Once Upon a Midnight Query

In early March 2003, the NASW-freelance list held a lively discussion about query letters — their value, their formality, their structure, and their success. What follows is edited from that discussion.

LYNNE LAMBERG: [regarding how to query a new magazine prospect] I'd urge you, though, not only to spring for the current issue but to go to your local public library and review back issues. Self may have published a story on your hot idea last month or last year. You'll get a better sense of any mag's style by reading several issues of it before querying. In your query letter, you might even want to mention a couple stories that exemplify the approach you plan to take.

You'll get a better sense of any mag's style by reading several issues of it before querying.

ASJA publishes query letters that snagged assignments at a variety of mags in the members-only section of its website, www.asja.org, something the nasw-freelance committee may want to consider doing, too.

ALAN BROWN: Certainly, there are many generic query letters out there. Writers Market has probably done 20 or 30 articles on the subject, and various writers' magazines and Websites are not far behind. But having a variety of successful, real-world queries in one convenient place would be really useful.

Anybody else think so? Equally pertinent, is there anyone out here who thinks divulging query letters (even if one or two years old) would divulge the black magic that gives them their edge?

SHARON LEVY: I agree it's an interesting idea. As for black magic, dunno if there is any. A big part of the equation seems to be luck: hitting the right topic or approach at the right time for the right editor. I broke in with one of my best mag clients when I happened to send a query for a first-person story at the moment when the editor felt a yen for more first-person stories, for instance. They liked my work and I've been writing for them regularly since. But, mag writing remains a struggle.

BRIAN REID: At the risk of sounding like I just fell off the turnip truck, how formal are query letters nowadays? In my brief freelance career, I've screwed together maybe two formal, by-the-book queries (which promptly disappeared into the inky blackness of the publishing world). Instead, I've had more luck with the e-mail equivalent of cold-calling: a quick introduction, a quick pitch and very low expectations. Am I misguided? Does anyone (other than Rebecca Skloot, who seemed to have her act together when she was still a NASW-Freelance regular) follow Writer's Market-esque guidelines?

SHARON LEVY: Brian, if it works for you, it's not misguided. Everybody's different . . . I've had the best success with queries that follow more or less the "Writer's Market" format: a catchy lead, short graph or two expounding on the story, and why it's newsworthy. If the editor knows me, I can quit there, if not, I have to add a graph on my qualifications and why I'm the writer of their dreams.

These days, emailing these pitches often works better than postal mail, it seems.

And, as Writer's Market will tell you, you have to research your markets --tho I've also had luck writing up a punchy query and sending it out to several places at once. Still, it's a good idea to show editors that you are paying attention and not make a habit of sending queries on topics they've recently covered.

KRISTIN OHLSON: I also rarely send out formal queries through the mail and rely more on quicker, less formal emails to get assignments. Still, I think the elements of a good query remain, whether they're formal or not. And I still struggle to write them convincingly. And they're still so much DAMN work, especially when you factor in the amount of time it takes to read old issues of a magazine and determine whether they're going to be interested or have already covered the topic. Sigh. So I'd love to see other people's successful queries and would be more than happy to share mine.

I still struggle to write them convincingly. And they're still so much DAMN work.

DAVID BAZELL: I also am a newbie science writer. I sent a query to an assistant editor at Sky and Telescope about an article related to my own research (I am an astronomer/computer scientist). I eventually snagged a contract with them for a tiny "honorarium." But I was willing to do it for the experience and exposure.

My approach was the traditional query format: Start with what you expect to be the opening paragraph of your article, follow that with a paragraph about what else you will cover, and finish with a paragraph on your qualifications and why the article will be of interest to the readers.

This was all done by email. I ended up sending a more detailed outline to the editor, covering more than was in my original query. This all took lots of time. The "honorarium" will never cover the time I have put in on the article, but as a beginner, I can't complain too much.

DAN FERBER: I agree with Sharon that with glossies, it can be a crapshoot even with a good query. Here's a book I've found useful: "How to Write Irresistible Query Letters" by Lisa Collier Cool. It's spot on, although a bit out of date regarding the use of the Internet. The freelance committee is planning to post an article on how to query to the freelance site. It could be linked to the successful queries.

I write formal queries: lead, brief overview of the story with background, convincing facts and perhaps a quote or two, who I am and why I'm just the guy to write this story.

I write formal queries: lead, brief overview of the story with background, convincing facts and perhaps a quote or two, who I am and why I'm just the guy to write this story. I don't always, of course; in fact, I don't whenever I think a quick e-mail or phone call will work. But for competitive markets where you have no connections, they're invaluable. Yes, they're a lot of work. But they're also a useful exercise: you have to envision the sort of story you want to write; what's most interesting to lead with; what's the narrative thread; what's the point of the story in a sentence or two, and what's the best way to report it. All that thinking helps later when you report the story and write it.

Several times, good queries have led to assignments...on other topics. From that I conclude that the query effectively pitched me even if the story idea itself fell flat. I believe that's a common experience among magazine writers. Writing a formal query is sort of like getting ready for a first date. You get dressed up and make yourself look good. Later on, when you've written for them a few times, a short e-mail or phone call may do the trick.

NANCY BAZILCHUK: One question I've had is how do you decide how much reporting to do before you send the query off? You don't want to report the whole story (or do you?) before you get a go-ahead from an editor. Yet you have to have a pretty good idea of what you want to write about to write a good query.

KURT ULLMAN: Just the general outlines. You just have to do enough so that you can intelligently discuss what you want to do and why someone else should be interested in it. Not exactly a bright line answer, but best I can do.

NANCY BAZILCHUK: A second, related question is how many of you keep trying with an idea if your first query gets turned down. How often do you just ditch ideas and move on to the next, thereby ditching the research you've done for the query?

KURT ULLMAN: Of course. I think I average about 3-4 letters per specific idea before I get a bite. This goes down a bit after I establish a relationship with the editor. You can look at the guidelines and back issues, but I still don't always link an idea with an editor. I don't know if I am less efficient than most, but I doubt it. Also, one idea often morphs into many different queries. You can usually take a general idea (say an article I pitched on the CDC's Travel Advisory website) and sell basically the same general idea (NOT the same story) to a number of different mags.

NANCY BAZILCHUK: And a last thought: for those of you who have websites, how valuable do you think they are in landing assignments?.

KURT ULLMAN: Kinda sorta. I have had a couple wander in off the net. I think they are more useful when contacting people. I always include in the query, marketing letter or e-mail that if you would like additional information, more clips, a resume, etc., please go to my website.

ERIC BOBINSKY: Unfortunately, I doubt most writers really know why a particular query works or not. Someone said it was a matter of being in the right place with the right story at the right time, and I'd have to second that. I've had some bad luck with the most thoughtfully-written, artfully-crafted queries and some very good luck with off-the-cuff emails. And I've had good and bad luck with the same queries.

Unfortunately, I doubt most writers really know why a particular query works or not.

As far as strategy is concerned, for both corporate clients and magazines, there are a few commonsense rules that still apply: look closely at what they've done in the past so you know what they want-- and if your style fits theirs; ask for copies of their writer's guidelines and editorial calendars; pay close attention to any new style or format changes, and don't be afraid to indicate your interests/expertise and ask for an assignment instead of querying. Sometimes editors have a wonderful idea in mind already and need a writer to carry it out.

SHARON LEVY One function of the query letter is to pitch your idea in an alluring way. Another is to preserve you from doing all the work of researching a story when you don't know if that story will sell.

You need to do enough research to know that you have a valid story to tell, to have a handle on who you'll need to talk to tell it, and to come up with some vivid images or catchy ideas that will attract the editor's interest. How much effort this takes will vary with the story and with your background in the subject. Sometimes I've been able to hammer out a successful query after reading a science piece in the NYT and putting the new info together with what I know already; other times I've needed to pull a few journal articles out of the library, and/or do a brief email interview with a researcher.

If a query gets turned down, I'll keep sending it out to other markets until I can't come up with anymore that seem to have potential. And if the thing still hasn't flown, I may be able to take a different angle on the same material and launch that. OTOH, if it becomes clear that nobody likes the subject, or that everybody has covered it recently and there's not enough new information for editors to justify another story, I'll cut my losses and move on.

If you're just starting out, a good strategy is to break in with shorter pieces for magazine departments. I much prefer to write longer features, because there's almost as much research involved in the shorter pieces and they don't pay as well (and I find it frustrating to try to tell a complex story in 350 words). But I got started with short bits and it's a great way to get your foot in the door.