Avoid These 4 Query Letter Mistakes that Make You Look like an Amateur
If you’re new to freelance writing, it may surprise you to learn you don’t sell stories; you sell story ideas. All of those articles in the women’s magazine at the grocery store? They all began life as a query letter. A query letter holds the power to get an editor panting to buy your story – or to consigning your name to the “amateur” list. Here’s how to avoid the mistakes that peg you as a hobbyist instead of a pro.
1. Submitting a completed story
Except for certain types of writing like essays, you should never write a complete story and then peddle it. That’s not how freelance journalism works. If you send a completed story to an editor, they will surely recognize you as an amateur.
Instead, work up an intriguing query letter that grabs an editor’s interest. Start with a great hook, then use the rest of your brief letter to outline the basic facts you’ll cover, give an idea who you’ll interview and tell the editor why you’re the best person to write the story. That’s the formula the experts use, and it will put you solidly into the “professional” category with editors.
2. Submitting a completed story with a copyright symbol
Slapping a copyright notice on the completed story you’re shopping around screams “amateur.” Don’t do it. In the first place, see #1. In the second place, the minute you put an original thought on paper, the copyright is reserved to you. This is true whether you register the copyright or not.
I have heard of cases where editors “stole” an idea from a writer. It definitely happens. However, it’s rare. And it’s unethical. If you’re dealing with reputable editors, chances are you don’t have to worry about this. Besides, if an editor is determined to steal your idea, he or she likely won’t be deterred by your copyright symbol.
3. Refusing to reveal the details of the story
I’ve known newbie freelance writers who write query letters that are great in every way except one: they don’t give the editor enough information. You can’t write a dynamite hook – “At a cocktail party recently, a world-renowned cardiologist revealed to me a medical breakthrough that could make death from heart attack ‘elective,’ as he put it. In fact, he said, within five years it may be possible to keep human beings alive for as long as they choose to live.” – and then refuse to divulge exactly what this new technology is, how it works and the angle you plan to cover the story from. Without all that crucial information, an editor can’t possibly decide if the story is right for his or her magazine or not.
Instead, you need to use your query letter to lay out a brief but thorough outline that provides all the juicy details. You want the query’s lead to hook the editor, but then you need to deliver on the story’s promise. Don’t leave editors hanging, lest you be branded unprofessional.
You need to sell yourself in the query, no doubt. But don’t inflate your credentials or outright lie to an editor. Don’t say you’ve been published if you haven’t. Don’t claim you’re a nurse if you lost your license for some reason. If you’re a nurse, don’t claim you’re a physician.
If you have no published clips and fear this will whisper “amateur” to potential editors, relax. Everyone has to start somewhere. Many editors are willing to take a chance on a newbie who provides a dynamite query letter with a solid story idea that fits the publication’s target audience.
You don’t need to say something like, “I’ve never been published before.” Instead, focus on telling the editor why you’re the best person to write the story: “As a registered nurse, I have first-hand experience dealing with heart attack patients. I know the right questions to ask the five cardiologists I plan to interview, and I understand how to interpret the relevant studies.” Play to your strengths.
Not every query letter can be a homerun, even for the experts. But if you avoid these common mistakes, at least you will come across as a freelance professional who understands how to conduct herself appropriately during the query process.
What’s your top query question? Have you successfully pitched a story with an awesome query letter? Tell us in the comments!
Wishing you well,