Mastering the Essential Query Letter for Writers

Outlier's The Story of SuccessI finally read the book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. As I devoured the first few chapters, I thought about my quest as a professional writer. And my impatience in the early days. I wrote about it on my personal blog back in 2009.

But reading Gladwell’s research, I realized that even in 2009, I was well on my way to achieving my goals. I simply needed to take every necessary step.

According to studies cited in Outliers, it takes an average of 10,000 hours to master anything. I figure it took approximately five years of incessant practice, posts, and projects for me to near the 10,000 hour mark. Although I haven’t mastered the art, I’m certainly much better than I was six years ago.

And one of the most critical areas of improvement comes in my creation of query letters. Let’s face it, if you can’t write a strong query, you won’t arrest the attention of any agent, editor, or publisher. Early on, I spent a lot of time studying and honing the elements of this crucial piece.

1. Research

Writer's Digest Query Letter

Image Credit with Permission Writer’s Digest
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  • Who specifically should you address your inquiry to? Name. Title.
  • Where should you send your query? Do they accept email only? Content as an attachment, or in the body of your email? Are they snail mail lovers? Do you have the correct address?
  • What are they looking for? Does your topic or slant match their needs? Have you formatted your submission according to their guidelines?
  • When are they accepting submissions, and do they have themes tied to calendars?
  • Why did you chose them? Did you read something that made you think you would connect? Are you familiar with their needs and believe your work can support them in their mission? If possible, find a common bond or at least prove you’ve studied what’s important to them.
  • How do they want queries packaged? Some prefer a simple one page letter, clearly stating your concept as it fits within their guidelines. If interested, they’ll ask for a proposal or manuscript later. Others request a proposal or manuscript at the same time you send the letter. Make sure you know what the person you are querying prefers.

2. Hook

No matter how well you’ve written your article or book content, without something to snatch the reader out of their doldrums on the average of the first seven seconds, your work will go no further. Ask that stirring question to make them think. Make a bold statement that flies in the face of an old cliché. Provide a heart-wrenching statistic, forcing them out of the skin of self. Make their belly shake with laughter.

3.  Double Check

Writer's DigestOnce you’ve written what you believe is a strong query letter, I suggest you run it through the Writer’s Digest Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter. This brief but powerful list will show you how to write a query letter in the most effective way possible. Also have someone who knows something about professional writing read it.

A family member, or even a high school English teacher, are not going to provide the insights you need when it comes to publishing in the real world. As long as it’s a short, one-time read, many professional writers are willing to do this for someone else who’s starting out. We remember those days. Just respect their time, and if one writer can’t help, try someone else.

10,000 hours sounds like forever when you are starting out as a writer. But with patient and consistent practice, this important landmark will arrive faster than you think. Start small. Master the query letter first. Then one day, you’ll have the honor of mentoring someone else.

How many hours would you estimate you’ve invested in writing so far?

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