The ONE QuestionRecently I was coaching a mentee on query letters. She has a dynamite article idea and found a great potential outlet for it. So far, so good.

Getting from great article idea to query letter isn’t always a smooth transition, though. How do you know what to include in your query—and what to cut? How much detail is too much detail? Most important, how much background information like statistics and stuff should you include (if any)?

A query letter is not what you may think it is

In working with my mentee, I discovered she wasn’t clear about what a query letter actually is. She understood she should use the query to convey the article idea and list the experts she expected to interview, but she forgot a query letter—at its core—is a sales piece.

That’s right: the purpose of a query letter is to sell the editor on your article idea and on you as the writer. Every query you send out must fulfill these two core purposes, or else you’ll be destined for rejection after rejection.

The ONE question every query letter must answer

As I spoke with my mentee on the phone, she asked a very sensible question: “In doing my preliminary research for the article, I took note of a lot of statistics. Should I include these in my query or not?”

My answer to her was this: “Everything you include in your query should answer one question: ‘So what?’”

Every time an editor reads a query, the “so what?” question is top-of-mind.

“Over 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with hypochondriasis each day.” So what?

“New research shows eating yak oil every day can reduce cholesterol.” So what?

“Every 10 minutes, a baby is born with a hidden vision problem that could develop into blindness during the first three months of life.” So what?

Always state how your information is relevant

When you read the above examples, you may feel the answer to “so what?” is self-evident in each statement. Who wouldn’t care that a hidden vision problem could blind babies, right?

But remember, you have to address the target audience. Sixty year old men reading a fly fishing magazine may, on a social The best freelancers excel at makingconsciousness level, care about blind babies. But they don’t care about this in the context of their magazine experience.

The best freelancers excel at making clear to the editor how their story idea is relevant to the publication’s readers. If you can master this skill, you’ll be able to write many successful queries.

You could turn the examples above from “so what?” queries into compelling statements that demonstrate relevance and make an editor want to know more:

“Over 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with hypochondriasis each day, which the Department of Tomfoolery estimates costs taxpayers $1 billion a year. A group of PTO moms in Poughkeepsie has developed a $5 home test for hypochondriasis that will reduce this burden on the healthcare system.” Really? That’s kind of interesting, considering our target demographic includes lots of PTO moms. Tell me more.

“New research shows eating yak oil every day can reduce cholesterol. But can a single study of eight people in Tibet be trusted, or is yak oil poised to become yet another expensive—but ineffective–‘cure du jour’ that exploits people who practice naturopathy?” This is great. We publish naturopathic news all the time. We could perform a nice service by informing our readers about this.

“Every 10 minutes, a baby is born with a hidden vision problem that could develop into blindness during the first three months of life. Now a researcher with Blahblahblah University has developed a non-invasive home test parents can use on a weekly basis to keep close tabs on their infant’s sight.” Really? Wow! What mom or dad who reads our parenting magazine wouldn’t want to know about that??

Read your query letters with one question in mind: So what? If you can answer that unspoken question with nearly every sentence, then you’ve written a very tight query that you can be proud to send!

Any query tips you can share with others? Put ‘em in the comments!

Wishing you well,