Query Don’ts

Writing Query Letters For Dummies

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

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10 comments on “Query Don’ts
  1. Thank you so much for sharing a lot of this excellent content! Looking forward to reading more.

  2. Informative write up, saved the site in hopes to read more!

  3. Paul says:

    Agreed… except I wonder about not stating a word length, particularly if one is spelled out in market guidelines. It can be just one more way to assure the editor you're paying attention to what they say they want.

    I'll have to think about this a bit more.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Paul —

      I did hear from several people about this word-count issue. All I can say is I've never proposed a word length for a story…but it can be a way to show you've read their guidelines — as in "I think this would be a fit for your 800-word 'Hot button' column…"

      Ultimately, every writer has to decide what they feel shows their strengths in a query letter and what they feel comfortable saying…above is an outline of what's worked for me. Meanwhile, my friend Robert Howells of Surefire Writing I know has a totally different approach and starts his pitches like he's shooting the breeze in person with the editor, as in, "I'd like to pitch you a story about…" Which I gather works for him, but which I think seems forced and goofy! I prefer plunging in to grab them by the lapels with how amazing my story concept is. I think each writer has to experiment a bit and see what gets results for them.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Carol

  4. Michelle says:

    Agreed… except I wonder about not stating a word length, particularly if one is spelled out in market guidelines. It can be just one more way to assure the editor you're paying attention to what they say they want.

    I'll have to think about this a bit more.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Michelle –

      It's true, sometimes guidelines will say, X department is 800 words long or whatever. But what if you pitch your idea for X department, but the editor might have thought hey, this could be a 2,000-word feature? I guess I think it comes off as bossy. But maybe that's because I just had a PR source command me to write a 2,000-word profile of their client, when I don't really know many publications that commission anything that length right now…but if you link it to a particular column or department in the publication, maybe it comes off more like 'I've read you' instead of 'I know better than you what your magazine should be doing,' which is what I fear it usually comes off sounding like.

      Thanks for your comment!

  5. Nawko says:

    Thank you for sharing this information

    Hope to see more update from you next time with more tips and techniques.

  6. Agreed… except I wonder about not stating a word length, particularly if one is spelled out in market guidelines. It can be just one more way to assure the editor you're paying attention to what they say they want.

    I'll have to think about this a bit more.

  7. Alice Knisley Matthi says:

    Oh it is the end of the day for my brain. Keep up the great work for those of us who learn so much from you.

  8. Alice Knisley Matthi says:

    Carol,

    You keep us armed with such great information. I have read conflicting opinions on stating a word length for articles. Keep up the great work for us who learn so much from you.

    Alice

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