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The beauty of nonfiction writing is that you can sell your article, or at least generate interest in it before you even begin writing. In fact, most professional writers do not begin writing until they receive an assignment or an expression of interest from an editor. The vehicle they use for this is called the query letter.
A query letter has two distinct purposes. First, it is intended to sell the article idea and, secondly, it is to sell you as the one to write the article. So, you need to make the idea appealing and demonstrate your own writing ability.
Writing the query letter is relatively simple. Now, don’t let the word “letter” fool you. This is not your typical business letter. The query letter is more of a proposal with a salutation.
When I write a query letter I follow a strict format. That format has five sections. (Form 4-1) Each section is usually one paragraph long. Let’s take a closer look at each part of the query letter.
The Lead. Your first paragraph should sell the editor on your writing ability. Most importantly it should sell her or him on your ability to engage a reader’s attention. I use the lead I plan using in my article. So, when I was trying to sell an article on shyness, I used the following lead for my query and for my story:
Sarah was always shy even as a child. But when she became an adult the shyness became more intense. She became a virtual prisoner in her own home. She could barely speak to anyone. When she had to she avoided eye contact, spoke only a few words, and got away as soon as possible. Sarah’s problem, though extreme is not unique. More than four out of 10 Americans consider themselves shy in general, and a whopping 93 percent of us say we are shy in at least one social situation.
The Proposal Statement. For me this is a two-sentence paragraph which has as its purpose to propose the article and to give a one line description of its theme. The first line always has the same structure: “I would like to propose an article for (Magazine Name) of about _________ words, tentatively titled ________.” The next sentence is a one sentence description of the purpose of the article. So, my shyness query went this way:
I would like to propose an article for American Way Magazine of about 2000-2500 words tentatively titled “Don’t be Shy.” This article would focus on the problem of shyness and give the reader helpful tips in dealing with their own timidity.
Prose Outline. In this section I simply list the main points I plan to cover in the article. I might do this in a single paragraph for with a bulleted list. Either way works. The main thing here is to give the editor an idea of what you plan to cover, plus tantalize her or him with some interesting points. Again the shyness query provides a good example.
This article will explore the extent of the problem and some of the liabilities of dealing with shyness. It will look at why shyness counselors prefer to speak of models of shyness rather than causes. The article will look at how physical anxiety, negative self talk, and lack of social skills all contribute to the problem. Finally, the article will provide tips from the experts on overcoming shyness.
Credits. (Optional) If you have any credits you could list them here. Credits would include publishing credits as well as educational background, occupation or anything which might help sell the editor on you being able to handle the assignment. However, if you are just starting out, just skip this step. Here’s what I did for the shyness piece:
By way of introduction, I have a masters in Speech communication and have written a number of articles for a variety of magazines including Pentecostal Evangel, Youth Leader, Business Times, Woman’s World and Christian Home among others.
Closing Statement. Personally, I use the same closing statement in every query letter. For me it goes like this: “If you would be interested in seeing an article on this topic, I could provide the finished manuscript within ___ weeks of your reply.” I give myself a week longer than I think it will take to research and write the article. This statement is more positive, than “Can I send the article?” It implies more confidence without sounding arrogant.