Strategies For Improving Query Letters

Successful query letters are the lifeblood of the freelance writing business. Here's some advice for improving your proposals.

Successful query letters are the lifeblood of the freelance writing business. If you can't compose an above average query letter, then your chances of regular publication are slim to none. Even experienced freelancers must master the art of writing a top-notch proposal letter that can catch the attention of an over-worked and under-loved editor. Never forget, this is the guy (or gal) who sifts through hundreds such letters each and every work day. The big question is how to make your letter jump out from the rabble.

The most challenging aspect of any query letter is the lead paragraph. If you have a great opening right off the bat, that's terrific. But, what if you don't? What if the words you've strung together are just plain...blah. It may not be a bad paragraph, but it screams I AM AVERAGE. One way I've found to combat this problem is to prepare three very different lead paragraphs. Don't just change a word or two, create three separate concepts.

Here are examples of three possible leads I did for a jump rope article:

If I asked you what the phrases, red hot peppers, frog kick out and buddy bounce, all have in common, would you be stumped? Not to worry...most people are! They're all significant terms in the world of jumping rope. Not many people know it, but skipping rope has come a long way in the past thirty years. There are jump rope leagues, associations and international competitions, not to mention, Jump Rope For Heart.

In an age of Nintendo, expensive three-wheelers and Power Rangers it's nice to know a few simple pleasures are still poplar with the young. Skipping rope is one good example. Not many people realize it, but skipping rope has come into it's own over the past thirty years. I'll bet you didn't know there are jump rope leagues, associations and competitions both national and international. To all of you who haven't heard the expression "double dutch" since your playground days, stick around!

So, who exactly are the Herndon Hoppers, San Diego Sand Skippers and the Juneau Jumpers? Why couldn't you guess...rope skipping teams of course! Young people are jumping rope for fun, fitness, fellowship and competition. The sport has become so popular it's international with teams in Europe and Australia. They hold regular competitions, skipping camps and workshops thus proving jumping rope has come a long way in the past thirty years. You can even watch jumping rope on the sports channel ESPN. Stick around, we'll take a hop, skip and jump into the new world of jumping rope.

Yes, I hear you complaining, it's extra work, but keep in mind this particular paragraph is the most important thing on the page. Similar to an actor's audition, you may only get one chance to show off your stuff, so make it your absolute best effort. If it brings you an assignment along with a paycheck of $500, isn't it worth an extra hour or two of preparation?

After I've polished my three paragraphs, I let my husband and chief proof-reader take a look at them, but you can ask anyone, sister, friend or neighbor. With any luck, one of the paragraphs will stand out as the best of the bunch. If that fails, I usually put the material aside for several days and then re-read them with a fresh perspective. By that time, I can usually select the best lead of the three.

Try pulling out a batch of your old queries. Do you see a noticeable pattern in your leads? For example, are most anecdotal, or most quote-filled? If so, maybe you're stuck in a rut. Comfortable rut though it may be, challenge yourself to try new and different methods. If you're never written a lead utilizing statistics, give it a try. Or, if quotes make you nervous, be brave, dial the phone and pull out those quotation marks. An outstanding query letter goes beyond excellent writing, it must truly seduce and leave the editor wanting more.

Who among us hasn't found themselves in that euphoric state, just after completing the most stupendous query letter of all time. The paper literally seems to glow with perfection. That voice in your head reassures you this will be your big break. It's that period when you've convinced yourself editors will be fighting each other for your article and the paycheck will have four digits, before the decimal point.

Whoaaa horses. It's an unfortuate fact of the writing life, we fall madly in love with our efforts, including queries. How can you combat this common ailment? For one thing, recognizing the phenomenon is a good start. Although it's not easy, try to hang on to whatever objectivity you can summon. For years, I didn't realize this insanity when it hit me. Oblivious, I sent out query after query with such unrealistic high hopes only to be devastated when the mail arrived. If only I had the money back from all those stamps (this was before the general use of e-queries) I could take a trip to Europe!

Good as it is, remember it's not as if you just discovered the dead sea scrolls. Over the course of your writing life you'll write hundreds, maybe thousands of queries, some great, some good and some otherwise. Ease yourself back to reality and think about your next project. If the query hits the mark, terrific, if not keep trying.

Query letters, like good, solid ideas sometimes have a time frame all their own. I once gathered all my homemade dog biscuit recipes together for a possible article. I started a file and jotted a few notes, but what was missing was the most vital aspect, my slant or angle. Should I pitch it to pet-lovers, kids, or homemakers who like to bake? After three days of messing around with so-so ideas for the query, the thing just would not come together. The time for this particular idea wasn't right. Discouraged, I put the file away, cursing the lost time and my inability to compose something decent.

Four weeks (and many queries later), I was rummaging through my file cabinet when I saw the dog biscuit file. It hit me all of the sudden, a lead paragraph and a marketable slant. I set to work right away, pitched the idea and sold it very soon afterward. The point is, there are times when you cannot rush an idea and/or query. I believe the concept and the query needed time to mull around in my subconscious. Perhaps it was there all along, but I wasn't in the proper frame of mind to handle the task.

The trick is knowing when to set the idea and query aside to simmer. Even though you can feel strongly about an idea that doesn't necessarily mean the query is just waiting to leap out of your brain. Don't panic and pitch the query as unworkable, maybe it just needs more cooking time. Make a note in your schedule to try again in two weeks time.

It once took me four years to sell a personal experience piece. I firmly believed in the concept and every so often I pulled it out and tried again. I sent it to some magazines three times in as many years! Looking back, I realize I re-wrote the query letter twelve different ways, but in the end I saw my story in print and received a check.

Another method I sometimes use for testing queries is my "query weeder." I gave it that name because it is intended to weed out the average queries and help me to improve my chances of a sale. It is actually a set of questions I have on a separate sheet of paper, tucked away in a special file. When in doubt about a query letter I get out my "weeder" file. Here are my questions:

1. Can this query be readily categorized such as how-to, profile, round-up, etc.?

2. Can I explain the angle or hook in one concise sentence?

3. Do I have a good answer to the question why now?

4. Why would the editor pick this particular query from the pile?

5. Do I have a clear understanding of my potential audience for this idea?

The toughest part about these questions is your own ability to be honest. Can you really be truthful with your anwers, especially to question number four? We all feel our queries are the best in the world, but truthfully, some are bound to be better than others. If your gut feeling says it's a dud, then it probably is. You can also think of it this way, if you can't adequately critique yourself, editors out there will do it for you in the form of rejection letters which begin: DEAR WRITER.

Selling your writing with a one page proposal letter is an efficient, cost effective way to make money freelance writing. The process works well for both editor and writer. Just like a carpenter must have his tools, you have your well-crafted queries. Whether or not the carpenter gets to build a house or you get to write articles depends on timing, a bit of luck and your ability to compose a query letter.

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