The ‘View: Return of the Renegade Writers

Query Letters that Rock by Linda Formichelli and Diana BurrellQuery Letters That Rock
By Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
An interview with Christina Katz

Well, the Renegades have done it again. They’ve written a helpful and entertaining page-turner on a topic that is one of the most frustration-provoking for writers: query writing.

But before you zip into cyber-space to order your copy, read this interview first. It’s loaded with helpful, practical advice straight from the mouths of two professionals who have done their due diligence and come back with suggestions for writers who want to turn ideas into queries that get assignments.

Writing query letters that rock has become something of the elusive Holy Grail for writers and, apparently, according to you, for editors as well. What’s all the fuss about querying, anyway?

Linda: I get this question a lot: Why not save a step by writing up the article and sending it in? If the writers’ guidelines say the magazine wants articles on spec (that is, they don’t offer you a contract unless they decide to run the piece) and you really want to write up the article with no guarantees of publication (or pay), go for it.

But most editors want to see query letters so when they assign the piece, they can shape it for their audience: the word count, the style, the packaging, and so on. You may have a great idea that works for the magazine, but the chances that you’ll hit everything dead on, from the word count to the exact slant, are slim.

And writing a query will save you time in the long run: often I end up using my title and lede from the query in my article, and I can use much of my research as well.

Okay, so let’s say I land an assignment…Wahoo! I’m stoked. In my article draft, I have terrific quotes, research, and a winning writing style. Do the details, like title, sidebars, and my lede really matter to my editor? Better yet, do they matter in my query?

Diana: A huge part of my responsibility as a writer is to make my editors’ jobs easier, not more difficult. That’s why I try to get their expectations on the table before I start writing. For example, during the assigning phase I’d ask if they want a sidebar with the story – I wouldn’t just shoot one over for the heck of it. And although 99.9 percent of the time editors write their own heds and deks, I still write them for my queries, just to give them a peek at the idea that follows. (If you stink at writing them though, skip ’em – editors won’t hold it against you.) If they sent me the publication’s style guide, I’ve followed it to the T. A killer lede, however, is crucial. It’s crucial in your query, it’s crucial in your article. What you turn in to your editor should be a clean final draft that meets – nay, exceeds – her expectations.

You two give excellent examples and use entertaining word choices in your Renegade books. Why is this important for writers and how did you get so darn good at it?

Linda: As Diana said, your job is to make editors’ jobs easier, and that includes using a style that fits the magazine. My natural style is edgy and funny, and I can often incorporate that into any type of article, from a health piece to a business profile. Examples that illustrate your point are also important because they help the reader understand what you’re saying, and that’s your number one job: Educate the reader. One tip is to be specific instead of general in your examples and in your wording in general. For example, don’t write, “When something you just bought breaks, write a complaint letter.” Say, “When your brand new iPod fizzles or your just-bought Liz Claiborne blouse loses a button, don’t fume — write a complaint letter.”

Back to that snappy lede (sometimes spelled ‘lead’)…again, I’ve written a good query letter or article. If that’s the case, how killer does my lead have to be?

Diana: Pretty killer. When we were talking to editors for QLTR, the one thing most editors said was that they read these pitches quickly. If the writing sucks or they can’t figure out what you’re pitching, they’re not going to wade through several paragraphs to give you the benefit of the doubt. You can have a great story idea, but if it’s buried under three paragraphs of warm-up material, forget it. They’re going to move on to the next idea in the inbox. But a lede that’s enticing and well-written, and that offers a story that’s perfect for their publication? Most editors will stick with you through the end. What’s sad is that most editors we spoke to see so few of these letters – yeah, it’s depressing, isn’t it? – that they actually get excited when they receive one.

Now that you’ve written three Renegade books (okay, one was a rewrite, but still) and your readers are feeling quite liberated, whatever will you do next? Is there another book in the pipe for the Renegades?

Linda: Diana and I have lots of plans for our Renegade Writer blog (http://www.therenegadewriter.com); for example, next year we’ll be choosing two more winners in our Renegade Writer Makeover and, well, having our experts make them over. I’ll also have a Q&A with the author of a book that inspired me. Diana and I are also working on a couple of e-books, including one where editors of top magazines rant (anonymously) about their writer pet peeves.

One final request: your top three pieces of advice for writing a query today that is guaranteed to grab an editor’s attention for all the right reasons.

Diana/Linda:

1. Let your personality show. A little sense of humor and style is a good thing. I notice that many new writers are so afraid of querying that they write in an uninspired business-like style, but when Diana and I were researching The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock, the queries that editors remembered and loved (and assigned!) showed the writer’s personality. One writer I interviewed often ends his queries with a joke, and another ended his query on a blues DJ with, “If you don’t give me this assignment, I just don’t know what I’ll do.”

2. Don’t give the editor a reason to say no. We both teach classes, and we’re still struck by how many writers write things like, “I’ve never been published” or who pitch Cat Fancy with, “Would you be interested in ‘Cats: Why You Should Own One’?”

3. And there are no guarantees. Even the best query letters get shot down because magazines are over-inventoried or the editor just assigned something similar. A good letter simply increases your chance of getting noticed by an editor – noticed in a good way, of course!

cmkwritermama.gifChristina Katz is the author of Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids (Writer’s Digest Books, March 2007). She is a featured presenter at the Writer’s Digest/BEA Writer’s Conference, The Whidbey Island Writers Association MFA Residency, and the Willamette Writers Conference. She’s been teaching writing-for-publication classes for six years and has appeared on Good Morning America. She is also publisher and editor of this e-zine and another called The Writer Mama. Christina blogs daily at http://www.thewritermama.wordpress.com/. For more about Writer Mama, visit Christina’s website at http://www.thewritermama.com/.

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