You Wouldn't Want to Publish This Article, Would You?
by Allen Cox
Have you ever sent a query letter proposing an article to a magazine or newspaper editor, and waited for a response, and waited, and waited? A month passes, then two. Ever wonder why a response never came?
If so, try to step into the skin of the editor who opened and read your e-mail after opening a dozen other e-mails that day, all of them queries from writers whose work she doesn't know. And only one of those queries grabbed her attention. But it's late, and all she can think about is picking up her kids from soccer practice, throwing dinner together, pouring a glass of wine, and settling in to edit a few articles for the next issue. She'll get to the query responses tomorrow. Good intentions. But tomorrow it starts all over again with an inbox full of new queries, an editorial meeting, an assistant who called in sick, and…
Well, you get the picture.
Now that you're in the skin of that editor, read the opening line or two of your query. Did it call out to you? Did it invite you along on a journey? Did it leap off the page, sweep you up in its arms and carry you away? Do you want to read more of what the writer has to say?
Your Story Does Not Meet Our Editorial Needs at This Time
If you have any experience sending queries, chances are you've received a reply in the form of a Xeroxed slip, copied so many times that it's askew in its margins, offering the ultimate in vagueness: "Your story does not meet our editorial needs at this time."
The brush-off? Most certainly. But it doesn't necessarily mean that you've written a bad pitch or targeted the wrong publication.
You don't know what it means. Maybe the publication's editorial calendar is full for the next two years, or perhaps they just accepted a story on the same topic from another writer. You can second-guess a form rejection slip or a non-responsive editor all day, but you'll never know the reason. You can only control what happens up to the point that you hit the send key or drop the query letter in the mailbox. After that, forces that writers can only imagine rule the universe.
Even well-known, widely published writers with a list of credits to envy still receive rejections. If you've done all your homework and know that your pitch is well-written and well-targeted, but an editor doesn't go for it, it's no cause for despair. You must persevere. Your story just might be what another editor has been searching for.
Have You Actually Ever Read Our Publication?
The most eye-opening reply I ever received from an editor inquired whether I'd actually read a copy of their publication. When the pain subsided, I realized that the editor's question was not an insult, but valuable feedback. I had missed the mark, and by a long shot. I was not in tune with their editorial needs, or the publication's tone or style, or something. I un-crumpled the editor's reply, took a deep breath, and thought back. Of course I had read the submission guidelines. I even glanced at a few excerpts of articles posted on their web site. But did I actually get my hands on copies of the magazine and read the stories they published?
Researching the right markets for your article is a crucial step in selling your work. But this aspect of the sales process doesn't have to be miserable drudgery—it can be as simple as heading to a well-stocked newsstand and spending a few hours browsing the publications.
Not only must your pitch reflect the tone and style of your finished article, but both your pitch and finished article must align with the tone and style of the publication you are targeting. Even editors whose Writer's Guidelines state, "Surprise us. We won't know what we like until we see it," tend to have preferences in theme and an author's point of view.
Before you construct the first sentence of your query letter, you need to have a basic sense of the tone and style of the finished story (assuming you haven't written it yet). There is no need to over-analyze this aspect of writing the pitch. If your story will be humorous, the pitch had better elicit a chuckle. If your story willbe written in a literary style, the pitch must meet the same literary demands. If the piece will be scientific or technical, you might open the pitch with a relevant statistic or fact. The tone and style of the pitch (especially the opening) should be a microcosm of the tone and style of the article.
So, once you know what your story will be about, and have a solid sense of the tone and style with which you'll write it, and researched what publications you'll target, and crafted the best pitch you can, you're not quite finished.
You need a sanity check, another set of eyes. You need to find someone other than your spouse, partner, or mom—someone who doesn't love you—to read your pitch and give you objective feedback. Of course, it's helpful if that second set of eyes knows its way around a query letter; don't give it to the cable guy unless he's an aspiring writer too.
This is where a writer's critique group comes in handy, whether face-to-face or in cyber space. Before your query shows up in an editor's inbox, show it to at least one other writer. Listen to their feedback. Consider their suggestions. Tweak your pitch if necessary. You probably won't have to do this step forever, but until you build confidence in your pitch-crafting skills it could make the difference between acceptance and rejection.
Sorry, I Didn't Fall In Love with It
What freelance writer who has ever pitched an article hasn't seen the words, "Sorry, I didn't fall in love with it," or something similar, scrawled hastily across the margin of the returned query letter? If your attention-grabber fails to grab, your article (no matter how noble in purpose) is doomed.
As writers, we have a full assortment of resources at our disposal on how to construct a query letter. With few variations, the prescribed format is a three-paragraph structure: an opening that grabs attention, details about the story (title, main points, sidebar, availability of photos or illustrations, etc.), and a conclusion that includes a bio. The opening paragraph is your opportunity to demonstrate that you can capture a reader's interest. The accepted assumption is that if your pitch fails to hook readers, your story will as well.
Here is an example of the opening of a successful pitch, written by Toronto writer Katherine McIntyre, for Herb Companion magazine:
"Not every party invitation comes tucked in its own pot of cherry tomatoes. Mine did. More than intrigued, I followed the directions: 'Take an elevator to the 16th floor, and then up two flights of iron stairs.' Passing through a heavy steel door, I discovered, floating above Toronto's downtown core among chrome and glass office towers, a party in a green oasis—a rooftop herb garden on top of Toronto's Royal York Hotel."
Katherine's approach is simple and effective. She creates a journey of discovery and invites us to accompany her as she follows the directions in her unusual invitation. We want to discover, along with Katherine, what's at the top of the iron stairs. She creates a vivid setting and a bit of magic with few words. "Sixteenth floor," "iron stairs," "heavy steel door," and "chrome and glass office towers" are all cold, urban images. And then, the sudden contrast that delights: a rooftop herb garden. We are on the roof with her in an oasis of green, and the contrast leaves us wishing to remain, wanting to read more.
In a successful pitch I penned for Northwest magazine for a feature entitled "Wood Transformed," I strived to capture the editor's attention through the senses of smell, sound, and sight:
"When you step through the doors of Madera, a mix of sensations greets you—the strong but inviting scent of freshly cut cedar, the high-pitched whine of a saw from somewhere out of sight, the exhibit of works in a variety of media from Northwest artists. Madera, Spanish for "wood," is a fitting name for Carlos Taylor-Swanson's fine woodworking studio and art gallery tucked in an alley just south of Tacoma's Museum District."
Not only do the opening lines of these two pitches reveal the subject matter, but they create setting and mood through the senses. And they attempt, with an economy of words, to place the reader in that setting, to make the reader part of the journey.
An editor, in reading an engaging, well-crafted query, is able to understand what the article will be about, gain a sense of the tone and style with which you will write it, and can determine if the piece would fit her publication. With a pitch like that, you elevate your credibility and tip the scale in favor of acceptance.
Allen Cox is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in magazines, guidebooks, and e-zines.