Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Guest Post: 10 Steps to a Successful Query Email by Susan Johnston

[A Note from Sara: Every Wednesday in August, I'll be turning over the floor to a guest blogger who can share additional tips and thoughts on the writing life. I'm very lucky to have Susan Johnston, a Boston-based lifestyle/business writer and blogger, do the first post! Enjoy!]

Whether you want to write for glossy magazines or independent websites, you'll usually need to send a query selling the editor on 1) why their readers will want to read about a given topic and 2) why you are the perfect person to write the article. These days, most editors accepts accept queries via email, which means you that you'll sometimes hear a yay or nay very quickly. Just don't let the fast pace and informal nature of email ruin your chances of making a good impression.
Here are ten steps to ensure that your query is polished and professional.

1. Read the writer’s guidelines if they are available (you’ll usually find them under “About Us,” “FAQ,” or “Site map” on the website), but don’t limit yourself to publications that have guidelines posted online. If you can’t find guidelines online, you can email the editor or contact person listed to find out if they work with freelance writers.

2. Do a quick search to make sure that the publication hasn’t covered the topic recently. Many sites have a built in search function. You can also search within any domain using Google. Type in “article topic” and Google will pull up any pages on that site that include your article topic anywhere on the page. Try a few different variations of your topic’s keywords to cover your bases. If it's a magazine that isn't available online, many libraries have databases with extensive magazine archives.

3. Research the publication and read previous articles. Know what types of topics they cover and where your idea might fit in. For instance, in a query to Self magazine, you might write "let me know if this idea is a fit for 15 Minutes to Your Best Self." That way you’ve tipped off your editor that you know the publication and can (presumably) write in their format and style.

4. Write an eye-catching intro. “I’d like to write an article about X” probably won’t excite an editor. Craft your lede as if you were writing the actual article and want to grab the reader’s attention. Then explain why the topic is relevant those readers now.

5. Play up your expertise relating to your topic. If you don’t have any writing clips yet, don’t mention it in your query. You can find other ways to play up your background without admitting that you’re a newbie. For instance, “as a former science teacher, I am well versed in ...” Or, “Potty training is a topic that I’m intimately familiar with thanks to my three children.”

6. Use links to your writing samples instead of sending them as attachments (unless the guidelines specifically request attachments). Sometimes attachments get caught in spam filters, and many editors are leery of getting a virus from a writer they don’t know.

7. Always, always proofread before you hit send. Some editors will overlook a typo here or there if it’s an otherwise well-written, well thought out query, but major mistakes could send the message that you’re a sloppy writer (especially if you misspell the editor’s name!). Don’t rely on spell check.

8. Use an interesting subject line, but leave out words that scream SPAM! (For instance, “free” is a tip-off to a lot of spam filters and “I love you” was the subject line for a notorious email virus.) I often use this formula - Query: Name of Proposed Article. Then when I follow-up, I replace “query” with “follow-up.”

9. Follow-up. The timing of your follow-up will depend on the nature of the publication. If the writer’s guidelines say you should wait six weeks, then wait six weeks. If it’s a time-sensitive topic, you could follow-up sooner. When in doubt, I usually wait about three or four weeks, then resend with a short note reiterating my interest and including the original query as a forward.
10. Send another pitch right away if the editor rejects your idea but encourages you to send more pitches. Persistence pays.

SusanJohnston is a Boston-based freelance writer and blogger who has covered business and lifestyle topics for The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor,, Yahoo! HotJobs, and many other publications. Want to know more? Check out The Urban Muse or follow her on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post. This is great information since I can save it for future reference. Susan is a wealth of information.