How to Write a Query Letter to a Magazine
So, you have had a great idea about an article or a short story, and you wish to submit a proposal – or a query – to a magazine.
Before we continue to the actual top of how to write a query letter to a magazine, let’s explain some of the basics.
1. What is a query letter for a magazine?
The general definition of a query letter is: a letter (or an email in these modern digital times) sent to an editor of a magazine, an editor of a publishing house, or an agent, that contains a detailed proposal about a writing project. The writing project can be a magazine article, an interview, a short story, a novella, or a novel. The term query is mostly used for magazine publications, while the term pitch is used for nonfiction books, novellas and novels.
Query and pitch letters, both to magazines and publishing houses, are very similar. When you’re sending a query letter to an editor of a magazine or a publishing house, there are a few things you need to ensure:
- That you’re following their submission guidelines;
- That you’re addressing the letter to the right editor;
- That you’ve chosen the right magazine or publishing house;
- That you’re not overstepping the established boundaries.
The actual query letter, once you get the hang of it, is not that complicated.
What’s more important is to follow the magazine’s submission’s guidelines. For example, magazines that accept short story submissions often only ask for the story. They will have a word limit, a topic, a theme, or a genre that the story must fall into. You can submit your work online directly without a query letter.
On the other hand, some magazines will only ask for a query letter. Then there are local newspapers, periodicals, specialized magazines, national magazines, and other magazines where you want to query your idea for an interview, an article, or a column. In these cases, you will need to write a query letter.
Below, you will find steps that you can follow when writing a query letter to a magazine, as well as things you must never do if you want the magazine to publish you.
2. Work out the details of the project
Before actually writing the letter, work out the details of your project. For example, if you’ve written a short story, the details are finished and you can proceed directly to writing and submitting your letter.
If the project is still in its inception, you will want to query a magazine (more than one) before you get to writing it. However, this doesn’t mean that you will do the following:
- Write the query letter with nothing more than the idea without details;
- Explain in the letter that you will not actually write the piece if the magazine rejects the query;
- Mention, at any point, that you’re sending out queries to many magazines.
Instead, you need to show the following things:
- That you have already done the necessary preliminary research for the article;
- That the article will belong in the magazine because they have published similar articles before – but that your article will still be unique on its own;
- That the article will be interesting to the magazine’s audience.
This means that you need to do a lot of research into the topic you want to write about (or, if you’re writing an interview, the person you’re going to interview), and you also need to do research on the magazine itself – what the magazine is publishing, when they are publishing, what’s their intended audience, and so on. Then, you may proceed to the next step.
3. Find the right magazine and editor
Nothing will say “amateur” more than your query letter for an interview with a local model making its way to the editor of a local magazine that focuses mostly on agriculture. Yes, you should send your query letter to as many magazines as you can, but that doesn’t mean just any magazines.
Your article will fall into a niche and you must make sure that the magazine actually publishes content within that niche. If the magazine doesn’t publish articles within the niche, then read as many of its issues as you can. Get a feel for its content, and see if you can tailor an article that matches its content and then see if there are other magazines that publish content within the same niche.
Then, you need to find the right editor within the magazine. If the magazine has several sections that are managed by a different editor, then you need to make sure your query letter reaches the right editor within the magazine.
Next in line are their submission guidelines. There are a few things you must check:
- That the magazine is open for submissions
- What’s their response time
- What they are looking for in a submission.
The magazine might accept query letters via email, they may ask for a query letter in print form, together with the outline of the article or short story. There may be word count rules. If there are no rules about word count, you should check the length of the articles they’ve previously published, and use that word count as a guideline.
If the magazine publishes short stories, they may ask for the full story, or they may ask for a short sample, a blurb, or an outline. Most often, you will submit the short story, however, make sure to always check their submission guidelines before writing the actual query letter.
4. Write the query letter
If you follow the previous steps, the actual writing of the query letter will be easier for you. First, you will know who the letter is addressed to – because you already know the name of the editor. This gives you a good base on which to build the pitch for your article in your query letter. It’s always better to have your query letter addressed to the editor. Comparatively, writing “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” or something similar will tell the editor that you did not actually take the time to research the magazine and tailor your article to their content.
What follows would be your actual pitch. This is where working out the details of your actual project come in handy. You need to present the following things in the letter:
- What makes the idea attractive to the audience;
- Who and/or what will the article focus on;
- What have you done about it so far;
- What will you do to complete the project;
- Why the article belongs, or should be published by, the magazine;
- What will the audience learn, or feel, when reading the article;
- Who are you and why are you qualified to write the article.
Now, let’s take a look at each one.
You may not need to check all of them, but you will need to check most of the things we mentioned above.
1. The easiest way to convey why the idea would be attractive to an audience is to think about why the idea was attractive to you in the first place. Start with an interesting trivia about the topic. For example, let’s say that you want to interview an astronaut. A good start of a query letter would be:
Many people dream about being an astronaut and walk in space. Few people have actually done it. Gary Astronaut is one of them – and he is a local.
2. The example takes care of number 2: the editor already has an idea that your article will focus on Gary Astronaut, and will appeal to the readers because he is local and has been to space.
3. Then, you will provide more background information about what you want to write about. You will not write that you’ve done the research, you will show that you’ve done it. To continue from the example above:
Gary Astronaut is 36 years old. Born and raised in our Town, he completed his first mission in space at the age of 25, when he spent several months on the International Space Station.
This lets the editor know that you’ve already done the research on the person whom you’ll be writing about.
4. Th next section needs to focus on what you will actually do to complete the piece. For example:
Gary Astronaut is a charming, young man who recounts his adventures in space in a riveting fashion. As a science writer of many years, I believe I can capture his personality and charm on paper, and as such, I propose doing a complete interview with him for your “Notable Locals” section.
5. The example also takes care of why the article belongs in the magazine. The magazine is locally published and has a section that focuses on Notable Locals. Moreover, you’re appealing to the editor by promising to tell a story about a very interesting person who has done things that the readers will find interesting.
6. Now that the editor knows what the article will focus on, you need to finalize the query by elaborating more on the actual content.
The piece will run somewhere between 1000 and 1200 words. Notable questions will include: What was your motivation for becoming an astronaut? How do you cope with being away from your friends, family, from Earth, for prolonged periods of time? Has your life ever been in danger? Can you tell us a funny story about life in space?
With the above, the editor knows what the article will be about, and what the readers will learn by reading it. By this point, if the editor was interested in the topic, then by providing details about the content, you’re convincing him that you can actually deliver on your promises.
7. In the last part, introduce yourself in a quick manner. Mention previous publications, if you have any, and end the query letter with a thank you.
I’ve worked professionally as a science writer for four years, and my previous work has been published in Science Daily and several newspapers.
Thank you for considering this article. I hope to hear from you soon.
Address Line 1
Town, ST 0000
In essence, your query letter needs to be short and sweet, respectful, but without too much flattery. You should show that you’ve researched the magazine and read their articles, but you do not need to bring the moon down with flattery. Moreover, use a regular font, like Times New Roman, instead of something flashy like Comic Sans.
Make sure your query letter is condensed into a single-spaced page. You don’t need to use indentations, and you should only use italic font for the names of other magazines you’ll mention. The font should not be bigger than 12-point typeface, and you need a one-inch margin on each side if you’re sending a paper query.
Also, include your return address and contact details beneath your name, and if you’ve attached a sample of a short story or a sample of an already written article, make sure to mention that as well.
Now that you’re ready to go, let’s look at some of the things that you must never do when writing a query letter.
5. Things you should avoid doing
We’ve already mentioned some things that might make you look an amateur or ensure that the magazine rejects your proposal, and remembers you in order to reject all your future proposals. Here, we will show you more examples of things you must never do.
1. Send out the same query letter to different magazines. Your query letters need to be tailored to each magazine. Yes, you will use the same information about your project (short story, article, or other), but you need to show that you’ve done your research on the magazine as well, which will not happen if you send out a generalized query letter.
2. Compare the magazine to other magazines. For example:
I know your magazine is not Sports Illustrated or Rolling Stones, but don’t worry, I don’t mind, and I’m sure your readers will enjoy decent writing for once.
In the example, the writer comes off as arrogant, insults the magazine by comparing it to others in a negative way, and to add injury to insult, implies that the previous work published by the magazine is not even decent writing. The editor will stamp a rejection on that query letter, even if it promises the best story ever. Speaking of best story ever, never open a query letter for a short story with:
I’ve written the best story ever with the most surprising twist at the end, and I am willing to publish it at your magazine.
Again, the writer comes off as arrogant, and the editor will reject that letter without even sending back a rejection letter to the author.
3. Do not talk about money or price in your query letter. That will come later, if the magazine agrees to publish you.
4. Don’t send out queries and submissions for articles and stories longer than what it says in the submissions guidelines. You will not be the special writer whose story or article is so good that the magazine accepts the writer’s disrespect for the rules.
5. Never say that your article or story has already been rejected by other magazines.
6. Never say that you’re ready to do as many rewrites as necessary to get the piece just right. You don’t want to make the editor think that, in your experience, your writing has been so mediocre as to need a lot of work to get right.
7. Don’t ask for the magazine to give ideas for work, or people to interview, or characters to write about in a short story. You are proposing your own ideas, not asking them for work.
In conclusion, don’t be disrespectful. Always follow guidelines, and never act as if you’re doing a favor to the magazine by making your proposal.
Moreover, never promise more than you can deliver, and keep your query letter focused more on the project and the content, rather than yourself as a writer, or your opinion of your writing in general.
Have you ever written a query letter to a magazine? Please share your experiences in the comments box below!
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