Beginner Mistakes to Avoid
There are a handful of mistakes that beginning writers tend to make when writing query letters. Any one of them can sink an otherwise perfect chance at landing a magazine-writing assignment. Here's a look at how you can avoid making the most common beginner mistakes in your own query letters.
Spell the Editor's Name Correctly
You would be shocked to learn how many magazine writers send letters to editors without verifying the correct spelling of the editor's name. Even a name as normal-sounding as Alex Smith can be spelled as uniquely as Alex Smyth. And how do you know if Alex is short for Alexander or Alexis? A letter that you address to Mr. Alex Smith might actually need to be addressed to Ms. Alex Smyth.
Never, ever, ever send off a query letter without verifying the spelling of the editor's name. If you can't find the name on the magazine's masthead, then call the editorial office directly and get the receptionist to spell the name for you. After all, if you can't even spell the editor's name correctly, why should she believe that you will get your facts right in a full-length article?
Enclose a SASE
This, of course, is a moot point if you are sending your query letter via e-mail, but editors who prefer to receive queries through snail mail also usually prefer to respond that way. They will not, however, take the time to go dig an envelope out of the magazine's supply closet, address it to you, and then find a stamp for it in order to give you a response.
If the editor likes your story idea, he'll probably e-mail or call you. However, if you're going to get rejected — or if you are sending materials that you want sent back to you after the editor reads them — then you must include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
Pitch Stories, Not Topics
A lot of beginning magazine writers make the mistake of pitching topics in their query letters instead of actual stories. Consider the difference:
“I would like to write a story about Jamaica.”
“I would like to write a story about a hike that I took through a previously mysterious section of Jamaica's Blue Mountains.”
The first idea is for a topic, and it's not a story at all. It could be about anything, and it fails to give the editor a clear picture of what you actually want to write. By contrast, the second idea is quite specific about the actual story you hope to share with the magazine's readers. This is what editors want: as much information as possible about the idea you are trying to sell them.
There's nothing more annoying to an editor than a writer who sends a query letter, then follows up a day later with an e-mail that asks, “Did you get my query letter?”
Of course the editor received your letter. He put it into the stack of letters he received that morning, and he will get around to opening it just as soon as he has a free minute. It may be later that day, or it may be later next week. “My goodness,” he's probably thinking. “If this writer can't wait a single day to hear back from me, she must be very needy. That doesn't sound like somebody I'd like to work with.”
Most editors have no problem with your following up a few weeks after sending a query letter, just to check in and ensure it was received. But don't be a squeaky wheel about getting feedback too soon. Remember: You're selling yourself as much as you're selling your fabulous story idea.