Section II of Key Components of Query Letters That Work

Part 2 of Query Letters That Work!

mini-course continued . . .

Related imageTo stand out from the massive crowd of query letters that agents and editors receive on a regular basis, your query letter needs to attract the attention of the editor or agent, and in a good way.

We’ve gone over the purpose of the query letter and what it says about you; and we’ve identified the essential key components of all properly formatted query letters.  Now, we’re going to dig-in to the very heart of the query letter, break down each component and take a look at what you should (and shouldn’t!) include to help yours stand out from the pack.

First let’s talk a bit about the look of your query letter.  Following are a few things to keep in mind when first preparing to compose your letter:

  • No colored paper!  The only exception to this is a soft linen color like that of typical business stationery.
  • No fancy designs and no big, colorful artwork or graphic art.   Use simple, tasteful letterhead with a small, clean looking logo.
  • No fancy fonts!   Choose an attractive, easy-to-read font, such as:
    • Times New Roman
    • Tahoma
    • Arial
    • Verdana
    • Helvitica

When choosing your look, just remember that a query letter should be written using a formal business format.  Keep it simple, tasteful and clean looking.

Keep it simple.
Keep it tasteful.
Keep it clean.

With that in mind, let’s move on to the actual writing of the letter.

You have exactly one page to introduce yourself and the article you are proposing; four –to-five clean, tight paragraphs, each with its own specific purpose.

Your first paragraph, the introduction or “hook”, is your one opportunity to catch the editor’s attention and show that you are able to quickly and effectively connect with your audience.  There are several styles of introduction you can use to successfully accomplish this:

  • Pose a problem with a corresponding solution
  • Inform your audience by providing useful information of value to the reader
  • Share a personal anecdote or experience

All have proven to be successful approaches.  Just be sure whichever one you choose fits in with the style of that particular publication and its readership.

Some introduction mistakes to avoid:

  • “Hi, my name is . . .”  Don’t do it!
  • Sharing personal information irrelevant to the editor.  The editor doesn’t want to hear about how much it would mean to you to be published or that you’ve always dreamed of being a writer.
  • “I just love your magazine.”  Don’t tell the editor how much you love the publication or even that you’ve been a subscriber for the past ten (10) years.

Instead, show the editor that you are familiar with the magazine by submitting a query                                   that is appropriately in tune with the publication’s readership.

  • “I’ve never been published, but . . .”
  • “I really need this assignment or . . . they won’t publish my book” . . . I can’t pay the water bill” . . . I won’t eat this month” . . .

Even if it’s all true, don’t include it in your query!  No attempts at gaining sympathy.

  • “I have the perfect idea for your magazine!”  or  “I have just what you’re readers want!”

Prove how ideal your piece is for the publication through effective writing and appropriateness of topic, never by telling the editor it is or by “talking yourself up” as a writer.

Reminder:  I’ll be posting sample query letters later in the course so you can see how this all comes together.

Normally the second (2nd) paragraph, your “pitch” is where you tell the editor precisely what it is you are offering the publication.  Here you will provide a brief summary of your proposed article and, if you can, a working title and word count.

If you’ve made it this far with the editor still reading your query letter, congratulations!  You’ve done a good job at capturing your reader’s attention and the editor sees potential in both the topic you are proposing and in you’re writing as a good match for the publication.

A good “body” can seal the deal for you!  (And, no, I’m not talking about a great figure in a bikini!  ))  Between two (2) and four (4) paragraphs, the body continues to sell your idea by providing the details of your proposed article.  Here you will want to be specific, yet concise.

Be specific, yet concise.

Develop an outline of your article, dividing your topic into subtopics.  These subtopics are what you will touch on in the body of your query.

Using a 1200 word article on the swine flu as an example, the description of the article might read as follows:

“The article covers the warning signs and symptoms of the swine flu, as well as discusses the most effective preventive measures and current treatment options.”

Note: With a 1200 word article, by choosing a maximum of three (3) subtopics, I’ve allowed myself 400 words per subtopic, which is a good general rule-of-thumb to follow.

When determining the number of subtopics to include in an article proposal, divide
the total number of words by four hundred (400) as a guide.

Moving on to “credentials” . . .

First, don’t panic if you don’t have any!  I will be covering what to do in this case a bit later in the course.

Your credentials help to assure the editor that you are the best person to write the article you are proposing and should make up the paragraph immediately following the body and just before the “close”.

Using the same article about the swine flu as an example, your credentials might read as follows:

“As a Nurse Practitioner, I am exposed to and work with flu sufferers on a regular basis.  Every year, for the past four years, I have helped educate our local community about the various types of flu and ways to protect themselves throughout the flu season.  This season alone I have personally assisted in the treatment of three patients who contracted swine flu.

Please find enclosed two clips; one from Healthy Peeps Magazine and the other, a local news article I recently wrote on regional flu statistics.”

Whenever possible, you will want to include, and highlight, credentials and qualifications that directly relate to the topic of your article.

In your final paragraph, the “close”, you should thank the editor for his or her time and consideration.  This is also an opportunity to give the editor one final boost toward accepting your proposition.  One really good way to do this is by indicating a time-frame, such as:

“I can have this article completed and in your hands within ‘X’ days.”

This is a great way to let the editor know he or she can count on you to finish the job and in a timely manner.  It also creates a sense of urgency, yet in a passive and indirect manner and could very well be the final nudge the editor needs to go ahead and pick up the phone instead of setting your query letter aside (with others!) for further consideration.

A lot covered today!  Next, I’ll be going over some of the key traits and characteristics of winning query letters to help you further refine your query writing process and ensure your query stands out from the masses.

Be sure to join me for Part 3 of the Query Letters That Work! Mini-Course

  • Key Traits and Characteristics of Winning Query Letters

A bit about grammar  . . .

While they are important, your grammar skills are not the most important consideration for an editor or agent.  Your idea and your ability to effectively connect with your audience carry far more weight.

That said, it’s not likely you will be able to effectively pull in and connect with your reader without having a fairly good grasp of the correct usage of punctuation, prepositional phrases and all those other fun things that fall under the heading  “grammar”.

The key is to combine basically sound grammar with conversational style writing.  Conversational style writing goes a long, long way!

So, yes, an editor does want to see that you have fairly sound grammar skills and they aren’t likely to work with a writer they are going to have to spend a huge amount of time editing.  But! . . . the good news is this –>  If you’re writing is strong and effective, you can fix the grammar!

I recommend the following:

The Gregg Reference Manual
by:  William Sabin

I just love what the author has to say about punctuation:

“Punctuation marks are the mechanical means for making the meaning of a sentence easily understood…”  –William Sabin

That is just so true!

to be continued . . .


  • Key Traits and Components of Winning Query Letters
  • What to Do if You’ve Never Been Published and Don’t Have Writing Credentials
  • A Word to the Wise:  Important Do’s and Don’ts – Tips and Warnings
  • Sample Query Letters
  • Final Thoughts:  Bringing it All Together and Things to Remember

Stay tuned!
Keep Writing!


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