Which comes first, a “query” or an article? You could wait 6-8 weeks for a response to a query; why not devote that time to writing an article, and submitting the completed article instead of a query? I don’t understand the benefit of waiting so long for a nonbinding indication of interest — or perhaps I don’t understand the purpose of a query.
When trying to make this decision, it may help to remember that “query vs. article” isn’t so much a question of what you should write first, but how to best market what you write. In some cases, writing the article first may be your best choice, either because you risk losing enthusiasm for the idea if you wait, or because you aren’t sure exactly how the piece will turn out.
Even if you do write the article first, however, that doesn’t mean that you should ignore the query process. Think of the article as your product — and a query letter as the marketing tool that will help you sell that product. Simply put, a qury letter is a sales pitch for your article.
Aspects of a Quality Query
To be an effective sales tool, a query should contain the following information:
- A “hook” — perhaps the opening sentence or two of your article — to grab the editor’s attention and indicate why the article would appeal to the publication’s readership.
- A concise summary of the article. I usually provide a title, then four or five bulleted point. Don’t tease; give enough information to help an editor determine what the piece will be about (and to prove that you know what you’re talking about).
- An indication of why the article is appropriate for this particular audience. (Avoid phrases like “Your readers will love this story;” be specific about audience benefits.)
- Your qualifications for writing the article — e.g., credentials, education, writing experience, personal experience, etc. If you don’t have any writing experience, don’t say so; instead, describe some other qualification that will demonstrate your knowledge of the subject.
- A suggested word count and delivery date (e.g., 30 days after receiving the assignment).
- Needless to say, it’s also essential to make your query look as neat and professional as possible; typos in a query are the kiss of death (as are cliches!). Keep it to one page if possible, and don’t forget the SASE.
Reasons For Sending a Pitch
But if you’ve already written the article, you may ask, why bother sending an advance sales pitch? Why not let the article “sell itself”?
There are several reasons:
- Most editors prefer queries — so why not give them what they want? From a query, an editor should be able to learn the following things without having to wade through a 10-page article:
- Whether the material is appropriate for the magazine. Does it address a relevant topic, from an angle or slant tailored to the magazine’s audience? Does it sound interesting or useful? (Nine out of ten queries don’t; similarly, nine out of ten articles aren’t. The folks who wrote the queries, however, saved themselves, and their editors, a lot of time.)
- Whether the topic has been covered recently or is in the works. This is a key reason for writing queries: You don’t know what articles the editor has on hand or has contracted for. Why waste weeks writing an article just to discover that someone else had a similar idea first? (And no, this doesn’t mean that editors read queries and then rush to assign “your” ideas to “their” writers.)
- Whether you are capable of presenting a well-developed, well-written proposal, and by extension, a well-written article. A query helps an editor assess a writer’s abilities quickly. Besides issues of grammar and professionalism, an editor will also look at tone and style, so polish your query as you would a finished article.
- Whether you have the qualifications to write the piece. Some magazines won’t accept technical articles from nonprofessionals. Others are willing to work with writers who can interview professionals. Use your query to develop a convincing argument as to why you should be given this assignment.
- Many publications now accept queries only, due to the time and cost involved in reading unsolicited submissions. Consequently, a query may be the only way to be considered at all.
- Many publications pay more for assigned articles than for unsolicited articles. Thus, while you might be able to sell the piece “cold,” you might also be able to get more for it if you query first.
- Queries save you time and effort. Compare the amount of time involved in researching and writing an article to the amount of time required to write a query. Can you seriously afford to spare valuable writing time on material that may not sell — especially when research is involved?
The Question of Commitment
Chances are that even if you receive a positive response, it will be “nonbinding” — e.g., “go ahead on speculation.” Is that worth waiting for?
Yes. Although “on spec” isn’t a promise, it is a commitment on the part of an editor to give your article careful consideration. Most editors won’t give such an assignment unless seriously interested — and though we’ve all heard horror stories, most won’t reject an on-spec piece unless it is seriously flawed.
Those flaws, however, are the reason for on-spec assignments. Every editor has been burned at one time or another by a writer who made glowing promises but didn’t deliver. New writers, therefore, are rarely given “firm” assignments. Instead, they are given an opportunity, on speculation, to prove that they can deliver well-crafted material.
If you can prove this, you’re well on your way to “real” assignments. Better yet, editors may start calling you with their own ideas. You’ll also need to spend less time on queries to editors who know your work; you don’t have to dazzle them with your style or your credentials, but can simply pitch a brief summary of your article idea. (Such as: “How about an article on the basics of query letters?”) But don’t try this in the beginning!
Unless a magazine’s listing says e-mail queries are OK, don’t use this method to approach an editor for the first time. Instead, wait until you have a relationship (or permission) before e-mailing queries or submissions.
Ten years ago, it was much easier to approach the market with an unsolicited manuscript. Today, queries have become an industry standard; they are expected of the professional writer. Rather than viewing queries as a time-consuming “middle step” between writing and selling, think of them as a tool that will help open doors to your writing — doors that might otherwise remain firmly closed.
Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com (http://www.writing-world.com) and the author of more than
300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a
a Freelance Writer and The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals.