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    Writing a Killer Query Letter

    So you've committed yourself, your time and your ego to giving this writing thing a real go. You've tons of ideas for articles, short stories, e-articles, novels, non-fiction books that will take the world by the tail. There's just one little problem - other than actually writing them, that is. The Query Letter. Even seasoned writers quake at the mention of query letters, yet they are so important. All the qualifications, contacts, and writing ideas in the world will mean absolutely nothing unless you can get that proposal out there to an editor, and sell it.

    I've lumped all those different types of writing together for the simple reason that query letters for all are basically the same. So let's tame the Query Beast.

    First of all, you should have checked out the target. Let's say you're writing a query for a magazine article. Look through some back copies of this magazine to familiarize yourself with the type of articles they're interested in. Who are the readers? Make a profile in your mind of who you're going to be writing this article for. I know the first stop is the editor's desk, but believe me, most editors know their readers very well. They wouldn't be the editor if they didn't. Many magazines now have an on-line presence; some will even allow email queries. You can run a search of their archives, putting in keywords for your own article proposal just to make sure that you're not re-inventing the wheel. Editors sigh very loudly when presented with a query on a subject that they ran a feature on the previous issue.

    So, you know your market, you know the name of the editor/department editor that you have to contact. Here goes with the letter. You need a hook - start with a question of a fact connected to your subject that will grab the editor's attention. For example, a query for an article on peanut allergies in children could go like this: Some children are allergic to peanuts. Yeah, right, tell us something we didn't know. Or it could go: Five year old Johnny Carr may die if he eats his best friend's sandwich. Wow, now you've got us - visions of cute little kids in jeopardy in the school lunchroom are a real attention grabber.

    If you thought that was hard, wait till you hear this. Now you have to firm up the hook. You have to offer the editor enough information to show that you know your subject, and that there is substance behind your statement. This is where the old journalistic What? Why? When? Where? And Who? Come into play. Tell him/her what your basic proposal is, the framework of your article. Who would you interview - you don't have to give names, but explain that you'll be talking to parents and teachers about the difficulties of keeping kids and peanuts apart, and to medical experts who will explain the problem, its manifestations and strategies for action.

    Language is a major factor in query letters. Don't be too chatty - the editor isn't your best friend, or at least, not yet! But write in the voice the magazine readers will understand and identify with. You're talking to intelligent, curious human beings, not writing a thesis, so keep the language in your query letter simple and to the point. This is how you demonstrate to the editor that your article will speak to the magazine's readers.

    Then you explain why you think this article fits this magazine - the readers are family people with kids, in the peanut allergy scenario. They will benefit from the information as well as finding it interesting. So, your article is offering a service - information and entertainment - to the editor's readership. The last part is: Why You? What qualifications do you have to write this article? Well, you're a writer, and you should add here any previous writing experience, possibly include clips if you have them. For our peanut allergy article, you might mention that you have children, or know a child who has this allergy. You don't have to have medical qualifications, obviously - but it's a bonus if you explain you've already discussed the issue or researched it with medical experts.

    Keep your paragraphs short, the information concise and clear. A query letter should be no more than two pages, preferably less. Check and recheck for typing and spelling errors, make sure you've got the editor's name correct, and that your telephone/fax number and email address appear with your home address on the top left hand corner of the first page. Print the letter out on good quality plain paper - a discreet color is maybe okay, but no floral or cutesy-pie designs, please. This is a professional image you're projecting! Now, before you seal that envelope, make sure you've included a stamped, self-addressed envelope for a reply. Mark down in your diary what the letter was about, who it went to, and the date. Then cross your fingers and toss it in the mail box.

    Keep track - if a month goes by (in the case of an article query) then a friendly follow-up phone call or brief letter could be in order. In the meantime, forget the whole thing and get on with your next project!

    The process is pretty much the same for a novel or non-fiction book, except that you'd keep the description in the letter fairly brief, and enclose a short synopsis of your book proposal - no more than four double spaced pages is the usual.

    So, now who's afraid of query letters? Get writing, and good luck!

    Copyright © 2002 Glenys O'Connell

    Glenys O'Connell (oreo@eircom.net) is a freelance journalist living and working in Ireland. She is the author of a young adult book for reluctant readers 'If Lenny Didn't Do It, Who Did?' and a romantic suspense novel, Judgement By Fire, set against the beauty of the Canadian landscape. An excerpt of the novel can be read at Puff Adder Books. She is co-publisher of WriterInIreland ezine, a free resource for writers.

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