Now that I’m looking over many of my mentees’ query letters, I’m finding some of the same mistakes repeated over and over again. So I’ve put together a list of query “don’ts” to help writers avoid basic errors that can be big turnoffs for editors.
• Don’t let your query exceed one page. Even if you’re emailing, don’t run on and on. Remember, most articles commissioned these days are fairly short, so show your editor you know how to be concise.
• Don’t begin with “I want to write an article about…” Of course you do. When you begin by stating the obvious, you tell the editor you are not a very imaginative writer. Begin with the proposed opening paragraph of your article, or with some interesting facts about your topic that draw the editor in and gets them interested in your idea.
• Don’t tell the editor how long your article should be. Often, writers include a sentence such as, “I’d propose writing a 1,200 word feature on this topic.” This is a very bad strategic move. Do you want to not get an assignment because the editor only has freelance budget for 800-word stories? Or be excluded from consideration for a 3,000-word feature? Let the editor decide how much space your idea should have in their publication.
• Don’t say, “I’m sure your readers would be interested in this.” Remember, you are writing to the person who knows the most in the world about what their readers like. Don’t ever presume to know more. Instead, say something that connects the publication’s audience to the idea and shows off your research: “With all the recent coverage of health insurance, I believe this update would be of interest to your small-business audience.”
• Don’t make your bio too long. A couple of sentences at the end is great. You’ll mostly prove you’re right for the assignment with the strength of your query, not your resume. This isn’t a college paper, so don’t put a long bibliography citing past articles. Instead, provide a few links to current clips online. If you don’t have anything online, make PDFs of a few articles so you can put them on your Web site and link to them there.
• Don’t throw in sources without explanation. If you mention sources you’ll use, be sure to connect them to the story – explain their expertise or how they’ll be used. Are they an example business, for instance, or perhaps an industry expert? Say, “I would interview the director of the Boys & Girls Club in Monterey about their years of experience helping the disabled,” not “Interviews would include the director of the Boys & Girls Club in Monterey.”
• Don’t fail to proofread. A single typo spells a quick trip to the trash can for query letters.
• Don’t forget to polish. This little query letter is your writing showcase! If you write a really standout query that shows you know the publication and its audience well, you may get an assignment even if the editor doesn’t like this particular story idea. So buff it to a high shine. It should be so well-done you almost want to frame it instead of mailing or emailing it off.
Are there other query “don’ts” you see a lot out there, editors? Leave a comment and let us know.
Photo via Flickr user Horia Varlan