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    Home Articles

    Query Plunge: Now or Later?

    As a new writer you may not know what a query letter is, or if one is necessary to market your writing. A query letter is generally a one page sales pitch to an editor about a book or an article idea. Notice I state "idea". That means the book or article is not a finished product, but a concepted thought of your own originality.

    So why write a query letter instead of submitting a finished manuscript? Because a query letter can sell your manuscript before it is written-no need to devote precious writing time to an endeavor that may be a lemon to sale once completed.

    "Submitting a query saves me the agony of going through the trouble of researching, writing, and editing a piece that may end up rejected," states freelance writer, Dawn Rizzoni. "I have more incentive to research harder and write better when I know that my article will definitely be published."

    Warping your mind and writing your fingertips off on a topic that interests you only to find that the topic does not interest editors can be frustrating. By not querying first, you could be setting yourself up for rejection and overworking yourself.

    Michael Ross, freelance writer, says, "I like the idea of using queries for material I have yet to write. Writing is one of those professions where quantity is just as important as quality. Queries cut down on a lot of the grunt work and will allow writers to focus on those markets who are interested in your work."

    Time is essential to all serious writers. If queries can save you time, then by all means, USE THEM! But some ambitious writers, not quite ready to make the query plunge, utter the expletive phrase, "Screw query letters!" and follow a different path. I am one of these writers. Maybe I'm being lazy, or maybe I'm finding what works for me at this point in my writing career.

    I wrote a query letter once and my article idea piqued an editor's interest, but an assignment never originated. Disillusioned, I decided to stick with "on spec" markets as I'd been having the good fortune of selling finished manuscripts without having to pitch my ideas with a query. That's not to say I won't write another query letter in the future. Writers have a choice about whether to send, or not to send queries, and both procedures can be incorporated into a writer's marketing technique.

    "For the few personal essays I've written, I would prefer to send the entire piece rather than a query letter. But if a publication says they will not accept unsolicited manuscripts under any circumstances, I follow their guidelines and query first," explains Dawn Rizzoni.

    Even by following guidelines and sending in requested queries, you may still have to do rewrites. Michael Ross describes one of his experiences. "I sold my article, "The Tenets of Submitting" to Write for Cash. The article first appeared in Poet's Fantasy. I had to restructure the article to fit WfC's slant, but was able to pull it off and made extra bucks, too."

    So don't think that query letters will keep you from having to do extra work. They won't. Just because your idea sells, does not mean that your writing will. Finished manuscripts can still be rejected. One way to compensate for your hard work is to try for a "kill fee" in your contract before you begin your assignment. Then if an editor decides not to publish your book or article (for any reason), you're paid a percentage of what you would have received if the manuscript had been published. That's a big advantage over submitting "on spec"-you can still make money if rejected.

    When sending a query, the idea is not the only thing that has to interest an editor to gain you an assignment. The query letter itself has to appeal to an editor. Michael Ross suggests, "Be professional. Read material on how to construct a solid query letter. Writers will be surprised at how eager publishers are to look at your work if it is properly presented."

    Dawn Rizzoni stresses, "Your opening. It's what makes or breaks your query letter. You have to grab the editor's attention with your first few sentences, or your letter will be sure to end up with all the others in the slush pile."

    Slush pile or mush pile, I guess it's definitely up to the individual writer on how one proceeds to market a manuscript. Submitting "on spec" allows you to write anything you want, but limits available markets and pay (fewer markets allow "on spec" manuscripts and many have lower pay rates). By submitting queries first, you save time, open yourself up to more marketing opportunities (most markets require queries), and have a chance at higher pay scales (markets that require queries generally pay more than those that accept "on spec" manuscripts).

    Dawn Rizzoni believes, "Unless there is a topic that you have a passion for, or an event in your life that you just have to get down on paper, query first. For any piece you write before querying, you have to ask yourself, 'Is this something I would want to write even if it never sold?'"

    I personally believe new writers should first submit to "on spec" markets until writing skills have been honed and perfected. Many "on spec" markets are open to new writers, while a high percentage of markets that require queries are not. Many "query first" markets also require clips (published pieces) that you may yet to have accumulated. By submitting to "on spec" markets and getting accepted, you build a clip file. During this type of marketing tenure, you can study about how to write and use a query letter to your best advantage. When you think you're ready to make the query plunge. . .go for it.

    Note: I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my interviewees, Dawn Rizzoni and Michael Ross for finding time to answer questions related to this article. Without their interesting opinions, my article would have been quite drab. Thank you both!

    Copyright © Patricia Spork

    Patricia Spork is the owner of The Authentic Self: Journaling Your Joys, Griefs and Everything in Between by Shery Russ

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