used to spend hours and hours doing pre-query research and writing the letter, but after doing that a few times and having the query flop, I decided it was best to not go overboard. I do enough to make sure there's a story there, then if an editor replies with interest, I go back and do more research to make sure I can answer all his/her questions when we talk about it.

I don't spend too much time writing the actual queries, largely because I've gotten them down to some kind of formula — believe it or not I actually cut and paste a large portion from one letter to the next (I can't believe I'm admitting this on a listserv read by editors ... ). So I have a basic paragraph about who I am and why I should write the story, which I cut and paste then tinker if necessary to fit the publication; I often write on related topics, so background information and basics of the story can work via cut-and-paste too. That only leaves a few paragraphs to write ... The hardest part of the whole thing is usually finding the lead and the end.

Robin Mejia responded: Thanks for the great overview of your process! I've had a problem recently with a story I want to take to a magazine where I don't know the editor. I called the main line and asked who to pitch and they wouldn't give me a name. I know the magazine is looking for a new editor, but there must be someone there who takes queries.... in any case, they just politely insisted that I should sent it to "editors" and wait two to three months for a response. This from a magazine that claims they are looking to work with new writers. I'm tempted to contact one of the editors there directly but I have no "ins"...

I had a similar experience with Wired, except that the guy who answered the phone let slip that the query would go to their new intern who had just started the week before. I do know someone who I think will introduce me to an actual editor there, so I just politely got off the phone.

Has anyone here had luck with blind queries like these magazines seem to want? I don't mind waiting for a response if I know a query is going to an editor who knows my name and has agreed to look at it, but it seems a bit much to send it out completely blind. At least if an editor knows me, they're likely to let me know if they don't want it. (I generally do pretty much what Rebecca described, introduce myself first and then pitch)

And how do you meet editors if you haven't seen them speak, heard about them from a friend, etc? What about when you just really know the magazine and have a story you think is a good fit? Do you contact an editor directly anyway even if the main office says to use the generic query email (submissions@xyzmagazine.com)? — Robin

I've gotten plenty of assignments through "blind" queries, and many of those turned into good long term relationships with magazines. Editors are swamped, and there certainly is a slush pile, I guess my strategy is to find a way to stay out of that slush pile from the get-go by making my queries as far from blind as possible. I do this by contacting the editors ahead of time to plant my name in their heads, finding an associate or assistant editor to send my queries to instead of the editor who truly is too busy to read queries from new writers and isn't always as on-the-lookout for new talent, being familiar with the publication so I can show them up front that I've done my homework and am right for them, reading articles written by editors so I know their work, going to conferences where I listen to talks and collect email addresses for those I'm interested in writing for, etc.

Starting off an email with a note about hearing that editor speak, reading an article they wrote, etc., is a great way to stay out of the slush pile because it personalizes your query and shows them you're targeting them specifically and not just sending out blanket blind queries. But of course you need to be sincere about it so you don't come off looking like you're just brown-nosing ;-)

Maybe I'm idealistic, but I really don't think the querying process is so terrible or time consuming. I do spend a significant amount of time each week reading magazines and tables of contents to keep up on what's out there, but I do this even during periods when I'm not querying — like now, when I'm finishing a book. I don't consider that part of the query writing/researching process; I consider it part of being a writer.

Finally, when I call magazines to get in touch with an editor I don't know personally, I don't ask to talk to the editor — they'll rarely take your call, and if they do, most editors hate phone pitches and would rather see a query in print. This makes perfect sense to me, since queries aren't just about showing that you have a good idea, they're about making yourself stand out by showing that you can write, which you can't do over the phone. What I do is call the front desk and ask for so-and-so's email address, then I send a preliminary email like I described in my earlier post to make contact. Multiple phone calls run the risk of annoying an editor to the point where he/she won't read your ideas once you send them.

Rebecca Skloot is a freelance science and medical writer, and life sciences contributing editor at Popular Science magazine. A former faculty member in the University of Pittsburgh's nonfiction writing program, she is a regularly invited speaker and instructor at conferences and workshops nationwide.