How to Write a Successful Query

Last week I appeared on Scott Shafer’s radio program, The California Report, on KQED-FM, and it prompted some thoughts, curiously enough, about query letters.

What’s a query letter? A query letter is basically a short, succinct sales pitch that writers send to newspapers, magazines and websites to see if they’re interested in their idea. If they like the idea, the hope is they’ll hire you to write an article about it. For Scott and The California Report, I was pitching him about appearing on his radio program. This is what I said to him in an e-mail at the start of this year:

“Dear Scott,
How are you? It has certainly been a while since I had contact with you and your staff, but I wanted to throw my name back into the mix as a possible guest for your show. The last time I heard from your staff I was writing a book, Wheels of Change: The Amazing Story of California and the Automobile, which will be published by Heyday Books in the fall of 2009. That book took a huge amount of research and time, but I finally finished it and now I get to think about and do other things again.
The 2009 baseball season is coming up in April, and you may want to do a preseason look at the California major league teams as you have in the past. If you do, consider me as your possible go-to guy in this regard. I’m also tapped into other pro sports and activities with good California stories that may interest you. In any event, I hope all goes well. The show sounds wonderful as ever and let’s have a great 2009.”

Now, I want you to do some compare and contrast. Around this same time (actually, a while before) I sent a query to an editor at The Writer Magazine, pitching him on another type of writing I do: scriptwriting for business conventions. This is what I said:

“Dear Editor,
“Every freelance writer needs to consider business conventions as a possible market for his or her work. A number of companies in a variety of fields hold annual conventions, and many of them hire writers to script the on-stage speeches and other segments. Convention scriptwriting pays well, involves travel around the country, and is both exciting and demanding.
I have written scripts for two business conventions in Kansas City and New Orleans. In addition, I have written articles for a variety of publications and published 17 books. For this article I would draw on my experiences as a scriptwriter and interview other freelancers who have also written for conventions. I will provide details about the business convention market, how freelancers can get jobs at conventions held by Apple, Microsoft and other companies, and advice on scriptwriting. Interested? Call me at [my number], and thank you for your consideration.”

Neither query I would describe as brilliant, but which one is better? The second is professional and to the point; it tells who I am and my experience in the field; and it touches on how writers-the main audience for The Writer-would benefit by hearing about this topic. But the first query is far superior because of two simple words: “Dear Scott.”

I know Scott Shafer, I’ve been on his program before, and he’s a friendly fellow who likes baseball. That doesn’t mean he’s necessarily going to go along with my pitch, but at least I’ve got a fighting chance with him. On the other hand, I know no one at The Writer and sent my query to the “Editor.” (I sent it to the top editor there but for some reason did not use his name.) One sure sign that it had landed with a deathly thud was the nearly three months it took for an associate editor to finally get back to me. But Scott and his producer Suzie Racho, bless their hearts, remembered me, got back in touch, and Scott and I spent an entertaining few minutes on the air giving a preview of the upcoming baseball season in California. I’ll have more nuts-and-bolts advice for writers about queries and pitch letters in a future post. In the meantime you can listen to our segment here.

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