There are two ways to submit to magazine editors.
One is to send the finished article without it being requested. This is referred to as an unsolicited manuscript. Most editors dislike reading lengthy manuscripts, and many magazines specify that they do not accept unsolicited manuscripts which, when received, are consigned to what’s called the ‘slush pile’ and seldom get read.
Another, more productive way, to submit to magazines is to send a query letter, in which you pitch your idea to the editor before actually writing the article.
A query letter is a sales pitch: your goal is to convince the editor that your article idea is of interest to her readers and that you are the best person to write it.
Query letters save everybody time. In the time that would have taken you to write a full article, you can write a few query letters which may result in more than one assignment. Query letters save editors’ time because they don’t have to read lengthy manuscripts which may not be suitable for their magazines.
Query letters better your chances of working with the magazine you want to write for. Editors are usually reluctant to ask for a rewrite or suggest substantial changes to a finished piece. Query letters, on the other hand, make it easy for editors to offer suggestions to a proposed idea.
Even if your idea is not quite suitable for the magazine, the editor may like the way you’ve presented your idea and yourself and may still be interested in working with you on a different assignment.
I hope by now you are convinced that query letters are essential to breaking into the writing industry, especially if you are just starting out. So it’s well worth the time and effort to compose an irresistible letter that makes the editor want to see more of your writing.
Your query letter is not the only one the editor will see, so you must do your best to make yours stand out from the crowd and get noticed. A single query letter can make or break your success as a writer. Editors remember names. Make sure they remember yours in a positive way.
If your query letter is professionally written and attention-grabbing, even if your idea may not be quite right, the editor will mentally clock your name. If your query is accepted, and you complete your assignment with a well-written, well-researched and error-free article, she’ll remember you even more. And your next query will be viewed in a more favourable light. This means that a good query is often the beginning of a long-standing relationship between you and the editor.
If you send an unprofessional, poorly-written query, suggesting ideas which do not fit the magazine, the editor will remember you, too. But now she remembers you in a negative way. The next time you send her a query, she may just quickly glance at it and put it in the bin. You may be closing the door to that magazine forever by sending a single bad query. Do you really want to take that risk?
Nothing is guaranteed in life. Even a perfect query letter does not guarantee an assignment. But if you following the 10 steps outlined in this book, you will stand a much better chance of producing a professional query letter that gets read and gets assignments.
Note: To avoid cumbersome writing such as he/she and his/her, I have taken the liberty to refer to an editor as a ‘she’.
Step 1: Get the name right
When you receive a letter addressing you as ‘Dear Customer’ or ‘Dear Home Owner’, do you feel the letter is talking to you directly?
It reads like junk mail that has been sent to millions of other people, doesn’t it? If you send an editor a letter addressing her as ‘Dear Editor’ or ‘Dear Sir / Madam’, she will get the impression that not much time and effort has gone into the query, and she’d be right.
If there’s one thing all freelance writers should know, it is that your article must be targeted specifically for a particular magazine. In order for your article to fit in with the style and tone of the magazine, the editor will expect you to have read a few issues of the publication.
A query letter beginning with ‘Dear Sir’ tells the editor that you have not taken the time to research the publication. If you haven’t read the magazine, you won’t know anything about the audience. And if you don’t know who the audience is, how can the editor trust you to deliver an article that is suited to the magazine? So, if you only do one thing to make your query stand a better chance of success, get the editor’s name.
Larger publications often have different editors for different sections, and it’s important to send your query to the right person. When a features editor receives a short story, she may not have the time or inclination to forward it to the short story editor, and your query will be unread. So take some time to find out if you need to send your query to somebody other than the main editor. You can usually find all the information you need in the masthead.
If you don’t want to spend money buying every magazine you want to write for, go to a large newsagent or the library and look up the names there at leisure. Another way is to ring up the editorial office and ask the secretary.
Bear in mind that magazine personnel changes regularly, so check that the name is still valid every time you send a query letter.
Make sure you spell the editor’s name correctly. Some editors are mad about having their names spelt wrong. Besides, if you can’t get the details of her name right, why should she trust you to get the details of the article right?
It is acceptable to address the editor simply as ‘Dear John Doe’ or ‘Dear Jane Doe’ rather than ‘Dear Mr Doe’ or ‘Dear Ms Doe’. Nowadays it’s not always possible to tell someone’s gender by his or her name. In the case of women editor, it is particularly difficult to ascertain if she is a Miss, Ms or Mrs.
Step 2: Know your audience
Imagine this scenario:
You are a 35-year-old career woman. You subscribe to a lifestyle magazine called ‘Women Today’. You like the magazine because you feel that it caters for women like you. It addresses the needs of those who have to juggle between their roles as career women, wives and mothers. It offers fashion tips for your age group and good advice for busy parents. It also has an inspirational short story in each issue.
Now image this:
At the end of a busy day, after the children have gone to bed and all the dishes have been done, you open your ‘Women Today’ and look forward to a good read, only to find that the magazine is now full of beauty tips for teenage girls; news about pop bands; advice on what to do on a first date; and the short story is gone.
You would be forgiven for thinking that you’ve brought the wrong magazine, and you’d probably stop buying it from now on and look for another one to fill the void.
Driving readers away is the last thing editors want to do. That’s why most magazines stick to a tried-and-trusted formula that suits the targeted readers.
The moral of the story is that there is no point in submitting the wrong type of article ideas to editors. Your article may be beautifully written, well-researched and error free, but if it’s about teenage pregnancy then it’s not going to get printed in a magazine for the over-50s.
Likewise, article ideas about enjoying one’s life in retirement are unlikely to be accepted by editors of magazines targeted at teenagers. Your ideas must be right for the magazines you’re sending your queries to.
You should read at least two issues of the magazine to get to know the tone, style and the average length of the articles. Again, use a library or a large newsagent if you need to.
Don’t forget to look at the advertisements, which will tell you a lot about the magazine’s intended audience. An article about trendy wine bars is unlikely to be of interest to a magazine advertising stair lifts.