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Columns by Linda  Formichelli:

Self-Promotion with Emotion

Obedience School

Momma Always Said

Sweet Talk



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For more detailed information on how to write a query letter, check out Queries and Submissions by Thomas Clark (Writer's Digest Books).

Publish or Piss Off: Query Letters

As an IP, you've got so much to do that your bed -- and all the sleeping you used to do in it -- is more of a memory than a piece of furniture. So you'll probably want to kill me (or at least leave a bag of flaming dog-doo on my doorstep) when I tell you that you should add writing magazine articles to your to-do list.

Why on earth should you spend your valuable time writing articles (I mean, if you're not a professional writer)? Because doing so will make you an expert in your field; will put your name in front of your target market; will give you something cool to send your prospects; and may even make you some dough, to boot. Many magazines will run a bio with your articles so that you can plug your business, and some will even pay you for your words.

But here's the reality check: unless your name rhymes with Pinda Mormichelli, you can't write an article and expect editors to slobber at your feet, thankful for the chance to publish your genius. You have to write what's known in writers' circles as a query letter: a proposal that outlines what you plan to write, how you plan to write it, and why you're the perfect writer for the job. Here's how.

Choose Your Topic

Unfortunately, "My Business: How Great It Is" doesn't make for an editor-enticing article topic. "Too many writers send me a mini-commercial for their own business, book, seminar, or cause," gripes Brenda Follmer, editorial manager of Money Maker's Monthly magazine and the Direct Sales Journal. "My publisher won't let me print that. I need industry-related news or practical business advice."

What can you write about if not your own business?

  • If you're an IP business or life coach, how about hitting up the women's mags with a query on new ways to simplify your life? Or the parenting mags on how to keep your child's room clean? Or the business mags on how to deal with office chaos?

  • A graphic designer can query business magazines on how to save on print costs or how to work with freelance designers.

  • A personal trainer can aim at the fitness mags with articles on how to fight aging through exercise or how to motivate yourself to hit the gym.

Get the idea?

Choose Your Target

If you work only with Atlanta-area clients, there's no point in aiming for Rhode Island Monthly. You want your work to appear in the magazines your target market reads.

And how can you get your hands on these mags without being named Publisher's Clearinghouse Sucker of the Year? Here's my secret: go to Borders, gather a giant pile of promising-looking magazines, order a double latte, and flip through the magazines in the café until the counter staff throws you out. While you're there, you can pick up (or read) a copy of Writer's Market, an annual directory of hundreds of magazines that includes information on each magazine's mission, audience, circulation, editorial contact, pay rate, and so on. (A caveat -- by the time the book hits the stores, it's already out of date. Be sure to call each magazine to get the name of the current editor.)

Grab Them

By "grab them," you may think I mean to grab editors by the neck and throttle them until they agree to print your work. But what I really mean is to grab them with your opening paragraph. "An attention-getting headline for an article attracts attention, as do statistics and a query with a 'twist' -- a unique way of presenting a topic that has been previously covered," says Kim Lisi, managing editor of HOMEBusiness Journal.

Here's the opening I recently used to sell an article to Redbook:

When it comes to sexual desire, stamina, performance, and enjoyment, the food you put in your body can be even more important than the sexy lingerie you put on it.

In "The Orgasm Diet," I'll talk with nutritionists and dieticians -- including Dana Reed, nutrition director for Vitamins.com; Gail Frank, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association; and Susun Weed, a renowned herbalist and nutritionist -- to tell your readers how to spice up their love lives with fifteen surprising food tips.

Who wouldn't want to keep reading? Admit it -- you want to know more.

Make It Clear

Follow up your sensational lead with a detailed, concrete explanation of what you plan to write. "The biggest problem [in queries I receive] is vagueness and generality in writing," says Karen Spaeder, managing editor for Business Start-Ups. "Readers should get hands-on, step-by-step start-up advice that will spark ideas and help them in their businesses. They shouldn't finish an article and think, 'Well, duh.'" Bullet points work wonders for this part of the query.

Build Yourself Up

Even if your topic blinds the editor with its searing perfection, you still need to convince her that you're the perfect one to write it. A short paragraph demonstrating your knowledge of the topic will show the editor that you da man (or da woman).

If you've written for magazines before, enclose a couple of clips (that's writerspeak for "photocopies of the articles") with the query. If you've never written a magazine article, on the other hand, keep it to yourself. "The writer's credentials, while important, are not what land the writer a contract with Business Start-Ups," says Spaeder. "Impress me with your writing style, your thoughtfulness, your ability to write to our audience, and your ability to research any given topic (even if it's unknown territory) -- not your stack of clips or your professional qualifications."

Let It All Hang Out

Short is good for jockeys, but not for presidential candidates, porn stars, or IPs trying to sell an article -- no matter how many writing books tell you otherwise. For more than two years, I was hitting the top women's mags over and over again with one-page queries like a good little girl. Then an editor called and said she preferred to see more research. The result: a two-page query letter that landed me an assignment with Woman's Day, a magazine with a circulation of six million. Since then, longer queries have gotten me assignments with Redbook, Family Circle, Zillions, and Writer's Digest. So if you have pertinent research to add, don't be afraid to let the text run onto a second page.

Spell It Rite

Let a typo slip by your work-weary eyes, and you can kiss your article good-bye. The query is a showcase of your writing style and professionalism, so it must be perfect. Run the letter through the spell checker, then print it out and examine it until your eyes bleed. Then give it to someone else and let him examine it until his eyes bleed. (N.B. If your eyes actually bleed, discontinue proofreading and consult a physician.)

Give It Time

The convention for queries is to include a self-addressed stamped envelope for the reply -- though in my experience, SASEs are used mainly for rejections, as editors who want to assign you an article will call or email.

Most magazines reply so slowly they make the Pony Express look like FedEx. Give them maybe a week longer than the response time listed in Writer's Digest and then follow up with another letter, an email, or a polite phone call.

Follow these tips and don't be surprised if you end up as one of the venerable writers for such top-notch magazines as 1099. But don't think that now you can become reacquainted with your bed -- you still have to actually write the article, which will be the topic of a future column.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Linda Formichelli if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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