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Crack the Nationals: How to Write Queries That Work
by Kelly James-Enger
I started my freelance career woefully ignorant.
My first sale was to a national magazine--Cosmopolitan. My second was to
Bride's. When I quit my fulltime job as a lawyer to freelance fulltime, I had no
experience, no journalism background, and no contacts, but I did have two
national clips. I built my career with their help.
Six years later, I've written for more than
forty national magazines, and make a six-figure income. I speak frequently at
writers' conferences now, and am often asked why I started with national
magazines instead of with local or regional publications.
The honest answer? I didn't know any better. But
in the process, I learned how to crack national markets with solid,
well-researched query letters that proved I was uniquely qualified to write the
articles I was pitching.
You can do the same. Make your queries stand out
from the pack, and crack national magazine markets with these tips:
1. Pick up the Phone
The world of magazine editing is like a
continual game of musical chairs. Magazine editors come, go, change positions,
titles, and responsibilities with alarming speed. Dont rely on guidelines to
tell you who the appropriate editor ispick up the phone and ask, "Would you
please tell me the name of the editor of your Healthy Kids section?"
Double-check the spelling and title and youll make a good first impression and
make sure that your query makes it way to the right person immediately.
2. Understand the Market
Editors at national magazines receive hundreds
of queries every week, but the competition isnt as bad as you might think. At
least 80% of the queries they receive simply arent targeted to the magazines
readership. Pitch an idea that will interest readersand show why they will
careand youre halfway there.
3. Demonstrate Familiarity
Youve pitched an idea thats perfect for the
mag; now slam-dunk it by letting the editor know youve read her publication by
saying something like, "Interested in this idea for your Todays News
section?" Or mention a recent article in your queryfor example, "I noticed you
published a piece on easy ways to save money last month and thought my piece on
garage-sale strategies might interest you." Youre not just another writer
trolling through Writers Market for a quick saleyouve done your homework, so
let her know it.
4. Make Her Job Easy
When I pitch a story, I suggest possible
sidebars, quizzes, resource boxes, and other pieces to complement the main
piece. I give her an idea of who I plan to interview, and suggest a word count.
If she likes my idea, and my angle, all she has to do is pick up the phone and
assign the piece. Think like your editor, and offer her a package that will make
her job easier. Youre more likely to get the assignment.
5. Move to the Front
If you havent written for national magazines
before, your editor may be a bit wary. She may not want to risk a full-length
feature with a writer whos unknown to her. Pitching shorter pieces for the
front-of-the-book section of the magazine is a great way to get your foot in the
door, and prove yourself for longer assignments.
6. Catch her Attention
When I read queries I wrote early in my
freelance career, I cringe. I started most of them with language like, "I am a
freelance writer who is interested in writing for your magazine." Not exactly
compelling stuff. Now I start my queries with a leadusually the lead Ill use
for the article itself. You want to intrigue your editor the same way youll
intrigue readers of your story.
7. Make it Look Good
OK, you already know to double-check your
spelling and punctuation. But print out your query and read it out loud before
you submit it. Youll catch more errors that way. Remember, your query is your
first and most important writing sample youll submit to this editor. If you
write a poor or sloppy query, your chances of getting an assignment are slim.
8. Use a Template
While theres no "magic" query letter, using a
similar structure every time makes it easier to write your queries. I use a
four-paragraph format. The first paragraph is the lead, designed to catch the
editors attention; the second is the "why-write-it" paragraph, where I briefly
explain the appeal of the story; the third is the "nuts-and-bolts" paragraph
where I include information about who I plan to interview, suggested word count,
appropriate section of the magazine, possible sidebars, and the like; and the
final one is the "I-am-so-great" paragraph, where I demonstrate why I should
write the piece. (More about that in a bit.) Using a template saves time and
reminds you to include all the necessary elements in each query you write.
9. Strut your Stuff
Remember the I-am-so-great paragraph? Think like
a two-year-old. Highlight your relevant writing experience and demonstrate to
the editor that you are "uniquely qualified" to write this article. If youre
pitching a gardening piece and grow award-winning cucumbers, mention that. If
you want to write a piece on parenting and are the dad of triplets, include
that. If you have easy access to your story subject, let the editor know. You
want her to read your query and think, "WowI may not know this person, but the
writer sounds like just the person to write this piece for me!" Keep that in
mind as you write your query.
10. Dont Give Up!
It often takes time and effort to break into
national magazines. When you get a rejection (what I call a "bong"), follow up
immediately with a new query. Start off saying, "thank you for your response to
my query about [fill-in-the-blank.] While Im sorry you cant use it at this
time, I have another idea for you to consider." Then include your new query. By
doing this, youll prove that youre persistent and professionaland eventually
nail an assignment. Case in point: it took me a half-dozen queries to crack
markets like Womans Day, Redbook, and Fitness, so dont give
up. The next query you send may be the one that nets you an assignment!
© Copyright 2003, Kelly James-Enger
Kelly James-Enger has authored more than a dozen books, including Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success (Writers Digest, 2012) and Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writers Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books (CreateSpace, 2010). Check out her blog, Dollars and Deadlines, for practical advice about how you can make more money in less time as a nonfiction freelance writer.
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