Query Writing Mistakes to Avoid

Query Writing Mistakes to Avoid

You know that you’re not supposed to start your letters with “Dear Editor,” need to follow proper formatting protocol, and should always send your queries to the correct person, right? You’ve no doubt also mastered the art of kicking out embarrassing grammar goof-ups, know more about your word processing software than you do about your fiancé, and have learnt the dangers of the begging routine (also known as the my-mom-thinks-it’s-fantabulous syndrome).

Why then, do most of your neatly-crafted, SASE-containing queries come boomeranging back? Maybe you’re making the mistakes no one’s telling you about. Here’s a rundown.

Not Moving Beyond the Bible

Writer’s Market is pretty much the most referred-to book in the history of writing. Yet, it’s probably the most incorrect. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I don’t like WM. The fact is I do. I religiously run over (okay, log on to) the bookstore every year and pay $35 plus an obnoxious $30 in shipping to get the darn thing, all-inclusive with its online version. Converted to my Indian rupees that’s almost a month’s rent, and converted to normal, non-writer, Indian standards, some would consider me a freak. I then read every inch of every chapter, earmark every second page, and underline every e-mail address until I’m positive I haven’t missed a single entry.

Yet, I know from my own experience, coupled with the experience of others that while a fantastic resource worth investing in, you can’t afford to make it your only resource. I learned this the hard way, when I finally came up with what I thought would be my breaking-in idea for Family Circle. I’d almost given up on them, so this time I decided to contact another editor who might be a little more receptive to my pearls of wisdom. But when I logged on, I found that– surprise– Family Circle was no longer accepting submissions. Darn, just when I almost had them!

Two months later, I logged on to a writing message board to get another unwelcome shock. WritersMarket.com was incorrect. Turns out, Family Circle never did stop accepting submissions. They were happily looking at queries, which would turn into $1- per-word articles, while mine lay in a 1-cent-per-word editor’s inbox somewhere in cyberspace. I was not pleased.

Now, I adopt a smarter route. I find the name of the markets that I’ve never heard of from Writer’s Market and look up their guidelines by searching online or checking out the market resources mentioned in Chapter 3. WM is in no way current; the listings are at least a couple of months old, and in publishing, many editors just don’t last that long. They get promoted, fired, retired– any possible scenario. You need to be up-to-date in this business. So don’t make a fool of yourself by relying on an outdated listing and addressing your query to the wrong editor.

Putting Too Much on Offer

Many of us are so desperate when we’re starting out, we’ll promise the world for a non-paid byline in a local newspaper with a circulation of fifty. I’ve been guilty of over-hyping my queries, too. One of my first queries to Woman’s Day (via e-mail, no less) promised a brilliant new twist on cancer prevention.

Foolish, I know.

I researched online, located some high-profile experts, and sent off my neatly crafted query with the promise of interviewing a prominent author (who never responded to my four e-mails), tips that had never been featured in the magazine before (I’d never laid eyes on the magazine), and quotes from real people who’d used these techniques. Okay, you can laugh now.

Boy, was I glad that query never pulled through.

The first sign of danger is when you’re extremely anxious and praying that the assignment doesn’t come your way rather than the other way around. But more importantly, here’s why mine didn’t: the editor probably knew right away that I was new to the game. I had no similar clips, no major publications in my resume and yet, here I was proposing not only a tough article, but one with all the bells and whistles. Ambitious, maybe. But I wasn’t giving any evidence that I was actually equipped to be handling such a well-researched idea. The editor was wise. She never responded.

That’s not to say that I’m unprofessional. If that editor had taken her chances, she’d have gotten an impeccable article with quotes and tips on her desk at 9:00 a.m. sharp two days before deadline, even if I had to travel to the other end of the world to get them. But she had no reason to believe that just based on my query letter.

Editors know how to distinguish hype from fact. If she’s working in a health magazine, there’s no way you’re going to give her health advice she hasn’t heard before. If you’ve just received a press release on the best foods to be eating to prevent cancer, she probably got it a week before you did. Keep the over-sell out. Pitch your topic and your idea, but don’t promise the world. You sure as heck can’t deliver it.

Making it a Grocery List

Being enthusiastic and having a notebook full of wonderful ideas is one thing. Irritating the crap out of an editor by sending her a laundry list of thirty is quite another. While you may think that you’re giving the editor a good choice of articles that she can file away for later use, she’s probably thinking that you have no clue which ideas will fit into her publication. While you may be happily assuming that she’s going to think that you’re capable of coming up with not just one, but many, many good ideas, she’s probably wondering, “Why is this writer wasting my time?”

Not good.

In fact, even if an editor does like most of your ideas, chances are, she can’t assign all of them right away. She’ll probably pick her favorite, reject the rest and send them back to you. The next time you’re querying, you’ll need to come up with more ideas because you don’t know whether she rejected them because she didn’t like them or because she couldn’t afford to buy them. What a waste of effort!
I advocate sending one, maximum two ideas at a time. Exceptions to this rule however, would be when the editor has requested that you send her a list or if you have a regular working relationship with her.

Unless you’ve worked with someone before, they have no way of knowing whether you’re really capable of writing the article, or you’ve just bought a freelance writing book and copied query formats from that. Sure, you have some good ideas, and yes, you’ve even managed to write two coherent paragraphs. But will you stick to the deadline? Will you provide references and phone numbers for the fact-checker? How much editing will your piece need? An editor might take a chance on a new writer with one assignment, but she’s unlikely to give you another one until you’ve proven beyond doubt that you’ll be an asset and not a pain in the ass-et.

Not Following Up

It isn’t enough that we get rejected a gazillion times before an acceptance, write and rewrite articles and essays to perfection, deal with the loneliness of the profession, and work with editors who can’t string a straight sentence together. But now we have to send e-mail after e-mail to stingy editors to remind them of our queries when they don’t have the decency to send a simple “No, thank you”? Why should you be bothered?

Because you’re the one trying to make the sale.

Sorry, but that’s just the way it works. You’re providing a service, you’re trying to make a sale, so you’re the one who needs to follow-up. If it increases the chances of making a sale by even 0.5%, do you really want to miss out?

I’ve received word on a number of queries simply by e-mailing and asking their status. I’d rather have the satisfaction of knowing whether my proposal is in or out. Even if it’s a rejection, at least I know. Or it might actually bring a quicker acceptance. Just yesterday, I wrote to an editor asking him about the status of my piece. Within minutes, I had a response. They wanted to buy it.

Would this editor have written to me had I not e-mailed? Yes, probably. Maybe that’s the reason it took so long in the first place– they were pushing it through the senior editors. But by being proactive, I knew right away. Had the editor rejected it, I could have sent it off to a competing publication, guilt-free.

Maybe the editor just misplaced your letter or lost your e-mail in transit and has no way of contacting you. By following up, you’ll get another shot at acceptance. It takes a minute to do, so just why wouldn’t you do it?

Not Making it Personal

In my first year of freelancing, my querying habits went a little like this: send a query, do the assignment, query another magazine, do the assignment, and so on. When the assignment for the first magazine would be finished I’d neatly wrap it up, complete with thank you notes and meticulous records, and then concentrate on the next assignments I had in line. Next time an idea struck for the same magazine, I’d query them again.

But in my first year of freelancing, while I did write over a hundred articles, I also lost out on getting personal with my editors and in turn, commanding more assignments. Once you finish an assignment for an editor, you stand double the chance of landing another one immediately. Since I’d keep on waiting for another hot idea to strike, I was beginning each new assignment on a fresh note. Too much time would be gone by and I would then have to re-build each relationship, re-create the trust, and re-negotiate each contract. I was getting frustrated.

Had I chucked that “an editor’s the boss” advice right down the drain where it belonged, I’d be getting more assignments with less effort. Now, I finish each assignment with an informal, “Great working with you! Is there anything else you might need for upcoming issues?” or I’ll just send another query. Every time I get my contributor’s copies, I’ll write to the editor to thank her for sending them and quickly mention something like, “I really enjoyed the piece on studying techniques. Here’s another idea that might work well in that section.”

This way, my name is constantly in front of the editor, and the next time I send a query, I won’t have to remind her that I’m the writer who wrote the cover story last year. She’ll already know.


Mridu Khullar is a full-time freelance writer from New Delhi, India and has written for almost 70 publications, recently including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Writer’s Digest, Women’s Health & Fitness, Girls’ Life, Wedding Dresses and ePregnancy. Visit her at http://www.MriduKhullar.com


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