questions-inboxI love it when readers take the time to send me their questions. I encourage you to play along, as well! Email me your thorniest writing issues, and I may answer you here on the blog.

Today’s question goes hand-in-hand with my previous blog post about query letters. Jean S. writes:

“If I have an idea about an article, should I write the article first before sending a query letter? This is where I lack confidence and knowledge as to how to proceed to promote myself when I am still a fledgling writer.”

The short answer here is “no.” Except for essays, poetry and other creative non-fiction, you should never write the story before you sell it. Here’s why.

1.  Writing in advance wastes your time and costs you money.

As I keep saying, your time is money when you’re a writer. Your ROI (return on investment) for an unsold story is zero. So while you are justified spending an hour crafting a query letter in hopes of selling your story idea, you definitely are not justified spending 10 or 20 hours interviewing sources and writing up the whole shebang. Use that time to market other story ideas instead.

2.  Editors usually will not consider completed stories.

Editors barely have 90 seconds to read your query. They certainly don’t have time to drop everything and read a 1,500-word story. So they will simply hit delete.

3.  Editors often like to provide background material and sources to round out your story.

Many times when an editor assigns a story, even if it’s based on a query you sent, she will provide names of specific people she wants you to interview or specific resources she wants you to consult. If you’ve already written the story, that’s a lot of re-reporting you have to do. Again, time is money. (If you haven’t done so already, pop over and read my interview with health editor Denise Schipani for more on this point.)

In a nutshell, here is the correct sequence of events for selling reported stories to editors:

  1. Query letter
  2. Follow up after a few weeks (or sooner, if your story is timely)
  3. Follow up again
  4. Take a vacation for several weeks
  5. Follow up again
  6. Send the query elsewhere
  7. Eventually, you may get an acceptance (YAY!)
  8. Or a rejection (BOO)

The process from query-to-sale can be quite lengthy. While you’re waiting, think up new story angles and send out query letters for those.

Note, the process is quite different for writing marketing materials, public relations stuff, pharma and so on. This blog post deals with the process for freelance health journalists.

Is that all clear as mud? I thought so. Post your follow-up questions in the comment thread!

Wishing you well,