The Query Letter

The following discussion of query letters is taken from

"Query and Cover Letters." 1999 Writer's Market. Ed. Kirsten C. Holm. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest, © 1998. 6-7.

A query letter is a brief but detailed letter written to interest an editor in your manuscript. It is a tool for selling both nonfiction magazine articles and nonfiction books. With a magazine query you are attempting to interest an editor in buying your article for his periodical. A book query's job is to get an editor interested enough to ask you for either a full proposal or the entire manuscript. (Some book editors accept proposals on first contact. Refer to individual listings in the Writer's Market for contact guidelines.) Some beginners are hesitant to query, thinking an editor can more fairly judge an idea by seeing the entire manuscript. Actually, most nonfiction editors prefer to be queried.

There is no query formula that guarantees success, but there are some points to consider when you begin. Queries should:

Fiction is sometimes queried, but most fiction editors don't like to make a final decision until they see the complete manuscript. Most editors will want to see a synopsis and sample chapters for a book, or a complete short story manuscript. Consult individual listings in Writer's Market for specific fiction guidelines. If a fiction editor does request a query, briefly describe the main theme and story line, including the conflict and resolution.

The following discussion of query letters is taken from

Prues, Don. "Query Letter Clinic." 1999 Writer's Market. Ed. Kirsten C. Holm. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest, © 1998. 22-23.

You're ready to write your letter. Introduce your idea in a sentence or two that will make the editor curious, such as an interesting fact, an intriguing question, or maybe something humorous. Then state your idea in one crisp sentence to grab the editor's attention. But don't stop there. Reel in the editor with one or two paragraphs expounding upon your idea. Walk through the steps of your project and explain why you're the perfect person to write what you're proposing. List your sources, particularly if you have interviews lined up with specialists on your topic, as this will help establish the credibility of your work.

The tone of your writing is also important. Create a catchy query laden with confidence but devoid of cockiness. Include personal information only if it will help sell your piece, such as previous writing experience with the topic and relevant sample clips. And never forget a SASE. Most questions about queries revolve around whether to send simultaneous submissions. There's no clear-cut way to wisdom here. Sending simultaneous queries to multiple editors is typically okay if you inform all editors you're doing so. But beware: Some editors refuse to read simultaneous queries (Writer's Market listings indicate an editor is not receptive to them) because they want an exclusive option to accept or reject your submission. This can be a problem if these editors do not respond quickly; it leaves you hanging and keeps you from submitting to other markets. The two clear advantages to sending simultaneous queries are that

The following Ten Query Commandments is taken from

How to Write Attention-Grabbing Query & Cover Letters, by John Wood (Writer's Digest Books)

The Ten Query Commandments

Each query letter must be:
  1. Professional (includes SASE, is error-free, is addressed [by name] to the right editor, etc.).
  2. New (idea is fresh, set off, and up front).
  3. Provocative (lead pulls you in).
  4. Creative (presentation is offbeat).
  5. Focused (story is narrowed down, [query letter] length is kept to one page).
  6. Customized (slanted to that magazine).
  7. Multifaceted (offers several options on how it could be done).
  8. Realistic (instills confidence that you're reliable and the project's doable).
  9. Accredited (includes your clips, credits, and qualifications).
  10. Conclusive (confirms that you're the best and only writer to do it).