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Make Your First Query Sell!
by Kelly James-Enger

Want to write for magazines? The first step is mastering the query letter. This is the tool with which freelancers pitch editors, and its importance cannot be overstated. Write a stellar query letter, and even your first one can result in an assignment.

The Query Template

A query serves more than one purpose. A query is a letter of introduction. It's a sales pitch. It's your initial, and I think most important writing sample. It's also how you convince the editor to give you an assignment. Every query showcases your writing ability; it should also demonstrate your familiarity with the market itself and convince the editor that you are the perfect person to write the story—even if you’re new to the freelance writing business. 

There is no magic formula for writing queries, but most freelancers develop a rough template that they can use as a model for future letters. The basic parts every query includes are:

  • The lead to catch the editor's attention.

  • The "why write it" section to flesh out the idea and explain why it's a good fit for the publication. 

  • The "nuts and bolts" paragraph which includes the technical aspects of the story such as word count, sources, format, and working title.

  • The "I-am-so-great" paragraph (or "ISG"), where you highlight your relevant qualifications, including your experience with the subject matter.

While there is no magic formula to query-writing, your letter should capture the editor’s interest, explain why readers will want to read the piece, describe how you plan to approach the subject, and convince the editor that you’re the person for the assignment.

But what about those first few queries you write? Here's the good news—even your first query can result in an assignment! In fact, I've seen dozens of new, inexperienced writers nail their first assignments with query letters we worked on in a magazine-writing class or workshop. Why did these letters succeed? Because the writers were pitching topics they had personal experience with.

None of these writers had published clips at the time they took a magazine-writing class, but they learned to analyze markets, develop compelling query ideas, and demonstrate why they were uniquely qualified to write for the markets. I’ve included two below; the first was the first query written by an emergency department administrator and former nurse whose first pitch was to an Illinois nursing magazine on a new law and how it would affect nurses practicing in the emergency department. Not only did her first query sell, she wound up writing another half-dozen articles for this publication. Note how she uses industry jargon, and demonstrates her knowledge of the nursing field in her query:

Dear Ms. Boivin,

"Good Samaritan Hospital, this is Medic One calling for a channel assignment. We have a traumatic arrest."
"Medic One, go to Med Channel 8"
"OK, Good Sam, we were called to the scene of car vs tree and found a 32 y/o male patient who was entrapped...."

Every nurse working in an emergency department is not qualified to receive calls from prehospital care personnel. To do so, an ER nurse must be a certified ECRN (Emergency Communications Registered Nurse), which is mandated in the EMS Act of October 1997. The ECRN must be a quick thinker and able to make critical decisions under sometimes very stressful circumstances.

"ECRN: A Critical Component in the World of EMS" will inform your readers of the prerequisites for this position as well as the roles and responsibilities of an ECRN. This would be an excellent article to include in your "Nursing Roles" section. I plan to obtain quotes from EMS medical authorities across the state citing the importance of this nursing role.

Great timing for publication would be May as EMS personnel are honored during the third week of the month. Possible sidebars would include common abbreviations used in EMS, an explanation of the radio equipment used by an ECRN or a listing of the prerequisites to become an ECRN. One thousand to twelve hundred words would adequately cover the topic matter, but 1 could tighten or expand the article to meet your needs. I can provide photographs of a nurse at the telemetry radio or interacting with EMS personnel if desired.

As a part-time freelancer and an ECRN, I am qualified to submit an informative piece that can accurately describe this specialty area. I have been the Coordinator of a large EMS System for the last 15 years, and have educated hundreds of nurses who have attained ECRN certification. 1 am including a clip on an article I wrote for Domain, a national newsletter for NAEMSE (National Association of Emergency Medical Service Educators). Please call me if you have any questions regarding this query.

Thank you for your time. I look forward to your reply.



Alida Zamboni, R.N., B.A.

The second was written by a stay-at-home mom, and was about hidden backyard dangers. Her query, to a regional parenting magazine, opened with an anecdote involving her three-year-old daughter, who had been rushed to the emergency room after eating mushrooms she discovered in the back yard. This query sold, and eventually led to a contributing editor gig at the publication. Again, she does a great job of demonstrating how her personal experience qualifies her to write about this topic:

Dear Ms. Schultz:

As a mother of three-year-old triplets who takes pride in keeping her kids safe indoors, I learned the hard way of the dangers lurking in our own backyard.  My daughter ate a mushroom growing behind our sandbox, which resulted in an arduous overnight hospital stay filled with unpleasant treatments of activated charcoal.  The severity of the moment was clear when the doctor told me matter-of-factly that she might need a kidney or liver transplant.  Hours after the incident, the mushroom was deemed "nonpoisonous" by The Field Museum's team of biologists and my daughter was in the clear. Even so, the experience left me acutely aware of the fact that you don't mess with mushrooms.

Around 100 of the 10,000 different types of mushrooms are poisonous; wild mushrooms can grow anywhere and ingested in any amount they are considered dangerous. The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) reports that in 2002, there were 8,722 cases of people ingesting wild mushrooms, with nearly 60 percent of these involving children ages five or under. Over 100,000 other children were exposed to toxic pesticides and plants in 2002, giving the phrase "wild outdoors" new meaning.

I'm sure other Chicago parents will want to know how they can protect their children from outdoor poison exposures. Would "Babyproof Your Backyard" be of interest to you for a ShortStuff piece? I'll interview poison emergency experts and AAPCC personnel and include information about poisonous mushrooms, plants and pesticides, what to do in case of ingestion and the new nationwide number to call for poison emergencies.  Pulling from the AAPCC's new educational program that features Spike the porcupine as well as songs and activities, I will create useful sidebars to help put a parent's poison protection plan into immediate action.

Before becoming a freelance writer and stay-at-home mother, I worked in marketing communications, creating and writing for corporate web sites and newsletters.  My work has been published in Gourmet and the industry newsletter Benefits and Compensation.

I hope you'll find this story appropriate for a future issue of Chicago Parent. I welcome your questions or advice.  Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.



Jill S. Browning

As you can see, both writers used their unique background and/or experience to garner assignments, and launch their freelance careers. Make your first (or fiftieth) query stand out by taking a similar approach, and you may have the same result! 

© Copyright 2008, 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.

Other articles by Kelly James-Enger :

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