This is a sample lesson from our very popular e-course 30 Days, 30 Queries.
Day 15: The 6 Traits of Good Query Letters
I’ve always been a big fan of watching how other people do things in order to learn how to do them. Which is why I highly recommend that with this focus you’re placing on query letters at the moment, you read as many as you can.
Take each individual query apart and you’ll start seeing certain patterns, certain styles, certain traits that they all seem to hit and make them query letters that work.
We’re going to talk about those traits today, the six things that I think can take your query from simply average to stellar. Your query letters will not always encompass all of these six traits but I do highly recommend that you pack in at least two or three in each one you send out, more if you’re aiming for competitive publications that received dozens, if not hundreds, of queries each week.
Personality is hard to spot when it’s part of a piece of writing because it becomes such an intrinsic part of it, but also, unfortunately, very conspicuous in its absence.
Most queries, even by accomplished journalists, are often dry information-bearing notes that come without any sense of who the person behind them is or wants to do. New writers are often afraid of showing their personality because they believe that it will mark them out as amateurs and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Allowing your personality to take up space in your query letter proves to the editor that you’re confident in who you are and what you do and therefore it allows her to believe in your capabilities more than if you were to try and disguise your true self, whether that’s because you’re a new writer or because you’re not as keen on the subject matter as you might like the editor to believe.
What it also does is make the writing easier for you. We each have a writing style that is unique to us and that flows more naturally from our fingertips and by allowing yourself to be true to your style, you make writing the query easier than if you were simply trying to copy how someone else writes.
Your personality and your unique style remain yours forever and only get stronger the more you nurture them.
It goes without saying that you’re not going to pitch a rape or war story to an editor with jokes thrown in, but most writers often miss the chance to show that they’re fun and creative people even when they’re pitching service stories or trend stories that could use a bit of lightening up.
Remember, editors are only human and we all like to work with people we actually like and enjoy being around. So in addition to showing that you’re professional and detail-oriented, if the opportunity presents itself to show that you have a sense of humor, take it!
In my opinion, this is the one thing that is missing in most pitches and probably the top reason most queries get rejected.
If you don’t clearly know the angle, the purpose, and the gist of your story, how do you expect the editor to get it? The clarity in your pitch has to be both about the idea and the execution of that idea. Or simply, what do you want to say and how are you going to say it? You need to be able to answer both those questions in a single sentence each.
For new writers who have trouble with selling ideas, the reason is often because they’re trying to have one poor overburdened article do too many things. You need to be able to define your story idea in one single sentence. Coming up with a good headline can help you achieve this clarity.
The vision is where your clarity of execution comes into play. How are you going to present your story idea? What will it look like on the pages of the magazine? What will be the headline on the cover?
Most of us don’t look beyond the sale. We think of a query letter as a means to an end—you write it so that the editor can get a sense of your idea and give you an assignment. But I encourage you to think of your query letter as much more than that. Think of it as the vision for this piece of writing, the structure on which you’ll finally build that beautiful building. The art on the wall is important—it’s what makes people look at the building—but if the structure is weak, everything can fall apart in seconds.
Your query letter is the structure of your article and your vision for it, which is why you need to think about it logically and carefully before you hit send. How will this story help readers? Will it amuse, inform, or educate them? How does it fit into a publication’s pages? What format expresses your point most clearly?
Only if you have a vision for the story can you translate it on to the page for your editor to see and share, so think of your query letters not as hard sells but as ways for you to share your vision with an editor.
And if she shares that vision, you get yourself a sale.
We’ve talked about this before and we’ll be talking about it again, but introducing a sense of urgency in a query is a very good way to answer the question “why now?” that most editors will ask of any idea. By introducing it in your query letter right away, you make the editor’s job infinitely easier because you’ve not only shown her why the story is important and would make good reading for her audience, but also when it would be the best time to carry it.
Good ways to attach your stories to time hooks are by making them holiday-specific, such as offering a tips on tackling depression during the holidays story instead of a generic one, or matching a trend in your story to something in the news.
Finally, confidence can make or break the sale, especially if you’re pitching to national publications with huge audiences.
Look, I’ll be straight with you. No editor is going to pay $1 a word to a writer who doesn’t know what she’s talking about. The reason an editor pays that kind of money is so that she can assign something, have it off her plate, get it in pretty near perfect, send it to her superior and accept all the accolades for having done a good job. If she has to teach a writer how to report, how to find stories, or go back and forth because the writer has failed to deliver what was promised in the query letter, it’s a waste of time and money for her. She has a job to do and the reason she’s outsourcing the writing is because she doesn’t have time to do it.
Now how does a busy editor know whether you’re capable of pulling off what you’ve promised in your query letter? One way is to look at your bio and see if you have any clips or credentials that point to the fact that you’ve done this kind of work before and the second way, of course, is the tone of your pitch. If you come across as wishy-washy or unsure of what you’re doing, this editor has no reason to trust that you’re going to make her life easy and in fact, has every reason to believe the exact opposite. But if you come across as confident and self-assured, she’s more likely to trust that you can do the job and do it without hand-holding.
This confidence will come with time and practice, but in the meantime, keep an eye on your pitches and take out anything that will make you seem unsure of yourself or your work.
Today’s assignment is, again, to send two query letters to publications of your choosing. Try and hit at least two of the above traits in each of your pitches.
If you enjoyed this sample, check out the whole e-course here: 30 Days, 30 Queries.