How to Write a Query Letter without Dying in the Process
Writing a query letter can be painful. It can be torturous. But it’s something you have to learn to do if you want to write newsy stories like the kind that get published in glossy magazines. Here’s how to do it without killing yourself in the process.
First, Use a Template
Almost all the successful freelance journalists I know use a query template. I like Kelly James-Enger’s the best. In fact, I could just as well end this post right now and send you to read how she does it because she’s one of the best in the business.
But I want you to understand using a template isn’t only to make things easier for you. Editors also love receiving queries that follow a predictable pattern. As you develop relationships with editors (and land repeat assignments), they will expect your queries to look the same each time. That’s an advantage because it plays to the editor’s comfort level. Like any other human being, editors prefer to work with writers they’re comfortable with.
Next, Develop Your ISG Section So You Can Use It Over and Over Again
You have to sell yourself in the query letter, and many writers find this an uncomfortable proposition. They don’t want to look self-aggrandizing (good), and they generally feel immodest touting their credentials (less good). If you develop a great ISG section for your query, you can generally use it over and over again, merely tweaking it to fit the circumstances. Here’s how to do it.
Kelly refers to the “I’m so great,” or “ISG,” section of the query as “a new freelancer’s secret weapon.” It’s an especially potent paragraph for nurse writers because it’s the place you can distinguish yourself from other health writers.
The ISG section comes at the end of the query, and it’s where you sell your experience, background and writing credentials (if you have any). As a nurse-writer, you need to strike a careful balance between touting your nursing experience and conveying your ability to thoroughly report stories. Please read health editor Denise Schipani’s comments about why receiving a query letter from an RN “gives her pause.”
First and foremost, you should make sure the editor understands you know how to report a story. You can do this by citing the sources you consulted to formulate your query or offering a list of people you intend to interview. Try to be clear you will keep an open mind and a broad perspective.
Once you have established your reporting chops, try to relate your nursing experience to the story you’re selling. Perhaps the story will rely heavily on medical research. In that case, note how your evidence-based practice relies on your ability to accurately interpret studies. Or maybe the story deals with new technology for delivering oxygen to premature infants, and you worked for a decade in the NICU. An editor may want to know that.
Dedicate Yourself to Repetition
I, myself, find writing query letters painful. It’s one of the reasons I don’t work too much on the journalism side of the fence anymore. Pitching stories is hard work.
You know what makes it easier? Repetition. The more queries you write, the easier the task becomes. I strongly recommend you set a goal to write TK* number of queries each day, just to get the necessary practice. Your first queries will stink, and you probably won’t sell the story. But they will get stronger over time, and the first time an editor says, “I like this idea. Here’s a contract,” you’ll be hooked on querying.
And that, my friends, is how to write a query letter without feeling the need to commit hara-kiri in the process. Do you find querying difficult? Share your struggles and triumphs in the comments.
*TK = “to come” (to be determined later) in journo lingo.
Wishing you well,